The first thing I thought when I saw this announcement of Lana Del Rey’s new single “West Coast” off her upcoming album Ultraviolence, was, “Oh, wow, she’s brunette now. I wonder where she’s going to go with that.”
I’ve written before about the importance of Lana Del Rey’s image in her music, and how that image has also inspired waves of internet hate. “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,” I wrote about her first album.
Why is Lady Gaga praised for her careful cultivation of an image, while Lana Del Rey is consistently derided for it? A few reasons. Gaga has proven herself a masterful performer, bringing her image to life. Del Rey’s live performances are frequently described by those who have attended as low-energy, somewhat awkward and unpolished. That creates the impression that her image is just that — an image, not a living force. Lana Del Rey’s persona exists in a photograph; Lady Gaga’s exists on a stage, in a taxi cab, on the street, on the catwalk.
I think there could be another factor at play, though. Lady Gaga’s image is built on high fashion, decadence, sophistication. Lana Del Rey claims a trailer trash origin story and a blue collar aesthetic. She infuses romance into seedy, rundown places and unlike Taylor Swift (another carefully cultivated pop-image with a blue collar, small town origin story — despite being the daughter of a banker), Del Rey doesn’t make them cute. In Swift’s high school fairytale, the tomboy falls in love with the football star and pines for him from the bleachers while he hangs out with his cheerleader girlfriend. In Del Rey’s fantasy high school, the heroine is getting pregnant under those bleachers, and the football player still doesn’t love her.
Maybe some people just prefer the glamour of a Lady Gaga (or the tamer glamour of a Taylor Swift) over Lana Del Rey’s trashy bad-girl image. Maybe some people resent that she claims a hard-knock reputation that she didn’t really “earn.” But maybe there’s another factor at play: Del Rey is singing about things people like to sweep under the rug. No, not in a big social-change way; it’s probably hardly intentional. But look at her early videos, which frequently starred tattooed model Bradley Soileau — he looks like the kind of guy you’d see in a parking lot, who’d make you want to get to your car a little faster. And then there’s the rumors (and derision) surrounding Del Rey’s supposed plastic surgery — sometimes I wonder if she wants people to wonder. Her songs are so often about the things women do to seem attractive and desirable in a world that expects flawless beauty. Del Rey would be far from the first singer to get plastic surgery to fit a popular image — but she would be one of the first mainstream artists who used it to make people feel uncomfortable about beauty standards.
I have to admit, “West Coast” doesn’t have me excited for the new album — it’s very repetitive, and it doesn’t have the drama of “Blue Jeans” or “Born to Die,” or the sweet sadness of “Video Games.” But I’m excited for the collaborations with The Black Keys’s Dan Auerbach, and I’m interested in where Del Rey is going next.