In Boozo Veritas # 49 by Teege Braune
Lana Del Rey Vs. The Cult of Authenticity
While I never went nuts for Lana Del Rey’s 2012 premier album Born to Die in its entirety, I did become obsessed with the single “Summertime Sadness.” I was captivated by a brand of pop-music that cannot be easily classified within a single genre, that is both contemporary and also nostalgic for a bygone (and possibly fictitious) era. Furthermore, Del Rey’s lyrics and smoky vocals create an atmosphere of deep longing and simultaneously celebrate a sense of wild abandon, sensations alluring not only to myself as denoted by the song’s immense popularity and success. I played the song over and over again last summer, and though I thought “Video Games” was fairly catchy as well, many of the songs on Born to Die did not appeal to me and for the most part, Del Rey herself remained only in my periphery.
The title of Del Rey’s 2014 sophomore effort Ultraviolence immediately captured my interest. Anyone who’s read In Boozo Veritas # 5 knows that I’m fascinated by violence, though I have ambivalent feelings towards my enjoyment of it. The title track is a haunting portrait of a toxic and obsessive relationship that is both complicated behind its straight-forward honesty and deeply uncomfortable in its decidedly un-P.C. romanticization of abuse. A quick survey of the tracks suggested to me more complex and daring songwriting than Born to Die, but I was particularly disappointed in the album’s single “Brooklyn Baby,” a satire of hipster posturing. In the chorus, Del Rey sings,
Well, my boyfriend’s in a band
He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed
I’ve got feathers in my hair
I get down to Beat poetry
And my jazz collection’s rare
I can play most anything
I’m a Brooklyn baby.
This has been done, I thought. We’ve already heard all the hipster cliches. We all know phony people who interpret cool as a collection of possessions and surface style choices. Despite my reservations, I could not stop listening to it and have come to the conclusion that by taking the lyrics of the chorus out of the context of the entire song I’ve done it and myself a disservice.
The lyrics of the second verse let us know that we are in territory much richer and more meaningful than mere cliche. Here Del Rey sings,
They say I’m too young to love you
They say I’m too dumb to see
They judge me like a picture book
By the colors, like they forgot to read.
In these lines Del Rey demonstrates not only an awareness of her narrator’s flaws, but a deep empathy for her as well. There’s an aspect to the song that in undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek and humor in lines like, “My boyfriend’s pretty cool / But he’s not as cool as me,” but there is undeniable longing in it as well. This is represented by the song’s mysterious “you,” a character who is only revealed to us through his or her juxtaposition to the narrator, who sings,
I think we’re like fire and water
I think we’re like the wind and sea
You’re burning up, I’m cooling down
You’re up, I’m down
You’re blind, I see.
It is not easy to decide who’s love is being unrequited here. In the first verse she says, “They say I’m too young to love you,” and then conversely, “I think I’m too cool to know ya.” Is the narrator rejecting someone for failing to match her social status or justifying her own rejection? Her own narcissism makes it impossible to know the answer. We might laugh hearing someone like this sing the line, “You’re blind, I see,” but at the same time, there is a deep sadness in the loss of human connection that comes with this narcissism. Del Rey handles this loss with the upmost respect and compassion encapsulated best by the ever-present sorrow of her incredible voice.
In her essay “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” Zadie Smith discusses Wallace’s disdain, even fear, of solipsism. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is filled with stories of characters who miss or almost miss the chance of true revelation and connection because of their own narcissism. Take the “fifty-six-year-old, American poet” of “Death Is Not the End” who, floating in his pool among the trappings of his insurmountable success, ceases to become anything but an extension those very trappings. “God help the man who has chosen to worship himself! Whose self really is no more than the awards he has won, the prestige he has earned, the wealth he has amassed,” Wallace through Smith warns. And then there is the “younger sister of his wife’s college roommate” in the story “Think” whose smile is “media-taught” and whose “expression is from page 18 of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” Her would-be affair is neither an act of unbridled passion nor self-loathing, but an reenactment of a cliche, something television has taught her she’s supposed to do. Like Wallace’s characters, the narrator of “Brooklyn Baby” insists on the legitimacy of a selfhood so dependent on the artificial qualities by which she defines herself, that the listener begins to wonder if there is anyone behind these feathers and jazz records at all.
The song is even more interesting in the context of Del Rey’s own persona and the noisome attacks of her authenticity. It has never been a secret that Lana Del Rey is a stage name for Elizabeth Grant, and yet this fact is a problem for some people. It’s true that Del Rey’s management team downplays her early, unsuccessful career as Lizzy Grant, and Del Rey herself seems blissfully unaware that such a person even existed, but I feel that both of these details are understandable from a performer who reinvented herself. Nevertheless, every aspect of Del Rey’s identity is scrutinized by her critics and detractors from her appearance (questions of plastic surgery) to her background (Grant grew up privileged) to the legitimacy of her self-proclaimed depression to her social status (apparently Grant has not always been as effortlessly cool as Del Rey). By simply ignoring Grant, Del Rey keeps the line between her fictional stage persona and real self blurry. Controversial comments she’s made in interviews and the deep sorrow embodied in her music suggest to me a person who has struggled with depression throughout most of his life, that her claims to mental health issues are honest, or at least are an aspect of both Grant and Del Rey’s personality. But then again I could be wrong. The fact is that Lana Del Rey, a person who seems to live in some nexus era of the most hip, most romantic version of several decades, who has preternaturally pouty lips and is dressed flawlessly whether she’s wearing a cocktail dress or jeans and a t-shirt, who writes devastatingly beautiful music and sings with a sultry, sad, smoky voice simply could not and will never exist. I’m even willing to concede that there may be something affected about Del Rey’s persona, but let us remember that art does not exist without artifice.
“The struggle with ego, the struggle with the self, the struggle to allow other people to exist in their genuine “otherness”–these were aspects of Wallace’s own struggle,” Smith tells us in her essay. It was a struggle that Wallace sadly could not maintain and took his life at a tragically young age. It is likely that Del Rey can be compassionate towards the narrator of “Brooklyn Baby” because she acknowledges or even laments her own lack of authenticity. Her critics may not be wrong in this regard, their criticism is simply irrelevant. By willing herself to become what she is not, what she can never really be, perhaps Grant is annihilated like the American poet or the wife’s roommate’s younger sister, and maybe this is what she has desired in the first place. If so, Lana Del Rey is the transcendent force created, as if spontaneously, in the void left behind.