thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Invention of Lana Del Rey

In gender on February 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Sarah Todd

Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” looks and sounds like an arrival. On the surface, it’s about a girl swooning over romantic fantasies while her boyfriend ignores her for his Xbox. That’s a pretty potent idea to begin with: a girl who’s absorbed the message that life is “only worth living if somebody is loving you” tethered to an indifferent lover, trying to convince herself, “This is my idea of fun.”

It’s not so fun, sitting in the blue light, waiting for someone to notice your sundress and the scent of your perfume. Sometimes girls stay anyway. They deserve a song.

But “Video Games” also taps into a deeper truth. Girls dreaming about love are often dreaming not so much about the love object as about the women they might be, if they were loved the way they wanted–about what it would be like to be as desired as they are desiring. The song’s fantasy of wide-sweeping love is propelled by haunting church bells and delicately plucked strings; a plaintive, simple piano strain grounds it back in the blue-light reality. And in the music video, Del Rey herself is all fantasy, looking impossibly gorgeous with smoky eyes and pouty lips and Brigitte Bardot bedroom hair. It’s easy to see why the video went viral, unleashing a tidal wave of internet chatter in late 2011.

But Del Rey’s arrival hasn’t turned out the way her early adapters thought it would. With her self-edited viral videos and lush single, Del Rey seemed poised to become an indie darling. Yet the more people looked at her, the more displeased they became with what they saw.

There are a lot of reasons (some) people don’t like Lana Del Rey. She changed her name from Lizzy Grant to a pseudonym straight out of Old Hollywood. Her plumped-up lips look like they had an assist from Dr. Collagen. She abandoned folk music for a sound with broader appeal, and on a recent Saturday Night Live performance she came across as “stiff, distant and weird.”  The always-insightful Liz Phair summed up the anti-Del Rey movement in a post for the Wall Street Journal, writing:

“Lana Del Rey seems to be bothering everybody because she allegedly ‘remade’ herself from a folk singing, girl-next-door type into an electro-urban kitty cat on the prowl (of course I like her), and they feel she is inauthentic.”

That word–inauthentic–has everything to do with people’s problems with Del Rey. The changes she’s made to her body and brand render her act of artistic self-creation highly visible. But proactive, calculated self-creation conflicts with the narrative of authenticity that is particularly important to the indie music scene that first embraced her. Therefore, drama.

In pop music, theatrics are part of the package. Madonna goes from Marilyn to mystic to dancing queen; Lady Gaga parades around in meat dresses and rarely breaks character. David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust and Katy Perry wears Candyland costumes and ten pounds of makeup. We know that our pop stars invent and reinvent themselves, and we give them a free pass. That’s what they’re supposed to do, because the magic of celebrity is that ordinary humans can be transformed into larger-than-life superstars.

But indie music wants to celebrate talent over star power. It’s designed to be an Autotune-free space where musicians can thrive, protected from the commercialized demands of pop and major record labels. Indie artists write their own songs and create concept albums about state history and Japanese folktales. So far, so good. But with the freedom to experiment musically come certain restrictions on how artists are expected to look and act. To maintain credibility and goodwill, they have to seem real. In other words, they must perform authenticity.

A big part of that performance, of course, lies in appearance. The preferred indie music look is careless hipster-chic. For women, this means messy hair and shaggy bangs, big flannel shirts and giant nerd glasses. Vintage dresses are okay too. It’s a variation of girl-next-door appeal. Underneath the glasses, women are still expected to be conventionally attractive–but they wear props that say they’re too smart and laid-back to care about how they look.

Del Rey violates this natural-beauty mandate about a million times over. That’s not to say she’s not naturally beautiful; only that her self-presentation is that of a classic glamour girl. There’s a reason “Video Games” nods to Jessica Rabbit, Paz de la Huerta,  and Hollywood’s Golden Age. Del Rey’s look celebrates an exaggerated, even cartoonish, performance of femininity. In a recent conversation, my friend and colleague Paul B. noted of Del Rey, “It seems that people–usually male critics, I think–never wonder if this is a constructed stage persona [. . .] When I see her perform it really strikes me as a studied and nuanced performance of a certain expectation of femininity. Maybe even a mockery of it? What would the stakes be if we entertained the idea that she created this persona on purpose? Collagen lips, possible boob job and all.”

Like Paul, I believe that Del Rey’s performance of bombshell femininity may well be a deliberate choice. The effect of her appearance is to make her audience hyper-aware that when we look at her, we are not seeing her authentic self. That can be a powerful tool for women, as Autumn Whitfield-Madrano recently wrote in The Beheld:

“But here’s the trick of glamour: You see me, and yet you don’t. That is, you see the nods to the past, and you see how they look on my particular form; you see what I bring to the image, or how I create my own. Yet because I’m not necessarily attempting to show you my authentic self—whatever that might be—but rather a highly coded self, I control how much you’re actually witness to.”

Because Del Rey refuses to perform authenticity, some people in the indie music scene feel repulsed or even betrayed. It’s as if they believed they were eating a Kobe beef burger, and it transformed into a Big Mac the moment they took a bite. Part of the problem is that since she first managed to slip through the heavily patrolled gates of indie credibility with “Video Games,” she serves as a reminder that musicians’ personas are often purposeful and premeditated. This throws the whole idea of authenticity into disarray. But the fact that indie musicians frequently cultivate a particular sound and style and look doesn’t make them fake, and it doesn’t make them sell-outs. It makes them artists. They choose who they’re going to be, and they persuade us to see them that way. That’s as true of Bon Iver as it is of Del Rey, and it’s no knocks to either of them.

What is it that we see when we look at Lana Del Rey? Liz Phair sees a sister and an heir to her anarcha-feminist legacy. Flavia Dzodan sees the girl she once dreamed of being. Jacob Brown sees–and this is gross, fair warning, for reasons Maura Johnston explains in depth–“a skinnier Adele, a more stable Amy Winehouse.” Lindsay Zoladz sees “a heroine [who] has all the love, diamonds, and Diet Mountain Dew she could ask for, yet still sings, ‘I wish I was dead,’ sounding utterly incapable of joy.” Jon Caramanica sees a singer who’s at once mundane and unfairly maligned.

But no matter who’s doing the talking, nearly everyone seems to believe that Del Rey has some larger cultural meaning. Even the people who are bored by her somehow need to talk about precisely why she’s boring and from whence her boringness comes, and not just because they’re being paid to do so. This is her peculiar magic, a glamour that fixates even the unwilling.

We project our culture’s anxieties and desires onto our stars. Celebrities who are female, non-white, and/or outside the heterosexual cis-gender spectrum in particular tend to get used as cultural mirrors. What we see when we look at them is really ourselves, but we try to pretend otherwise. Part of what systematic oppression means is that privileged people throw a bunch of their own snarly, messed-up fears and fixations onto people they don’t believe should be allowed to do anything about it.

Del Rey happens to be the latest star to be held up as a mirror. But she has a trick up her sleeve: she’s a funhouse mirror, one that confronts viewers with her artifice and, by extension, our own. She distorts and shrinks and spooks and multiplies. It’s a strange feeling, staring into that warped reflection. Maybe we don’t like it. Still: we keep looking.

  1. I’m really amazed by how in-sync our brainwaves are recently. I just spent the last hour taking notes on the Internet (oh nerddom, have we really come to this?????) so I could write about race and pop music, and one of the ideas that was bouncing around was thinking about notions of authenticity and race. I LOVE your take on the questionable authenticities of certain kinds of femininity. It makes total sense to me, and is a much more articulate way of saying what I’ve often said when people have talked to me about my own transformation from total-backpacker-chick to eyeliner-blazer-woman: that I often feel like a drag queen, in that I feel my identity to be layered on, deliberately performative, yet delightfully playful. I’ve realized that I have dozens of semi-authentic selves and no single one is less of a pose than any other. Letting them all out to play at various times is so much fun!

  2. Great piece. I regret to say that I know nothing of Ms Del Rey, or of any music newer than say 15 years ago (I’m not sure exactly why music is the pop culture that I’ve left/has left me behind), but I wonder if the authenticity criticism hits hardest depending on exactly when in one’s career arc the supposed change occurs? It looks like the mainstreaming of Del Rey’s aesthetic occurs at the exact moment when her music threatens to break out of its dedicated fandom and go wide, hence those fans’ assumption that they have been betrayed somehow. Thinking of some of the other examples: Madonna’s look on her first couple of albums was not especially changeable or even particularly radical, so maybe she slowly gained ‘permission’ to become iconoclastic as her career ascended, rather than before? Gaga seems to have been born [that] way, ie, she came to us as fully fledged meat dressing monstersballmistress. With no previous fans or look to betray, she could simply shock us into submission, mayhaps? On the other hand, Liz Phair’s ‘selling out’ occurs at the moment when her once promising indie career was at its nadir: she hires Avril Lavigne’s hitwriters, begins to dress and sing like her, and is reborn as propulsive-pop-princess.

    These are all women, of course, and it seems (and you seem to suggest, I think) that there is something gendered about these discussions. Dylan shows up at Newport Folk with an electric, gets booed by his fans one day, and then conquers the world the next. For men, I think one could say that the concealment of performance is more easily accomplished, when one’s costume is stubble and a pair of jeans, regardless of influence or genre. Of course, he was also lacking 24 hour e/enews and webs, so we’ll never really know how that could have gone. Anyway, just a few brain-addled pre-coffee thinks.

  3. This is perhaps one of the most insightful, intelligently written pieces about Lana Del Rey on the web. It is unfortunate, however, that a lot of people will not take note of its good points simply because you do not comply with the senseless bashing of a woman whose only crime was unintentionally unearthing the many hypocrisies of mainstream musicians, hipsters, music journalists and the people who claim to be “beyond” the system.

  4. […] that without that fear, we might have to acknowledge those contradictions ourselves. Sarah Todd wrote as much on girls like […]

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