I Listened to Lana Del Rey for the Very First Time — in 2015
One California-based writer familiarizes herself with the most polarizing artist of the 2010s
Tennessee Williams could have written a play about Lana Del Rey.
But even though Lana quotes him repeatedly, she wouldn’t have been a Blanche DuBois or an Amanda Wingfield, those damned and determinedly optimistic Southern women who smile desperately, frantically, even as the delicate glass worlds they’ve spun splinter. She’s a Stella or a Laura, quietly tragic characters who know and accept that they are tragic. They appear frail, yes. On the first line of her major label debut (“Feet, don’t fail me now”), Lana sounds like she’s dragging herself under the house to die. But there’s steadfastness to them. Unlike Blanche, Lana doesn’t throw a scarf over the lamp to soften its glow. Life sucks, she knows it, now let her watch it from that fucking crazy cocoon she knit herself.
Those are the thoughts that come to me as I listen to Lana Del Rey for the first time. It’s September 2015, four years since she flustered the Internet. I somehow missed that hype-train. My first and only brush with Lana was her “Ride” video, posted to Facebook with some sort of angst-y caption by one of my more earnest girlfriends, one who diets and shops specifically for Coachella. I watched it and laughed a little at its hilariously dramatic voiceover and daddy fetish. But I was also a little sad about a man and the Xanax wasn’t helping, so I let the whole ten-plus minute thing play and cried and fantasized about road-tripping, which is just running away, really, and getting high on a beach, which is just running away, really. It reminded me of the line from Sheryl Crow’s “Leaving Las Vegas”: “Used to be, I could drive up to Barstow for the night / Find some crossroad trucker to demonstrate his might.” I’m not convinced Lana’s calves have ever been singed by the flanks of a bike or that she’s gotten high on a beach (shit, the cops fine you just for drinking a beer on the beach in Malibu), whereas I’m dead certain that Crow drove to Barstow for a one-night-stand with a trucker.
Or I was, until I looked it up and found out that Crow didn’t write that line. So go figure. The fracas around authenticity and who created the character of Lana Del Rey isn’t terribly interesting (though LOL at the label strategy meeting that produced the descriptor “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” because that’s redundant), nor is that “bad” SNL performance (who watches SNL, for the music anyway?). With Twitter personalities and Instagram models, everybody’s hiding behind a façade these days. Lana admits she’s a chameleon, which is close enough to calling herself an actor for me.
What’s more interesting is why she insists she’s a G (I love “National Anthem,” but the awkward rapping gotta go) when most often, she seems to play the housewife who watches her man drive away every day, and then blunts her boredom with a couple of Valium swallowed with a swig from a bottle of Jack, very slowly losing her mind. For someone who made a short film about being free and riding off into the sunset with “unsavory” sorts, it sure seems like she stays in the house a lot. I suppose it’s all very poetic in theory — hey, Tennessee Williams plays are gorgeous — but for all of us who’ve been there, pathetic in practice.
Honestly, I like Lana, but she’s a full-on torch singer now, and her music is too sad for me to deal with sober. I shed some tears over Born to Die (except for that unlistenable “Off to the Races” song), but I couldn’t bear most of Ultraviolence’s songs more than a minute in and actually sobbed my way through Honeymoon. I get where some writers thought she was toying with everybody in that first guise (“My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” deserves a round of applause), but the evidence is all in: This is the kind of music you have to listen to while you’re still floating in the Dead Sea of painkillers, not fumbling on the slip ‘n slide of withdrawal.
Occasionally, she does a little too much Stevie Nicks with her voice, but there are a ton of tortured lost girls who worship Stevie, so that’s probably a plus. There’s also a part of me who feels like Phlo Finister (remember her?) got her game plan, makeup and wardrobe and all, jacked by Lana, but maybe it’s the other way around.
And though I made the damn Tennessee Williams comparison, I want at least a little feistiness from her. I know I’m not Lana’s target demographic, even if she is closer to my age than the teens and 20-somethings who will self-medicate with Honeymoon, but the albums, especially this new one, often sound like one long wail. With feminism enjoying a new wave of popularity, don’t those girls want Lana to get f–king pissed off for a change?
I don’t know if I’ll listen to Lana’s music again — there’s a part of me that feels like I’m too old for it, and it’s not as much fun wallowing after your heart’s been walloped a few times. It opens up parts of me that I closed for a reason. My mom, a Blanche, doesn’t watch sad movies because, as she told me years ago, she doesn’t want to think about sad things. Maybe we all become Blanches as we get older. Maybe one day soon, Lana will become one, too, and she won’t understand how Stella could’ve ever stayed with Stanley.