Some years ago, The New Inquiry published a supplement dedicated to analyzing Lana Del Rey as a cultural phenomenon. The essays that didn’t seem like the argumentative equivalent of a dense crust with a hollow center, seemed to me far too bitter - I really like the woman, and I really like what she does, with all its loose threads.
Hannah Black’s unforgivingly sharp essay “Full-time daughter” is, basically, a long complaint regarding Lana’s thematic conservatism. Though of great analytical merit, I much preferred “The fake as more”, by Sarah Nicole Prickett, whose influence on this writing it’d be absurd for me to deny.
Black is right regarding the fact that Lana’s relationship with Americana (fueled by invocations to cherry pie, Pepsi-cola, etc.,etc.) is the conservative white-washing of a deeply deprived and unjust culture, suffers from evils (such as systematic, deep-rooted racism and classism), and has a myriad of discursive and even aesthetic devices to minimize if not justify and naturalize it. I’d like to further analyze how Del Rey’s imaginary reproduces certain American narrative vices.
All the characters that Lana plays are those that women have been almost contextually forced into playing, for decades (the woman-accessory, the boy-crazy unproductive secretary who’s always saved by a little something between her legs, the girl-victim, the manic pixie prostitute, to name a few) - and all of them are a waste of humanity. I love women, I love them as people. I tend to like them more than men, and I like normative femininity with all its mannerisms and vices. But I understand how someone who wants to rise our vision of women beyond these childish, shallow characters might view Lana Del Rey’s music as a conservative cultural clutch.
All of Lana’s all-American characters are condemned to victimhood. The woman-accessory (who’s also the “I” in “Fine china”), melancholic, opulent and wealthy by proxy, looks great and does as little as possible. The boy-crazy unproductive secretary is vulnerable and useless. The girl-victim , inspired by a misreading of Nabokov’s Lolita, sends a dangerous message to teenagers (one of the main target audiences of female pop artists). The manic pixie prostitute is the glamorization of the tragedy of homelessness, addiction and precariousness. Using these mid-century tropes would demand, ideally, in my useless, given-for-free opinion, a crude rereading. Eventually, the profound ache that underlines all these characters, abused and wasted as they are, should surface. Honesty alone should be enough for these tropes to crack.
Why don’t they? In the novel that inspired Del Rey’s girl-victim, a novel I’ve already mentioned, the girl-victim, pregnant at 16, with a strand of abuse for a childhood, bares the absurdity of the imaginary her abuser had clothed her in. No, there is no Lolita, like there is no Queen of the Gas Station. No, Dolores would never tease Quilty like a 24-year-old “sex kitten” archetype.
There’s a contradiction between Del Rey’s own life story and the characters she plays. She’s the daughter of an entrepreneur, she became successful in a complicated industry, she’s a 33-year-old millionaire who dates equally or less wealthy men her age. This contradiction doesn’t invalidate Del Rey, just like it wouldn’t condemn Orville Peck. It just adds a funny detail.
Some time ago, in conversation, a masochist friend said that he enjoyed sexual submission as a relief, as a break from the dominant roles he played at work and within his family’s dynamics. It was cathartic to give up situational control for a while - at least within a pantomime, for, in ethical sadomasochism, the limits are always fixed by the consent or withdrawal of consent of the submissive part/s.
Perhaps, Lana Del Rey’s music works in a similar fashion. She wrote the anthems of wasted feminine potential and of glamorized vulnerability. But how soothing it can be, sometimes, riding the subway between a meeting and a march, to toy with the fantasy of being pleasantly wasted, in a world where putting one’s heavily drugged, 100 lbs. female humanity at the stake of a drug dealer is a romantic adventure, not a fatal risk.
When I first watched Orville Peck’s “Dead of Night”, it came to me as refreshing, tremendously refreshing. Of course, it has the hauntological elements that most of the listenable contemporary country music has. It was a montage of scenes recorded down the dusty Nevada roads, and inside The Chicken Ranch, a brothel.
Something about myself resounds with the character Peck plays - and I don’t mean anything that those terms might entail, I celebrate wearing a mask and creating a fiction that is more genuine and had greater depth than the lack of aesthetic ambition that so often passes as frankness.
The idea of a gay cowboy isn’t new. I know it as well as anyone else who has ever googled Heath Ledger, Tom of Finland or gay pornography. Among gay and bisexual men, the homosexual desires or impulses of masculine men have been fetishized within an imaginary that involved their secrecy. Romantic stories between masculine men - between cowboys, for instance, inherently host a bubble of poison: Because how can two men..? - not fall in love, “falling in love”, the nazi author of a local bestseller would argue, “is impossible for sodomites”.
In “Big Sky”, narrating three of his romances (two homosexual, one heterosexual), Orville raises from a past rooted in pain:
"Fell in love with a boxer\ Stayed awake all year\ Heartbreak is a warm sensation\ When the only feeling that you know is fear"
Peck’s work features an example of a deconstructed masculinity that maintains certain aesthetic cues while freeing itself from the constraints of harmful gender expectations, a new masculinity. I’m frankly thrilled by this idea of keeping masculinity as an aesthetic (and if you will, with its commonly associated morality updated, revamped), post-patriarchy. If there will ever be such a thing as post-patriarchy - of course. Remember our rising sea levels?
Let’s not forget that both Del Rey’s archetypes and Peck’s narratives are hauntological. They are scraps of the past, decontextualized. They belong to some era that’s not quite the mid-section of the 20th century, nor is it the early 21st century. Both the video for “Dead of Night”, and that for Del Rey’s “National Anthem”, with all its very clear references to JFK, have this atemporal quality. Mark Fisher would explain it best.