What does it look like, feel like, and sound like to ride into Paradise a decade later? For Lana Del Rey, it’s wearing a headdress and riding on the back of a biker gang member’s Harley, proclaiming God, like the last of her innocence, is dead. Released in 2012, Lana Del Rey’s third EP proved a pivotal moment in the burgeoning artist’s self-fashioning. She was not yet relishing in the delicate, wistful suburbanity of Chemtrails Over the Country Club (2021), nor was she the Deadly Nightshade of Ultraviolence (2014), though the latter was not far off on the horizon. In Paradise, Del Rey vacillates between sex worker and lounge singer, Eve and her own, perhaps more perverse, version of Daisy Buchanan. In doing so, she tests the affordances and limitations of her increasingly controversial brand of femininity, one seemingly predicated upon freedom yet, at least in the public’s view, is walked back by her submissive and dependent sexual politics.
But what is most striking about this EP, its companion album Born to Die: The Paradise Edition re-issue and its music videos are the ways they cement her transgressive and hallucinatory aesthetic. For Del Rey, the verbal and aural are always intimately tied to the visual. The immensity, not to mention the unapologetic nature of the body of short films and music videos within her oeuvre, is a testament to their placement at the apex of her artistic vision. Her videography allows her to further develop the narrative(s) that the songs initiate. A discussion of the EP on a thematic or generic level cannot be divorced from its accompanying short films, Tropico and, especially, Ride. These are the productions that make Paradise so memorable, for better or for worse.
Partly, it is because the videos make Del Rey’s romanticization of violence and the pursuit of older, often Harvey Weinstein-esque men that she alludes to in tracks like “Cola” impossible to write off. In the age of #MeToo and content warnings that attempt to create a shield between the vulnerable and unnecessary pain provoked by insensitive art, much of Del Rey’s earliest work is the most abrasive. The vocals of Paradise are, as always, absolutely haunting, and there is no doubting her range or talent as a singer. But when these songs are transformed into multimodal productions that inspire a more visceral reaction on the part of the viewer to the way she blurs the line between authenticity and performativity, it can be difficult for many to forgive, much less willingly digest the rest of what this album has to offer. This includes, for instance, her lullaby-like rendition of Tony Bennett’s 1951 hit “Blue Velvet”– one of her most hypnotic covers to date.
Together the tracks and films determine how our reception of Paradise, and therefore Del Rey as an artist, have become more stringent. As a whole, Del Rey’s personas transform and become more multifaceted with every release. As such, our criticism has to become sharper. But even an early album– perhaps especially an early record — is grounds for intense and nuanced scrutiny, as it is Paradise that remains in the public imagination the hazy pinnacle of her domestic, sexual, and political transgressions.
Ride is arguably one of Del Rey’s most memorable short films or music videos; as of September 2022, it ranks ninth in popularity on her Vevo YouTube channel, having amassed over 143 million views since its release a decade ago. The infamous costume of her in a Native American headdress — the very one she wears as she declares in the song “I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy” — is her greatest career misstep in cultural appropriation and has, consequently, become the defining image of the film, one that critics still flock to in their dismissal of her career’s foundations. But instead of regurgitating the wealth of justifiable criticism regarding appropriation, inclusivity, and cultural insensitivity all over the internet, I want to draw attention to how videos like Ride flesh out the poetic and narrative trajectories that the songs on their own can only partially reveal.
Though Ride features a single song (unlike Tropico, which brings together “Body Electric”, “Gods & Monsters”, and “Bel Air”), it’s the quintessential video for understanding both the EP and Del Rey’s early aesthetic and creative vision. Rather than relying, as in Tropico, on the interpolated recitation of famous poems such as Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Ride privileges poetic invention. This is not to say that Del Rey’s performance of these famous poems is not powerful or that they fail to add necessary layers of narrative complexity that further Tropico’s visual emphasis on bodies and the violence against them. There’s also much to say about how the recitation of serious, culturally significant poetry can save Tropico from being dismissed as camp. After all, this film casts John Wayne as God, alongside Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus, into the Garden of Eden as Del Rey alternates between performing heretical versions of Eve and Mary. But instead, I want to focus on how Ride allows Del Rey to project a more serious and adroit poetic persona.
Simply put, Ride is a story of prostitution, abandoning convention, and chasing after the allure of the open road. One of the fascinating components of the Ride film is Del Rey’s use of the dramatic monologue as a framing device for the song; this is where she immediately establishes the backstory and longings of her character. In the monologue, we learn, “I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet / But upon an unfortunate series of events saw those dreams / Dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky.” Yet, at this very moment, Del Rey’s character proves her poetic potential by harnessing the essential features of this particular genre.
Historically, in a literary context, the dramatic monologue is all about conversation with a silent listener in which the speaker (who is not the poet, just as Lana Del Rey is not, in reality, the imagined self and sex worker she performs) intimately reveals some sort of transgression. These revelations can serve multiple purposes: they can act as a mere expression of self (as in a letting go or getting something off the chest), they can encourage sympathy on the part of the audience, and, in cases where the speaker is the most morally reprehensible, the audience must decide if they are going to extend that sympathy to the speaker or, instead, cast their harshest and most unforgiving judgment.
Because the film commences with the monologue that plays over clips of her swinging and riding through the desert and walking the streets of Los Angeles, the audience is better equipped to understand how and why she has arrived in a place where she supports her singing career by pimping herself out to members of a motorcycle gang. Her ties to her past, to her family, friends, and previous lovers, have been severed, yet she is still dependent on a company of men to survive, however dangerous and threatening the positions they put her in may be. What Del Rey and her character invite us to do in Ride is determine if her sins are worth accepting because she, ultimately and despite the transactional nature of her lifestyle, understands herself to be free — a feeling and status everyone seeks. But at what cost? This is your invitation to decide, and Del Rey wants you to, not just as a critic but as a human. After all, the monologue draws to a close with her direct address to the audience: “Who are you? / Are you in touch with all of your darkest fantasies? / Have you created a life for yourself where you can experience them?”
Lana Del Rey’s conscious engagement with literary forms and the explicit attention she pays to the relationship between text, song, image, and performance proves a kind of artistic maturity that is worth taking seriously, even if most don’t agree with her politics. Her aesthetics are shaped by the poetic– on both the level of invention and recitation– and the visual in productive and intelligent ways. What allows Paradise to endure past the shelf life of its dated or otherwise problematic politics is that it is more than a siren song. Of course, much of the EP’s lyrics are about desire and temptation (à la “Burning Desire”, “Yayo”, and “Gods & Monsters”). But what is often most enduring about the songs we sing, the poetry we anthologize, and the films we repeatedly watch is the fact that they take pain and transgression as abstract and universal forces or experiences and translate them into familiar, digestible forms that provoke us to think past strict binaries and into the compelling complexities that make great art.
Gabrielle Stecher teaches and writes about the stories we tell about women artists. When she’s not teaching in the English department at Indiana University, she’s working on developing her public presence as a film critic. Her essays on director William Wyler and Southern belle-turned-badass Miriam Hopkins are forthcoming.