The Radical Empathy of Lana Del Rey




ONE SUMMER, WHEN I WAS 19, I took a Greyhound Bus from New York to Pittsburgh and spent the weekend with a boy I met on Tumblr. Let’s call him Tommy. He was 21, with olive skin and curly hair, studying veterinary science at the University of Pittsburgh. Our personal histories were vaguely similar: a strained relationship with an aging father, a private desire to move to California, and an unbridled enthusiasm for the pop singer Lana Del Rey. For this reason, I believed Tommy was my soul mate.

Tommy told me not to believe the rumor that Lana’s father had “bought” her career. Lana’s artistry was indisputable, he said, and anyone who hated her was bitter, tasteless, and ugly. I didn’t quite agree, but I liked Tommy’s sense of conviction. It had never occurred to me that you could take such a bold, abrasive stance for the sake of pop music.

Tommy believed, too, that Lana really was that depressed and slutty. It was right there in her songs. For an artist who’d been accused of faking her voice, her nails, her lips, her breasts — her entire act, for that matter — Tommy felt Lana was telling the truth about her emotions. “You know, that’s how people act nowadays,” he said. “She has a point. We think we’re so romantic, but we spend all our time complaining.”

“People have problems, though,” I said. “Come on. Don’t you think that’s a bitchy thing to say?”

Tommy said, “I’m not saying it’s bad, Quinn. It’s just something.”

When I tell the Tommy story, I try to make people laugh. Twelve-hour bus ride, $100 ticket, 48 hours in a city to which I’d never return — just so I could give my Tumblr boyfriend a blow job. It sounds like a parody of queer teenage repression. It’s embarrassing. Something you’d expect from the type of gay boy who thinks Lana Del Rey is his mother.

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Lana Del Rey first announced her fifth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, in September 2018, a full year ago, in conjunction with the release of her single “Venice Bitch.” Aside from four subsequent promotional singles, a high-profile collaboration with Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande, and a bizarre Twitter spat with Kanye West, Lana has kept a relatively low profile.

In her absence, though, the critics were abuzz. In Pitchfork, Quinn Moreland wrote: “These are some of Lana’s most stunning, candid songs to date. […] [H]er growth is especially remarkable because of its thematic consistency. She continues to tease the tropes that [are used] to pigeonhole her. […] [including] her beloved Americana imagery.”

In Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus called “Venice Bitch” the greatest California beach record of all time. To Marcus, the nine-minute rock ballad was languid and delicate, its production reminiscent of Randy Newman, the Beach Boys, the heyday of ’60s psychedelia. “It opens like a love letter,” he wrote, “prosaic, direct […] then a little more than two minutes in it begins to swirl, and you could be listening to an affair that began years ago or has yet to start.”

According to the press, Lana Del Rey is changing — she’s grown-up, mature. She’s over the flower-crown stuff. For me, somebody whose affair with Lana began years ago, the recent praise comes as a great surprise. It seems like it was only yesterday that Pitchfork was comparing Born to Die to “a faked orgasm […] a collection of torch songs with no fire.” The critical notion of a “before and after” Lana is ultimately unrealistic. It fails to account for the tonal and thematic consistency of her oeuvre, which she has been fortifying since 2012.

On occasion, Lana will make ironic gestures to the critical reception of her work: “You never liked the way I said it / If you don’t get it then forget it / So I don’t have to fucking explain it.” I can’t help but picture her ranting about Pitchfork at Starbucks, where she claims to spend all day “talking shit.”

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That summer, Tommy lived in a white two-story house in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He was subletting the basement from a disbanded fraternity. “The frat bros aren’t hot,” said Tommy, “but they’re hotter than the Pitt gays.” The bros spent their nights screaming at the television and slamming beer bottles against the walls, getting louder and louder until sunrise finally broke. Then off they went to the gym or the deli or the basketball court, wherever it was that straight people convened. The glass shards remained at the foot of the staircase.

Before I booked the Greyhound, Tommy warned me that he could hardly sleep at the house. I didn’t believe him. That night we lay together and listened to the noise upstairs, unable to sleep or talk or have sex. Tommy became distressed. We played Born to Die and Ultraviolence. We took off our shirts and stared at each other.

“I don’t really love you,” said Tommy. “Okay, I love you, Quinn, I care about you. But you’re being unrealistic.”

Given her newfound critical acclaim, it’s strange to remember that, for most of her career, Lana Del Rey served as the internet’s choice object of derision. Every day, it seemed, you clicked on a new headline about Lana’s prep school pedigree or the collagen in her lips. The critics didn’t help, either; in January 2012, Entertainment Weekly wondered if she was “the very worst musical guest in Saturday Night Live’s history.” In a look at the controversy surrounding her 2012 album Born to Die, Lindsay Zoladz argued that

you’d be hard pressed to find any song on which Del Rey reveals an interiority or figures herself as anything more complex than an ice-cream-cone-licking object of male desire. […] Even when [she] offers something that could be read as a critique, […] she asks that we make no effort to change, escape, or transcend the way things are. […] [T]here’s no spark and nothing at stake.

The early-to-mid-2010s was a conflicted time for women in pop music, as well as for the gays who admired them. At the same time as Lana Del Rey’s ascendance, the cultural gains of feminism and LGBT activism began to assert themselves in pop culture, especially on social media. The language of feminism and queer theory became the dominant mode of cultural criticism practically overnight. “You’re a firework,” sang the pop diva du jour — baby, you were born that way.

Naturally, of course, this shift in discourse came with a whole set of compromises. In 2015, filmmaker Bruce LaBruce examined Beyoncé and Lady Gaga’s use of

hyper-referentiality, extreme hyperbole, a crudely obvious, unnuanced female sexuality, and even a vaguely pornographic sensibility […] de-contextualization away from subversive or transgressive, countercultural impulses in the service of capitalist exploitation, utterly heteronormative in practice and corporate in tone.

In other words, if you wanted to make it during the Obama era of neoliberal optimism, you had to play up the stereotypes, suppressing the more unpalatable aspects of your womanhood or queerness. You smiled for the cameras and dried your eyes backstage.

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon; heteropatriarchy has always asked women and gays to repress the outward expression of our identities, particularly when it comes to our erotic desires and emotional traumas. In Born to Die, however, Lana Del Rey brought the residual damage of womanhood into frank, vulgar focus:

Your soul is hunting me and telling me that everything is fine
But I wish I was dead.

This is what makes us girls, we all look for heaven and we put love first
Something that we’d die for, it’s our curse
Don’t cry about it.

Was Lana subverting neoliberalism, or was her critique absorbed by it? Admittedly, it appeared to be the latter. Promising and catchy as it was, Born to Die is an imperfect pop album, frequently guilty of mangled imagery and overwrought production. It’s certainly not the great feminist parable of our time, either — maybe the Lolita references in “Off to the Races” were what pissed Twitter off the most.

But in our clickbait-driven attention economy, I worry that the habit of reflexively denouncing pop stars as “problematic” has undermined the potential of female and queer artistry. Today, a reappraisal of Born to Die suggests that this was Lana’s critique all along. Look how well liberal optimism worked for Judy Garland, she was saying — take a look at Whitney Houston, George Michael, Britney Spears.

If we dismiss Born to Die as a “faked orgasm,” then how can we be trusted to discuss the work of Tyler, the Creator and Azealia Banks, rappers for whom transgressing the boundaries of gender and sexuality were necessary to articulate a distinctly black queerness? Or what about Madonna and Prince, whose creative transgressions made them notorious targets of the Reagan-era culture wars, but who nonetheless became two of the 20th-century’s greatest pop artists?

If you’re still confused as to why so many young women and gays cherish Born to Die, recall that some of us like ice cream cones. They taste good. We like New York City, too, and Diet Mountain Dew. And of course we sympathize with the feminist critique of Lolita — that Nabokov got away with writing a novel in which a delusional pedophile robs a young woman of her agency. But we also interpret Lolita as a self-reflexive masterpiece, a novel that challenges our assumptions about love and perception. It’s a master class in the way a seemingly objective point of view can be artificially manufactured in order to serve an ideology. Your personal truth can and will be refuted, Nabokov cautioned us, even when you convince yourself otherwise.

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During promotion for Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana addressed her widely publicized Twitter feud with Kanye West, an outspoken Trump supporter, as well as her lyrical allusions to the rapper being “blond and gone.” “I don’t want to elicit a response,” she told The New York Times. “You never felt better for [writing] something like that. But Kanye just means so much to us. And by the way, I’m grateful to be in a country where everyone can have their own political views. I’m really not more of a liberal than I am a Republican — I’m in the middle.”

There’s an idea floating around that, nowadays, it’s unacceptable to be in the middle — that, as Joan Didion warned us, the center will not hold. Today, in the age of Trump, we must stand up for what we believe in. We must boldly proclaim our social and political allegiances in every public forum, especially on social media. An entire cottage industry has been erected to fight the Resistance, advocating for the notion that, if we impeach this president, we will somehow resume the civility and optimism of Obama-era neoliberalism. If you raise concerns that the Resistance is naïve or perhaps even cynically leveraging a political crisis for financial profit — well, my friend, good luck on Twitter!

But just as the pro-feminist, pro-LGBT culture shock came with its compromises, so too does the Resistance. We are asked to attribute all of our social ills to the current administration, with few calls to address the deep-rooted systems of violence that reside in the mundane facets of American life. In a 2013 review of the best-selling thriller Gone Girl, novelist Mary Gaitskill argues that the narrator isn’t “any crazier than the world we live in”; her voice is merely “an extreme version or natural outcome of an accepted cultural language: that hyperfast hive brain that very nearly precludes seeing beyond a coded surface. […] It is […] a maniacal power fantasy that panders to female anger and fear.”

In her Times interview, Lana suggests that the hive-brain language of American cultural violence goes deeper than politics:

But it was more like [Kanye West’s] mood and the vibe around, Yo, this man is the greatest! Really? The greatest? It hurt me. […] Someone who says “grab ’em by the pussy,” that does make someone else feel a little bit more entitled to bring his rifle to school.

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I told Tommy, “You’re acting like a child. You never said you wanted something realistic.”

It was three in the morning, and the frat bros had begun to wrestle. Something crashed on the floor, and we heard curses and laughter. “The TV,” said Tommy. “That’s the fucking television.” We slipped out into the backyard and walked for 20 minutes in silence to a nearby pond. It was pitch dark, and mosquitos swarmed our ankles. Across from us stood a water tower, the moon obscured by its tank. I wanted to kiss Tommy. I still thought he was my soul mate — we shared a love of Lana Del Rey, and that was good enough for me.

Tommy said, “I need you to go home. I’ll pay for your ticket. I just don’t want to be around you.”

“It’s 12 hours,” I said. “I want to be around you.”

“Quinn, that was a shitty thing you said.” He sat in the sand and scratched his ankle. “About Lana. You’re forcing a relationship between us instead of listening to me.”

How does Norman Fucking Rockwell! figure into the grand, ambitious project that is Lana Del Rey? Does her fifth album mark an artistic departure, or does it represent a strengthening of past convictions? Again, we are being asked to choose one or the other — and thus failing to forge the critical space that Lana has offered. She even spells it out for us, and yet we refuse to listen: “Catch a wave and take in the sweetness / Think about it, the darkness, the deepness / All the things that make me who I am.”

On Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana urges us to reject a binary mode of social and political thinking — a mode that, as Gaitskill cautioned, confines us to a coded cultural language. Instead, she urges us to admit that American violence cuts deeper than gender or sexuality (“If he’s as bad as they say then I guess I’m cursed / Looking into his eyes I think he’s already hurt”). She looks to the future as a place where the vulgar outward expressions of womanhood can be taken seriously, on a woman’s own terms, instead of routinely denounced.

A boy from Pittsburgh offered me his grand theory of the universe, asking only that I hear him out. Instead, I called him bitchy. I called him a child. That morning I rode 12 hours from Pittsburgh to New York and listened to Born to Die five times. I wondered what Lana would be up to the following year — to be honest, I thought she’d have returned to obscurity. For some reason, though, I lingered on the last song longer than I expected to: “Everybody told me love was blind / then I saw your face and you blew my mind / Finally, you and me are the lucky ones this time.”

In the 21st century, it’s not uncommon to feel like “tearing around in [a] fucking nightgown / a 24/7 Sylvia Plath.” It’s dangerous to do this, sings Lana, but we must do it nonetheless. Perhaps most of all, this is Lana’s central conceit: the violence in America will be solved not by violence, but by compassion. We must breathe fresh life into the protest song, the sentiments that have long been flattened into corporate cliché but have become more necessary than ever. In the age of empty resistance, Norman Fucking Rockwell! offers a proposal of genuine, radical empathy.

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Quinn Roberts is a writer from New England. He is at work on his first novel.


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