Since Lana Del Rey first came out back in 2012, as a self-styled ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’, talk has followed of her authenticity, or lack thereof, her supposed complicity in industry sexism, and her less than approachable ‘sad girl’ stereotype. But for all those who expected a short lived stint as a diva, she has disappointed. Following her fourth album, Lana Del Rey has shown a multifaceted persona and a complex and conceptual body of work that has come to challenge not only preconceptions surrounding her, but preconceptions surrounding all that it is to be a woman- most of all, the assumption that there is any single definition of this.
Del Rey has created a series of personas, often represented literally in her scenic music videos, but most prominently in the themes that thread throughout her albums. These themes, of tragic love, power play, and self–destruction, are interwoven with classic all American iconography. For example, in her short film Tropicano, we see her play Eve alongside a stripper, while the figures of John Wayne, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe fill the background. These various personas are akin to and act as a response to the binaries attributed to women of virgin/whore, cute/crazy, shy/sexy. Lana Del Rey transcends these binaries with lyrics such as “I’m a sad girl, I’m a made girl, I’m a bad girl”. She complicates these limited representations and revels in a more subversive range and, as with most subversive things, it’s more powerful.
In creating so many different versions of womanhood in the roles she plays, she advocates for permission to occupy any and all spaces one desires. Crucially, in occupying so many of these spaces, what she does above all else is to fill the spaces between them. Take, for example, her debut album, Born to Die. It follows a Lolita-esque narrative which, though at first may appear at odds with the modern day expectation of empowered women, is in many ways one of the most empowering albums I’ve listened to. It is unabashedly and unapologetically honest in its recounting of its heroine’s desires and insecurities. More than this, it creates the opportunity for alternative narratives – take Del Rey’s music video for ‘National Anthem’ – she plays the figures of both Jackie and Marilyn, the wife and mistress, of a black president. She is familiar and at the same time, misplaced, in an imagined past which is also oddly futuristic. Her voiceover tells the tale of a doomed love alongside glamourous visuals, clearly intended to contradict.
This occupying of dark and contradictory spaces is continued in her 2014 album Ultraviolence, which features the song ‘Fucked my way up to the Top’. People are quick to take note of this phrase, without looking to what follows it – “This is my show”. This, as well as lyrics such as “I’m a dragon, you’re a whore” and “mimicking me is a fucking bore to me” are a long way from crooning ballads and signify a deeper intelligence, a knowingness, an irony, the likes of which are seen in her 2015 Endless Summer touring partner, Courtney Love. Perhaps these two women seem at odds but, in their examination of the roles of women, could not be more alike. Lana Del Rey alludes to Harvey Weinstein in her song ‘Cola’ with a wink and a nudge and, like Courtney Love before her, she references The Crystals’ ‘He Hit Me (And it felt like a Kiss)’, in her song ‘Ultraviolence’. These references, while showing a stark awareness of the issues she raises also reminds us that the joke is on us – she knows what she’s doing, and she’s told us before – it’s her show.
Perhaps it should be difficult for me to like her, she being a relatively privileged white woman, often seeming to promote submissiveness and self -destruction in women. But this is only one side of a more complicated coin and, despite talk of her as antifeminist following remarks in 2014 that “the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept”, Lana Del Rey represents the ultimate freedom. The freedom to define yourself in your own terms, regardless of how anybody else might judge these terms. Feminism, according to Del Rey, is not about what other people allow you to be, but whatever you yourself decide to be. “My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants”, she has said; although, of course, fewer people remember this quote, from the same interview. She is, according to her music videos, Eve and a stripper, the first lady and the other woman, the bride and the playgirl. And now? Why, in her most recent album, 2017’s Lust for Life, she is young and in love, a Woodstock groupie, and always, always, with songs such as ‘God Bless America – And All the Beautiful Women in It’, celebrating and exploring the numerous roles that women play.