You might have heard of Lana Del Rey because she’s the internet’s favorite singer to hate. Or you might have heard of her because you actually enjoyed one of her songs on the radio. Sound a bit contradictory?
Lana Del Rey sings retro-inspired, whispery pop songs about slightly trashy women with a serious case of heartache. You can picture her heroines telling the story of the man who walked out on them over a cigarette and coffee in a local diner, mascara running down their cheeks. She’s a bad girl from a James Dean movie with a heart of gold. Her music is catchy, melancholy, haunting; it has a quality that reaches out and taps you on the shoulder if you’ve ever been dumped, and whispers to you about feelings that other songs missed. When she croons “I will love you until the end of time,” or “Heaven is a place on earth with you,” in a minor key, she reminds you of that half-life of love that keeps burning on even after the relationship ends. And she’s not fighting it — she’s just feeling it. Even in “Video Games,” a song in which she’s still with her boyfriend, when she sings “better than I ever even knew” the listener gets the impression that things are not perfect.
Lana Del Rey is good music for suspense. She’s good music for sun-draped summer days. She’s good music for a long drive to see someone for the first time in what feels like a long time.
She’s a good bad girl for good girls to listen to.
The other distinctive feature of Lana Del Rey is she can’t do a single thing without every hipster and tabloid blog on the internet jeering her for it. It’s become such a distinctive facet of her career that you can’t discuss her or her music at all without running into internet-hate problem.
What gives? First of all, hating her was made trendy by sites that make lots and lots of money by writing cruel things about people. She’s not perfect, but her crimes are no worse than those of other pop stars who have gotten off with far less derision: take a stage name, or flubbing a performance.
The fact that she’s unafraid to sing about women’s vulnerability without irony or apology is another less discussed reason why music commentators and tabloid writers hate her so vitriolically. She doesn’t follow their script of how empowered gender-neutral young folks these days should talk about love, so she must be mocked into silence.
What has she done to piss them off so much?
(In pretty much every video featuring this guy, she winds up dead.)
Lana Del Rey is a Romantic with a big R: the stormy love, tossed by fate kind of Romantic, and I like her music for the same reason I like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. When life seems dull or I feel numb, I borrow emotions from the artists who express them wildly and vibrantly.
When a lot of girls I know communicate more by texting their boyfriends than they do in person, there’s something romantic and alluring about Lana Del Rey’s retro heroines who hang on the telephone like Blondie: something to crave about a vintage rendition of love where you’re together when you’re physically together and truly apart when you’re not. There’s mystery and vulnerability in not keeping tabs on each other’s every movement. It doesn’t make her song’s heroines happier or more secure – often the opposite – but it makes their romance feel more real. It’s hard to tell, from her lyrics, if her songs really belong in a pre-cellphone era; but their feelings do.
And when she’s not being retro, there’s something sad and true about “Video Games,” in which Lana sings in a minor key about the pleasure of a lazy afternoon with her man playing video games, but gives the sense that the TV is really between them.
Lana Del Rey appeals to good girls because she’s the quintessential romantic bad girl: sultry, pouty, with thin white tee shirts and tiny denim shorts, the kind of girl who’d be leaning up against her boyfriend’s hot rod in the school parking lot. And what makes her most appealing is her vulnerability – that hidden sweetness, and softness, that gives her a kind of frayed innocence beneath that bad girl image. Critics have dismissed this image as highly calculated; but having a calculated image never stopped the same critics from praising Lady Gaga. I think the real reason they despise Lana Del Rey’s image is because it challenges the feminist idea that women should ball up their vulnerability and stuff it in the back of a dark, dark closet because it’s totally useless and also highlights gender differences, which are verboten. Women don’t have a special kind of vulnerability that’s different from men’s – stop singing about it! You’re just pretending, putting it on for a show.
What’s she singing that upsets them so much? She’s singing about women who still miss the men who wronged them. She’s singing about regretting the loss of innocence. She’s singing about bad choices — and she’s calling them bad, not “alternative.” She’s singing about vulnerability and femininity and putting her man’s favorite perfume on. She’s singing:
This is what makes us girls
We don’t look for heaven and we put our love first
Don’t you know we’d die for it? It’s a curse
Don’t cry about it, don’t cry about it
This is what makes us girls
We don’t stick together ’cause we put our love first
Don’t cry about him, don’t cry about him
It’s all gonna happen
And she’s not singing it as a cultural statement or a tongue-in-cheek critic of gender roles or a condemnation of women who crave the company of men; she means it.
What’s so appealing about listening to a woman sing about abject misery over and over again? Maybe it’s that she feels it.
There’s a theory called “hyperreality” that states that over-exposure to TV (and later, the internet) has made current generations numb to reality. Instead of viewing TV or internet images as pictures of real things, we instead view real things as potential pictures to be shown on TV or the internet. We struggle more with the concept of real things in front of us that could physically affect us because we experience most of the world through a lens.
I think there’s a form of hyperreality that affects relationships too. If you spend more time texting your boyfriend than you spend in his presence, is he your boyfriend or do you visualize him as a specific ringtone and a welcome name on your screen? Do you have feelings for him, or feelings for hearing from him? When he shows up on your doorstep, do you feel a jolt of pleasure, or is it like he’s been there all along and it’s just a bit more difficult to run down and unlock the door instead of simply sliding a button on your phone? People have relationships on Facebook that are more meaningful to them than the time they spend together. Their dates exist to provide more pictures for their profile. Even if you didn’t mean to fall into this pattern, it’s so easy it seems unavoidable. A lot of us just become numb.
Numb to what specifically? To distance, I think. And distance suddenly appears to me to be one of the most important parts of establishing closeness in a relationship. Lana Del Rey’s heroine suffers when her men disappear, not because she misses their texts, but because she misses their bodies, their real presence in her life. And that feeling seems so much more real than the disappointment when a guy you sorta liked unfriends you online.
When you’re in touch with someone 24/7, the times you’re together physically blend with the times you’re “practically together” electronically. For Lana Del Rey, it’s more simple: when her man is away, she hurts.
It’s not just this that makes her feel so distinctly, though.
Lana Del Rey doesn’t protect herself. From anything.
She is the anti-advice columnist, loving all the wrong men for all the wrong reasons and making all the old mistakes. But I think I like her for the same reason I read advice columns so furtively, almost like a nervous addict – it’s not for the advice. Whatever the columnist tells the seekers to do is whatever I would have told them, too – it’s the things that keep me from being an advice seeker myself. No, I love reading about the problems. I don’t know if it’s schadenfreude or voyeurism, or just the same pleasure in dramatic stories that I get from trashy novels or Twilight.
It’s the inverse of the pleasure I get from Jane Austen novels, in which there is one set of characters who find the neat and orderly solution to their problems by acting exactly the way they should, or learning and apologizing when they don’t. Instead, it’s like getting a peek at the lives of all the women in the backdrop of these stories who are always getting knocked up by the man the heroine believes is her one true love at first. Lana Del Rey is one of those women.
So why am I, self-proclaimed good girl and sensible dater, so seduced by the idea of living a little bit more like Lana Del Rey? Because she feels everything so keenly.
She (I should say, the character she “plays” in her songs) doesn’t live according to a careful formula for avoiding pain, bad experiences, or risk. She doesn’t follow the “rules” for obtaining her own coin-operated boy. Okay, so she pushes her rule-breaking to a fault, but there’s something to be appreciated about being unafraid of being foolish in love.
Ultimately, if you make all the right decisions, you still aren’t guaranteed a tranquil and pain-free existence — the world is too chaotic to allow for that. And while it isn’t a reason to cave into complete hedonism, it is a reason to take a few risks here and there — perhaps even emotional risks. Lana Del Rey’s retro heroine feels so keenly because she’s made herself vulnerable to feeling, and to pain. Vulnerability isn’t a simple concept and it doesn’t mean a person is weak. It means she’s not so afraid of life that she hides all her best parts behind a bristly husk. There are different kinds of vulnerability as well, and many that actually take great courage — especially certain shades of vulnerability in love. It’s possible compulsive rule-followers like me have followed our patterns more out fear than wisdom. And that’s why a good girl like me likes Lana Del Rey. A craving to be a little less wise and a little more vulnerable. A craving to be less numb. And a craving for the kind of music that is unapologetically feminine.
Previously from Hannah Sternberg at PJ Lifestyle:
Related at PJ Lifestyle: