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Lana Del Rey Is Worried About America

On ‘Lust for Life’ the usually navel-gazing singer can’t ignore what’s going on around her. Her fourth album finds her national anthems taking a decidedly dark turn about the world around her.

(Getty Images/Ringer GIF)

What comes to mind is this famous image of Lana Del Rey from her 2012 video “Ride”: Eyes blithely closed in a private reverie, she’s wearing an ironic fitted T-shirt that says “Buttwiser” and holding above her head an American flag, which ripples behind her like a sandy towel she’s shaking out after a long day at the beach. In the background, one of the many gruff biker dudes that populate the video fires a gun into the void. For at least the length of this frame, no one in it has a care in the world.

(Interscope Records)
(Interscope Records)

Since breaking through five years ago with her mega-successful major-label debut, Born to Die, neo-crooner Del Rey has fashioned herself a curator of this kind of romanticized but slightly curdled Americana — a place where glamor and danger are inseparable, even star-crossed bedfellows. She once dubbed herself “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” and indeed her music is a waking dream of boomer nostalgia cut with millennial flair. (Her sound is a little too old-fashioned and strange to get much play on the radio; it’s important to note that her biggest chart hit, “Summertime Sadness,” caught on after Cedric Gervais’s EDM remix of the song broke.) Her video for “National Anthem” was an ode to Camelot that cast A$AP Rocky as JFK; the chorus of one of her songs reads like the inscription she’d print on her own version of the $20 bill: “Be young, be dope, be proud, like an American.”

Earlier this week, though, 32-year-old Del Rey conceded that recent political events have caused her to rethink her aesthetic a bit. “I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos,” the media-averse singer-songwriter said in an unusually candid interview with Pitchfork. “I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing ‘Born to Die.’ It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static.”

In considering her global fan base, she added, “I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now — it didn’t feel weird in 2013.”

This is a jarring pivot: In the past, Del Rey has been avowedly apolitical. For example, when she was asked in 2014 if she considered herself a feminist, she gave one of the most memorable deflections in recent celebrity history: “I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.” Del Rey told Pitchfork this week, though, that Donald Trump’s election had caused her to rethink her relationship to women’s issues, among other things. “Women started to feel less safe under this administration instantly,” she said. “Now, when people ask me those questions, I feel a little differently.”

Up until now, the world of Lana Del Rey’s music has been hermetic and internal. Struggle exists, but it’s almost always of the private, mental variety: “I’ve got a war in my mind,” she sings on one of her best songs, “so I just ride.” But on her new, fourth major studio album, Lust for Life, she’s become more porous. For one thing — and for the first time on a Lana Del Rey album — there are other voices beside her own, and the list of collaborators reads like a particularly bizarre if-you-could-have-dinner-with-five-living-people: the Weeknd, Stevie Nicks, A$AP Rocky, Sean Lennon, and Playboi Carti. (And yes, please sit them in that order.) More than on previous albums, Lust for Life finds Del Rey looking beyond herself and contemplating, at least fleetingly, the larger realities of the world.

In one song, she tries to enjoy music at Coachella while stricken with anxiety over North Korea missile tests. On another she wonders, “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” — a line that, God help us, has already been the subject of a concerned Breitbart headline. And then there’s the song she wrote in reference to the women’s marches, which she christened with the quintessentially Lana Del Rey title, “God Bless America — And All the Beautiful Women in It.” Del Rey’s music is usually all about fantasy, dreaming, and escape, and so the lead-up to Lust for Life has posed an intriguing question: What does it sound like when she tries to capture the harsh realities of the real world?

Here is a list of some lyrics on Lust for Life, an album that already shares its title with both the most well-known song and the most well-known record by Iggy Pop:

  • Don’t worry, baby
  • My boyfriend’s back
    And he’s cooler than ever
  • My cherries and wine
    Rosemary and thyme
  • I’d trade it all for a stairway to heaven
  • Lay, lady, lay
    On that side of paradise
    In the tropic of cancer
    ’Cause if I had my way
    You would always stay
    And I’d be your tiny dancer

Some artists anguish over the notion that there are no new ideas left under the sun. Lana Del Rey accepts it as fact and then frolicks through that reality like a postmodern meadow, liberally plucking the most potent and famous lines from the old songs she loves. In 2010 the poetry critic Marjorie Perloff published a book called Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, in which she wrote about, as the book’s summary explains, “an important turn in recent poetry: the wholesale citation of other people’s words in order to make new works, by framing, citing and recycling already existing phrases, sentences, and even full texts.”

“This ‘unoriginal’ poetry,” the summary continues, “is more accessible and, in a sense, ‘personal’ than the hermetic poetry of the 1980s and ’90s.” Perloff was writing a scholarly text about modern poetry, yes, but she might as well have been writing about Lana Del Rey (who, incidentally, devoted an entire track of her last album to reading a poem by T.S. Eliot, someone Perloff cites, in Chapter 1, as a pioneer of this practice.) The point being, dismiss Lana as mindlessly frivolous at your own risk.

Del Rey has said this, in her own way, in some of her songs. There’s a track on what I still think is her best album, Ultraviolence, called “Brooklyn Baby” that plays like a sonic sneer at the type of critic who think she’s just another millennial ignorant about the history of the music she claims to appreciate. “They say I’m too young to love you,” she sings, “I don’t know what I need / They think I don’t understand the freedom land of the ’70s.” Later, during the song’s dreamy bridge, she has some choice words for those cynics, somehow all the more biting because they are sung in the vernacular of a Happy Days character, “Talkin’ bout my generation / Talkin’ bout that newer nation / And if you don’t like it you can beat it / Beat it, baby.”

Del Rey’s music captures — better than that of almost any of her contemporaries — a unique frustration faced by her generation: the difficulty of making something new and great in the wake of a digitally accessible past (so much culture, so revered). But her music also asserts the eternal necessity of a now — the need for young people to eke out some kind of movement to call their own, if only to assert the fact that they are alive in this moment in time.

This idea crystallizes on Lust for Life more powerfully than it has on her past albums. Take, for example, the stunning single “Coachella — Woodstock in My Mind.” It opens with an autobiographical snapshot: Lana’s in the desert, watching Father John Misty play the festival while she leans on his wife’s shoulder. “I guess I was in it,” she sings, “’cause baby for a minute, it was Woodstock in my mind.” The next day she’s watching the news about rising tensions between North Korea and the United States, trying to assuage her geopolitical anxiety with the memories of the festival’s good vibes. It’s in this private, ordinary moment — not when the music’s playing — that the past and the present merge into one. It has nothing to do with arguing about the primacy of artists from one era or another, or comparing Jimi’s “Star Spangled Banner” with Daft Punk’s pyramid. It has everything to do with these two generations of kids, separated by time though linked by sentiment, just trying to escape the stress of the world and let music free their tired minds.

More than almost anything she’s written, this song is about connection rather than emptiness, as is one of the songs that comes after it, “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” Whoever wrote that Breitbart headline didn’t listen all the way through, because when she asks if this is the end of America, she comes up with a hopeful answer. History’s told her she’s not the first one to ask:

Lust for Life is nearly 72 minutes long. That is too long, and it occasionally feels even longer, because almost all the songs are the same tempo and the ones that sound most alike are placed back to back. It is not necessarily a crime that two songs on this album rhyme “summer” with “bummer,” but it is at least a ticketable offense that two consecutive tracks do. The album doesn’t flow so much as proceed in stilted sections: First we have the big poppy singles, then there’s a middle part where she stuck the songs that feature rappers, followed by the vaguely political songs, and then the back-to-back duets with famous people. This doesn’t make Lust for Life feel appealingly varied, so much as it feels like an album that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be.

I suspect that’s because Lana Del Rey is in a moment of artistic transition herself, and that many of these songs were probably already in the can before she started writing songs like “Coachella” and “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” (The album was initially rumored to come out in May and then was pushed back rather abruptly, which suggests some last-minute changes.) Still, some of the “Lana being Lana” tracks on Lust rank high in her catalog: The elegant “13 Beaches” evokes the beauty in solitude with its vivid opening lines (“It took 13 beaches to find one empty / But finally it’s mine / With dripping peaches, I’m camera-ready / Almost all the time”), and the moody “In My Feelings” is full of tart, quotable lines, like when she exhales the word “loooooser” like cigarette smoke.

Over four albums in five years, Del Rey hasn’t evolved so much as she’s leaned harder and harder into her own persona; instead of pushing outside her comfort zone, she is content to push her preferred sound to larger-than-life (and sometimes uncomfortable) extremes. This was fine for a while, but on Lust for Life, it feels like she’s achieved Peak Lana — so much so that before it was even released, Vulture ranked the album’s song titles by “how Lana Del Rey they are.” (No. 1 was “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” her duet with Stevie Nicks that is, by the way, as lovely as their V Magazine interview.)

Lust for Life isn’t a great album — it could do with some self-editing — but it’s one that makes me hopeful about the next phase of Del Rey’s career. By now it seems that she has mapped out the depths of her own neuroses pretty completely, and so the way forward from #PeakLana is probably something she’s already beginning to do: shifting her gaze to the outside world. After all, as the darkness inherent in the American dream becomes manifest, who better to sing our national anthem than Lana Del Rey?