Lana del Rey’s American Tragedy
By Kristen Sibbald
Lana del Rey isn’t real.
Or so goes the rally cry of hipsters across the country, complaining that the stage persona of singer Elizabeth Grant is entirely synthetic, designed by corporate masterminds in the music industry to make money off of her beauty, sultry voice, and her ability to appeal to an American consumerist mindset.
But whether this persona is any more artificial than those of Robert Allen Zimmerman, Kathryn Hudson, Reginald Kenneth Dwight, Marshall Bruce Mathers II, Paul David Hewson, or any other famous musician, is entirely beside the point. While Elizabeth Grant is criticized for having shallow ideals, for being anti-feminist, and for the insecurities she often projects in interviews, as Lana del Rey she is free to reflect on her feelings and experiences without self-censorship. Her persona allows her to write deeply personal music about her relationship with the American dream and with herself, music that reveals a certain futility of our culture’s images of happiness and its definitions of success.
Through her music, del Rey develops a beautiful depiction of an internal reality, remarkable for its raw vulnerability and unapologetic self-awareness. Her music is more of a confession than a sermon, and after hearing her sing, criticisms of del Rey’s ideals often seem irrelevant. It’s like reading someone’s private diary, whose uncensored, honest nature is an incredible chance to examine the intersections of American culture, capitalist values and aspirations, and our own desires as humans.
In del Rey’s consistently first-person lyrics, she sings about what she wants and what matters to her. She romanticizes her notions of success the way many Americans do, looking at money, love, sex, fame, power, and beauty as the path to happiness. She does not hide her reverence for American culture as an inspiration and passion. But unlike many American tales of success, her songs do not shy away from the emptiness she feels. They often give a sense that she has almost everything except one essential something that always seems to be missing. She sings about craving love, recognition, adoration—the intangibles, highlighting the unfulfilled need for something difficult to identify that drives so much of our consumerist culture.
Everything del Rey describes as her desires in life (“money, notoriety, and rivieras”) is the American ideal of success, but her melancholy vocals and wistful lyrics reveal that somehow it’s not enough. We are always searching for more, with diamonds and ball gowns, makeup and top shelf liquor or hydroponic weed, Hollywood and the easy life, as our beacons. But no matter what she acknowledges having, her focus always re-centers on finding the one thing that seems to be missing, whether it’s emotional satisfaction, love, or an escape from a toxic relationship, and “money, power, glory” are always the path she knows to search for it.
It would be easy to pass off del Rey as frivolous and ignorant, if she didn’t spin these images into a framework of deep reverence for America, its values, and its pop culture. Her whole image, it sometimes seems, is a fearless tribute to the American dream, complete with starry-eyed romance, deep aching emptiness, fervent consumerism, and search for beauty and love.
She has used her music and videos to recognize many quintessential American icons as her inspiration, including Jackie O., Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Jim Morrison. In her songs she quotes Tom Petty, Carole King, and even poet Walt Whitman. She co-wrote and recorded a song for the Baz Luhrmann film version of the American classic The Great Gatsby, a song that considers the dependence of love on outward beauty. The American imagery is the foundation upon which she reflects on deep, deceptively complex, and often dark feelings that inevitably accompany the classic American search for happiness through capitalist means.
Despite her desire for fame and acknowledgement (“Baby, love me ‘cuz I’m playing on the radio”), her lyrics reveal the isolation left by individualist values and the American push to make something of yourself. In reflection of her desire to fill this emotional gap by living up to the American ideal, she sings “Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend./ We don’t need nobody, ‘cuz we’ve got each other, or at least I pretend.” And she tries to fill these gaps in the traditional American fashion: sex, drugs, and alcohol, writing “It’s a love story for the new age/For the six page, we’re on a quick, sick rampage/Wining and dining, drinking and driving, excessive buying/ Overdose and dying on our drugs and our love and our dreams and our rage/Blurring the lines between real and the fake.” She also acknowledges unhealthy relationships and uses them for fulfillment; a socially appropriate and often ineffective way to fill the lonely void left by her pursuit of the American dream.
Another problem with building her life upon a foundation of superficial ideas of pleasure and satisfaction is that her identity, based on obtaining fame and money and grasping at the belief that America is inherently exceptional in its opportunities, is ultimately empty of anything else. As a result of the shallowness of a value system constructed on the myth of American fulfillment, she falls into the same trap that many other Americans do: the belief that anything, including parts of other people’s identities, is acceptable for her to exploit in her goals. The singer often takes elements of other cultures, those which do not belong to her, to try to supplement her own difficulties reconciling this identity crisis characteristic of white America.
She shed her own identity to become “Lana del Rey” because it sounded exotic and beautiful, ignoring the fact that for a white woman to take a Spanish name in order to sell albums is the height of white privilege, considering how many Latinx entertainers have to change their names to sound more American in order to be successful. She also appears in her videos in culturally appropriative outfits. In one she wears a headdress and in another she dresses as the Virgin Mary. In her short film Tropico, she tries to adopt the chola style and surrounds herself with Latina women as accessories, probably in a failed attempt to legitimize the scene. She has described herself as “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra” and “Lolita lost in the ‘hood,” minimizing certain experiences it can only be presumed she hasn’t really had. She doesn’t really know who she is, as “a chameleon soul, no moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality,” and one way she copes with this chronic indecisiveness is to try to build a patchwork of identities for herself. This attempt is, of course, inherently appropriative, and is also characteristically American.
There is an important sense of anxiety and wanderlust in her music, marked by the discomfort of acknowledging that substituting typical American values and stolen fragments of other cultures for her own identity leaves her at war with herself and with a sense of perpetual unhappiness. These inner conflicts manifest themselves in ways that provoke plenty of other social criticisms of her and her work, including her tendency to glorify abusive relationships, which includes a recurring fascination with Nabokov’s Lolita. In many ways, however, as a storyteller it is important that she represent her ideas exactly as they are.
Her music is an expression of a highly personal desire, a tale of perpetual dissatisfaction, a portrait of a search for happiness that never seems to end. Her music isn’t about her social beliefs. It’s a vehicle to represent an experience searching for something that most people assume exists: a sense of fulfillment through love and money. America is the place to find those things and we idolize those who have seemed to achieve them. We believe in second chances, beauty, and talent. We believe in happiness but only glorify one path to find it.
Through del Rey’s haunting stories about living on “the dark side of the American dream,” we can explore those beliefs and consider the possibility that dream chasing doesn’t change anything about how we feel about ourselves in the long run, contrary to our cultural belief system. In the end, Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison died young, John F. Kennedy and Jay Gatsby were shot, and del Rey’s embrace of the American idealism despite its repeated failure reveals a resignation to a never ending hunt for fulfillment. Lana del Rey may not be real, but neither are the things we believe about our culture or what we want to think about ourselves.