It’s been quite a while since I last wrote a blog entry, and a lot has changed since I last penned something for Two Strikes. For one, I’m no longer in Chicago, having moved last summer to Charlotte for work. (I rather miss Chicago, although I can’t complain about the warm January weather we’re having in North Carolina!) If you’ve read my earlier blog, you’ll also notice that I’ve changed the website. This is no longer a free blog, but instead it is now hosted at my own domain, provided by my new employer. As such, my professional homepage now links to my blog, and vice versa. So if you’re new to my online rantings, welcome! And if you’ve read my random thoughts before, thanks for sticking with me!
I thought I might take the opportunity of this blog reboot to reflect on an artist that I’ve thought about before: Lana Del Rey. I was recently reading a piece on Del Rey by Lindsay Zoladz in The Pitchfork Review. (The article is a reprint of her piece that appeared online earlier in the year.) Zoladz sharply positions Del Rey’s newest album, Ultraviolence, within a “teen-girl aesthetic” that performatively embraces ambiguity: the space between one’s “real” self and that version of the self that is displayed to the world online. The lingering sadness of Del Rey’s music fits nicely in this aesthetic, and Zoladz effectively dodges the facile pseudo-feminist attacks on Del Rey that aimed to reduce her artistic sentiment to an promotion of domestic violence. (“He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” she sings, a lyric that glorifies violence less than it elaborates a song character who is strikingly emotionally hollow—no small feat in pop music, and precisely the sort of sentiment to which Zoladz was responding in her praise for Ultraviolence.)
Zoladz’s positioning of Del Rey is very perceptive, so I was disappointed to read, in the same piece, her criticism of Born to Die as an inconsistent piece of kitsch: “I mean, do people actually drink Diet Mountain Dew?” A reader subsequently informed her that yes, in fact, people do consume this beverage. But that’s not even the point here. What Zoladz ultimately misses in her well-crafted critique of Del Rey’s fluffy song topics is that Del Rey captures perfectly the mundanity of everyday details like one’s lunchtime beverage or daily clothing choice. As in “Ultraviolence,” Del Rey’s song characters are stricken with ennui, boredom with the empty abundance of modern life. She coyly chirps, “I’m your little scarlet, starlet, singing in the garden,” but we hear this flirtation against the thick backing track of strings and electronics, as well as her “serious” voice that suggests her flirting is borne not of romantic interest, but rather simply because it’s something to do. Throughout Born to Die, the string parts suggest a kind of 50s pop nostalgia—a suggestion not lost on one of Zoladz’s readers who, she notes in her afterword to the article, observed, “Her music makes me nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced.”
That performance of nostalgia is what Del Rey accomplishes by adopting her particular range of affects. Yes, we don’t get Jenny Lewis’s strength and depth—a particularly powerful comparison for Zoladz—but that is precisely the point. Del Rey is a rare pop star whose music departs so fully from the usual tropes of pop songwriting and production. She doesn’t have love interests, objects of lust, personal crises. She tells us about a past love, but what is most prominent is the pastness of the relationship, not the love. And here, despite her protestations, is where Del Rey becomes a true feminist. By creating female characters who are emotionally empty—who feel neither highs nor lows, but only loss and nostalgia—Del Rey opens a new path for women in pop music. They don’t have to smile, but neither do they have to wear their sadness as an emo badge. The ennui of life can be enough.by