Semioticians must love decoding Del Rey's sophisticated play of metaphor and imagery, which tap into eternal themes of sex, love and violence.
Lana Del Rey is pop music’s lovelorn Juliet. Of mysterious origin and name, courting controversy and mystery since her arrival, she is the postmodern pop star the Internet age never saw coming. In song, album covers and videos, she comes to us as a strange amalgam of retro-America and old Hollywood; an archival phantom of icons reworked for a new generation of listeners.
However, from a cultural standpoint, while much has been said of her various personas, there is little explanation as to who and what exactly Del Rey represents.
Speculations abound, given that the star communicates so little with today’s modern media. A casual Instagrammer, a relative no-show on the day and night-time talk show circuit (as well as award shows, with the exception of the recent 2015 Women in Music Billboard Awards) and an interview-by-email kind of star (See her December NME cover story, “A Letter From Lana Del Rey”, 11 December 2015), her “unworldliness” as claimed by actor and filmmaker James Franco and “a true eccentric” by Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, has us all confused. What exactly is this “media game” Del Rey is playing with us?
From her mysterious start as Lizzy Grant to her rebirth as Lana Del Rey and subsequent signing to a joint deal between Polydor and Interscope Records, there has been much speculation about the authenticity of her music and artistry, particularly, in light of what many were calling a disastrous 2012 US television debut on Saturday Night Live. With albums, Born to Die (2012) Born to Die: The Paradise Edition (2012), Ultraviolence (2014), and her most recent Honeymoon (2015), the plot thickens as to what and who Del Rey is and what fans are to make of her evocative mix of innocence and impurity.
Controversy aside, Del Rey and her creative handlers have struck a nerve with modern listeners. Her sexual personas, as evidenced in her music and ever-changing look have captured a new generation of pop fans, even if, for example, a brief scan through the YouTube comments of her 27-minute short film “Tropico”, (Directed by Anthony Mandler, who also directed her “National Anthem” and “Ride” clips) tell us that the carefully manicured mystery at the heart of it has produced equal parts adoration and confusion among its viewers, seemingly unable to link the stories of the film with its unique blend of Biblical and American pop culture heroes of yesterday (Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne etc.). Semioticians (paging Umberto Eco), if they are still to be found, should have a field day decoding her sophisticated play of metaphor and imagery which tap into eternal themes of sex, love and violence at the heart of a women’s forlorn search for love and meaning.
Haunting the academic halls of feminism and the tapas bars of modern career women, Del Rey is, shall we say, not of this time. We cannot place her with the likes of say, Lena Dunham’s pro-Hilary liberalism, pop star girl squads, nor the company of today’s urban, handbag toting young professionals (best personified in the albeit fictional character of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw). The personas of Del Rey play out like the ghost of a young and lonesome soul in search of love, life and freedom while deliberately referencing and imagining another time and another America (the ghosts of Sharon Tate, Nancy Sinatra and James Dean are never far away).
For example, in the beginning of the rapturous video for “Ride”, one of the most ambitious and cinematic music videos of the last five years, (also directed by Mandler) Del Rey coos and sways on a tire swing against a backdrop of the American frontier. Moments later there's an American flag in hand, and it appears again later, on the back of her motorcycle as the triumphant, heartbroken wanderer unfulfilled, misunderstood, a runaway, rides off in search of protection and freedom. She's seeking that kind of freedom, which is uniquely American: love, independence, rock 'n’ roll and the open road.
As much as she is not of this time, she is also everywhere and nowhere. On albums, she drifts between coasts, one minute New York (“Brooklyn Baby”) or Coney Island, at other times, Miami, (“Salvatore”) and the next, Santa Monica (“West Coast”), then Hollywood's Chateau Marmont. As evidenced in song after song, love and freedom are her life, her obsession, her fate.
Indeed, personas abound in her work. At once, a drifter and, in other moments, a loyal, domestic siren. In other songs, the fearless lover whose dead eyes devour young hearts (Listen to “Music to Watch Boys To”, the second single from her most recent, Honeymoon). Next, she's an insecure, co-dependent lover, overcome with grief at love’s misfortune (“The Blackest Day”).
If we listen closely, her love stories never have a happy ending. There are echoes of Federico Fellini’s tragic heroine Cabiria in her music, especially on her song, “Salvatore”, and for art lovers, one can see the tragedy so beautifully captured in Sir John Everett Millais 1851-52 painting of the singing “Ophelia” surrendering herself to nature in heartbreak.
In other songs of this same period, Sigmund Freud’s influence is close at hand, given the multiple references to “daddy” in songs like “You Can Be the Boss”, “Put Me in a Movie”, “Ride” and “Yayo” and even the unreleased song “Daddy Issues”, which states the sexual conflicts of her persona more directly.
Astute fans have also taken to comment boards in confusion and disgust at her use of significantly older men as love interests in videos “Ride” and the sublime “Shades of Cool”. In an interview for Rolling Stone, calculated or not, her interest in older men is made clear. "I sort of have an affinity for really good, strong, self-assured people," she says, "I would say I haven’t met them as much in people who are in their twenties." ("18 Things You Learn After Two Long Days With Lana Del Rey", by Brian Hiatt 24 July 2014) Surrogate rock-daddy icon Bruce Springsteen is also mentioned in the same interview, given her love for the Lolita-tinged, sexual predator tension of his song “I’m on Fire”.
Daddy issues or not, her interviews only deepen the mystery. She also claims to be her own best emotional fortune-teller. She is quoted in Rolling Stone as saying: “I know everything about myself". (ibid). Her ambiguous emotional powers shine in her lyrics for “Video Games", a fascinating example of how love and self-destruction can go hand in hand. Indeed, in song after song, her love is without promise. It's dreamed of, but broken. Perhaps this is another reason for the repetition of the old Hollywood trope which fades in and out of much her songs and imagery. (See the promo image for Honeymoon for example, where Del Rey appears casually by herself photographed staring out of a Starline Tours bus – No #girlsquad here!).
Fame can save her but it’s already the symptom and metaphor for her broken heart. As we witness in the remarkable video for “High by the Beach”, her relationship with fame takes a violent, remorseless turn when we watch the lonesome Del Rey blowing a paparazzi helicopter to pieces (á la Zabriskie Point style) from a coastal, beach house. While her relationship with the paparazzi by all reports is rather mild, one wonders if, between the lines, the video unconsciously hints at her relationship with her Italian photographer boyfriend, Francesco Carrozinni. After all, it's a male photographer glimpsed hanging out the side of the helicopter.
This theory may also explain her newest song “Salvatore”, with its flair for euro-drama, and the lyric “dying by the hand of my foreign man”. On second listen, Honeymoon may be less fictional than we had previously thought.
The temptations of fame and love intoxicate Del Rey’s personas. As evidenced in “Radio” from Born to Die, she plays a starlet looking for fame as a substitute for daddy’s love: “American dreams came true somehow / I swore I’d chase em until I was dead / I heard the streets were paved with gold / That’s what my father said… Baby, love me cause I’m playing on the radio / How do you like me now?” or the literal guilt-free, star-climbing powers of Hollywood legends in “Fucked My Way to the Top” from Ultraviolence.
Alert Freudians might even argue that her interest in a tragic, hurtful love is not other than her unconscious wish for her father’s return as savior and protector, her first and only true love. This may explain the melancholy and nostalgia at the heart of her work as well as the feminist contempt brought against her. She needs a man and is not complete without one. Her freedom is not driven by female independence, or righteous indignation at the modern world, but by desperation for a paternal love not yet found. She is daddy’s teenage runaway; looking for love in all the wrong places.
It’s not wonder that her wandering spirit connects with America’s true outlaws: bikers (See her video for “Ride”) and is rebirthed in imagery as a rock 'n’ roll groupie discovering sex, drugs and rock 'n’ roll on her own terms (which courted yet another controversy from this time, and from out of nowhere, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth stardom, who protested to such endorsements).
Love and fame aside, in her well-played absence from the modern media circuit, Del Rey awakens the mystery of the modern pop star –where revealing everything and staying ‘on trend’ is the current mantra. However, in her absence, those who have been watching closely are surely to notice holes in this manicured mystery. There seems to be a disconnect between the real Del Rey and her ‘unworldly’ personas.
Evidence abounds. Whether it’s the inconsistency of her Instagram posts (from retro-Lana to ordinary, around the house Lana), lackluster red carpet appearances, or her unremarkable speech for her “Trailblazer” award at the 2015 Women in Music Billboard award show, the evidence is mounting that hiding from the media might be more strategy than identity. Whether we will ever ‘experience’ the real Del Rey remains to be seen.
But maybe the real Del Rey is more fiction than fact. After all, as Picasso reminds us: “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” Part hologram, part kaleidoscope, part dream. Perhaps asking: “Will the real Lana Del Rey please stand up?” is the wrong question. Her poetic artistry awakens and reflects our own conflicted natures in search of love and meaning. Whether or not the real Del Rey will shine forth in the media spotlight, the ever-changing kaleidoscope that is Del Rey will continue to haunt and seduce in equal measure, even if many continue to be puzzled by the ‘unworldliness’ at the heart of it.
Blair McDonald writes at the intersections of popular culture and philosophy and currently teaches in the Journalism, Communications and New Media department at Thompson Rivers University.