An essay inspired by the auto-fictitious nature of Lana Del Rey’s work, and the violence sometimes enacted by placing too deep a faith in a persona…
by: Lily Herman
When I drive to and from the top of this ridge every day, I practice singing along with Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! I am thirty-three, with a birthday approaching in a few weeks, and I’ve been a widow for just over five years. My voice sounds really bad in the morning and a little less bad by evening. I was most certainly invited to this artist residency for writing, not singing. Whenever I sing along with Lana, I have to scratch at the notes above my range and dig for the ones below, but I have a baseless confidence which kicks in when the sun is setting, and which I convince myself covers all manner of musical sins. In the mornings, too, the exhaust system on my car is leaking water, leaving a trail below and behind it, which I am desperately hoping is just condensation, something to do with the altitude and the cool nights. Hoping that all our pipes just need the afternoon sun to warm them up.
I have had it confirmed for me way too many times to comfortably discredit, that one of my charms — one that I was not always eager to claim — is a certain masculinity, one that appears and flees in my features and mannerisms, always waiting to surface. I manspread in train seats. I offer unsolicited advice where only empathy is necessary. Lana Del Rey, on the other hand, is the picture of ultra-femme-ness, a mythical amalgamation of winged eyeliner and false lashes. Her lyrics are shot through with references to lipstick, bikinis, nail polish, high heels, and she uses the word party as a verb. After an a cappella cover of Happy Birthday, Mr. President in her music video for “National Anthem,” she switches roles and plays a version of Jackie O which lands somewhere between parodical and devastating. There’s nothing you could want from a woman, the video seems to suggest, that Lana can’t provide. She can be your first lady or your Marilyn.
Lana’s been criticized for glamorizing abuse, for painting a romantic picture of her tendency to shapeshift into the heteronormative object of trad desire, to sacrifice absolutely anything on this fickle altar. She is not — particularly in the earlier stages of her career — out there singing about empowerment, or her circle of close friends. She exalts herself as exceptional among her peers, as not like other girls, even claiming in “Blue Jeans,” one of her earliest hits, that she can “love you more than those bitches before.” Nor does she shy away from any other age-old cis-man-baiting technique–playing up her helplessness, letting her hair down the tall tower and begging the listener to come here and save me, squealing like an actual baby when she calls herself “your little harlot starlet” in “Off to The Races.”
Lana’s done and said a great deal of other problematic things too, racist and misogynistic and just plain dumb stuff, for which I am less eager to offer a defense — from her headdress in the “Ride” video, to her bizarre assertion that “my ex-boyfriends are rappers” when she perceived criticism about lack of diversity on her album cover for Chemtrails over the Country Club. In an era when some celebrities are advocating for safe injection sites and Naloxone access, Lana’s latest merch flight included an official, engraved Lana Del Rey brass pill case. For someone whose life is so concerned with pitch, she does come off, with shocking regularity, as tone deaf.
But when it comes to the former complaint, the way she shimmies and pinches and postures herself to fit a fantasy, I’m reluctant to blame her. When I was younger — which is a label that doesn’t dissolve with years, but agonizingly peels away, at any age, once events take place which force you to abandon your previous mode of operation — I made a thousand concessions in an identical pursuit. I, too, was trying to fit some mold, without ever quite knowing what I was meant to attain, who was asking me to do it, or how I’d know when I was done. I was never very successful, because luckily, the self is interminable, and because when it comes down to it, I’m working with way less of the necessary raw dream-girl material than Lana is. But I like it, I like to think about all of the strange places romance has taken us, all of the strange places we’ve taken ourselves, everything that had to happen in order for me to one day find myself on top of this mountain, and for Lana to find herself at a different kind of summit, where we drop our voices and sing, like it’s a shared secret the boys have never known, “Baby, baby, baby, I’m your man.”
And look at the world in which Lana came up. In 2012, she gained traction for “Video Games,” a self-produced music video. The internet at that time was full of implicit or explicit calls for women to disorder their eating and thinking, to transform into real-life Tumblr-girl avatars, to be tiny, wish-fulfillment fairies. It seems a touch unrealistic to expect Lana to have transcended these conditions. More to the point, she also debuted her worshipful persona in this video, tolling the lyrics like a bell: “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you, everything I do,” publicly offering herself like a gift, for the first of many times, to a nonspecific male counterpart. It was this video, this anthem to minor-league submission, which blew up that summer, which prompted her first real recording contract, and it seems unreasonable to think that she should have turned around and bitten the hand that had only just begun to feed her.
In interesting contrast, however, to her constant demurring, her cutesiness, her daisy dukes and four-inch heels, is the low voice Lana often uses to sing. It’s much deeper than I can manage, more foghorn than gravel or smoke. It’s like her root chakra is constantly trying to rein in the squeaky princess who likes to come untethered. The first words she sings on her major-label debut, Born To Die, set this precise tone. “Feet don’t fail me now,” she sings, her voice slung below her like an albatross. “Take me to the finish line.” In the rest of the verse, on the rest of the album, and indeed for many albums to come, Lana will sing about what happens when she allows herself to become distracted from this state of self-actualization — she’ll be manipulated, altered, recalibrated to suit the desires of men that she loves. “His favorite perfume, his favorite sundress, fuck me to death.” But come what may in her career, she has positioned a superhero and superego above it all, one who periodically swoops down and assures us, by her very presence, that someone is in charge here. When it comes to the finish line, she’s counting on her feet to get her there and nothing else. Whatever the men might do, whatever she might permit or invite, and as much as she might be perceived as a passive spectator to her own cinematic life — the little princess is the one who writes the songs.
When I think of authoriality, of who’s in charge, I come back to the conflicting advice I was given around an early draft of my book. “We need to know that there’s someone mostly stable, someone who survived to tell the story,” one reader offered. I was uncertain at the time if I could summon this stability, if I could force a coherent shape onto the frazzled essays composed in the wake of my husband’s suicide. Maybe I was the untethered kitten who needed to be saved, who needed someone else to come in and impose structure where I couldn’t see one. Maybe if they started in my writing they would find it in my life.
Another reader, however, offered a simple counterpoint: “If there is someone capable of telling the story,” he said, “I take that as proof that they are stable enough.”
This evidence is meant to suffice for Lana as well. On Norman Fucking Rockwell!, she sings, “Give me Hallmark: one dream, one life, one lover,” and while it may sound like she’s a silly teenager daydreaming in her bedroom, this could also be read as the moment she reveals her understanding of narrative. She knows a Hallmark story by its signature symptoms. And it’s only because Lana has viscerally experienced,and cataloged, so many of life’s complexities, that she’s finally both weary enough and brave enough to ask for something simple.” I don’t trust myself with my heart,” she sings on “Kintsugi.” Even if she doesn’t trust herself with it, Lana has autopsied her own heart, nine full-length times. And we’ve seen proof every time that it will not only endure, but evolve.
Sometimes, too, having authority is just a question of living long enough to see which of your words came true. I wrote a poem a few weeks before my husband’s death — when he was threatening to leave me — trying to make sense of our impending separation. Eerily enough, the poem began, “When people ask what became of [you] / I will say He died.”
Similarly, Lana has been pronouncing herself a terminal case since the start, though it always seemed more like a sexy little tic than a serious nod at mortality. But on her new album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, she sings, “There’s a certain point the body can’t come back from,” and it’s clear that she’s a far cry from the invincible twenty-six-year old, who once sat on a throne and glibly proclaimed, “You and I, we were born to die.” Neither Lana nor I could have known back then, when we tossed the word die into the air, that it would come back to land so squarely, so profoundly, in our futures.
Ride or die, the light in which Lana perpetually casts herself, is a particularly pernicious concept, and one that is thankfully not canonized too much in 2023. The book I’ve been editing on this mountain is more or less a treatise against it. When I was writing the first draft, a friend said it was a book about the “quality of abusability.” When I thought of the time period the book chronicled, five years prior, I pictured myself in a motorcycle sidecar. No helmet, astronomical speed, gunning for a cliff. Abusability, I supposed, was the inability or unwillingness to unhook myself before the bike went over the edge. Of course, the bike doesn’t always go over the edge in these situations, just as abusability does not necessarily imply the presence or absence of abuse — but all of these uncertainties are determined by the driver. The only choice that the passenger has is to bail out or stay. But ride or die, as a concept, asks the person in the sidecar why on earth they didn’t hit the brakes. Why they bothered coming back from the brink if they couldn’t save both bodies.
Which is to say, some rides decidedly need to be gotten off of. But perhaps the frequency with which Lana has released music (nine albums in 13 years) sheds some light here: Is she just a beautiful doormat, looping the same song, warbling about her devotional spirit, in the delusional hope that this time it will produce different results? Maybe, but a far more likely scenario is that the ride or die label only adheres for as long as she needs it to, and simply falls off when she’s finished. She’s put on this costume — the down girl, the forever lover, the one who’ll remain till the bitter end — so many times, in so many iterations, that we begin to see that the thing that dies off, again and again, the thing she is willing to sacrifice, is not herself, certainly not the music, but the relationship. There’s a reason why the male counterparts are anonymous. What survives — what always pulls through, what she loves and embodies, regardless of the train wreck she’s leaving behind — is her, is us. Lana Eternal.
When I started listening to Lana, I was completely unaware of her. I had heard her name, but would have found it impossible to differentiate between her and a half-dozen other pop stars of the same era — which just means that they got famous after I had stopped paying attention. In some ways, I feel glad about this. Like the novel Memoirs of Hadrian, I’m glad I didn’t discover her too soon after my husband’s death. I wasn’t ready for the lover’s suicide in Hadrian, for the same reason I wasn’t ready for Lana, for her loving constancy — the parallels were simply too strong.
Ocean Blvd comes thirteen years — approximately one lifetime — after her first record. The album is replete with sermonizing and church choirs, and she’s conveniently released it at a time when I am ready to be preached to, but, perhaps as a result of the last six years of my life, only receptive to preaching by people who’ve seen some shit. “Do you think about heaven?” Lana sings. “Do you think about me?” I can’t tell if she’s talking, if I’m asking my husband a question, or if he’s speaking to me from well beyond the grave, but I feel certain that in any case, the answer to all of these questions is yes. We think about it.
All day, disoriented birds divebomb the dusty cabin windows. I hear them smack the glass, trying to access nests they’ve built into the molding. I don’t know how to get them to stop. At night, when the wind is high and the swaying trees disappear into mountain darkness, when I realize exactly how alone I am in the woods, I pace the perimeter of the cabin. I love the sound of things moving in the dark, the musicality of my own fright. How it urges me to pick up speed as I walk. It sounds like a descending scale, a river flowing downhill.
For years, I badly wanted to avoid returning to this type of mourning, the kind where I admitted you can be sad for a loss without wishing the thing had worked out. The kind where I stopped looking at his pictures and said the rosary, called my friends, did a jigsaw puzzle instead. I didn’t want to embrace or reject any paths that offered my grandmothers solace — or failed to offer them solace — when their husbands fucked around, yelled, hit them, left, or in their quiet kindness, died. I didn’t want to need solace for my husband’s life, or for his death. I wanted to play the perfect widow, loyal and mildly tearful at all times. It wasn’t for lack of love that I felt myself falling away from the accepted narrative of my marriage. Maybe some converts can throw themselves into a new life with such gusto that it all begins to feel real, but I felt like a play-actor, lying about all the things that I felt for the sake of the perfect image, the clean line, the smoky eye. I felt like Lana, squeezing myself into a shape that I’d never fit, but claiming that it was me, that it would be me forever, that I’d never change in relationship to this man who, in his death, kept mutating. Eventually we both had to stop fighting the current that was coming for us. Radical believers in radical dissent.
When I hear Lana’s voice on the title track of the new album, I feel her embracing this trajectory, finally falling in love with the path of least resistance, with only being able to control herself. She comes back to claim all of her stories–telling yet another anonymous paramore “I’m going to take [my memories] of you with me.” She doesn’t ask him what he remembers. She doesn’t ask him to stay. That’s not what this is about.
Lana combines a question and a statement to compose one, declarative prayer on the title track: “When’s it gonna be my turn?,” she asks. “Don’t forget me,” she answers herself. It’s like her left hand finally accepts that the right is going to keep interrupting, that she’s going to keep asking questions for which there is no answer, or for which the only answers must issue from herself.
It would be impossible to forget her, and yet, she’s somehow right that it’s never quite her turn: Lana, especially latter-day Lana, is the person who can’t help herself, who won’t move on. She might play it cool in one sense, but in another, she regularly dissects her own heart, handing it straight to her listeners after, with labels attached. She represents thoughts — obsessive, self-destructive thoughts — which are often irresistible, but which no one in their right mind would cop to. Her persona represents all base instincts without many redeeming qualities — a witty, tragic creature whose catastrophically low self-esteem manifests in a variety of understandable but disconcerting choices. Her co-dependent, desperate voice is a dog whistle that calls the listener back to a place where we’ve certainly all been, but where hopefully none of us (including Lana) permanently dwells. She doesn’t depict herself as self-reliant, confident, empowered–she enters the plea, “love me until I love myself,” the plea whose public or private nature is indecipherable. Who is she talking to? God or man — whoever she needs, it is someone decidedly outside herself. And I want to hate her for this, as the birds plummet toward the cabin. Who do I need, and why do I need them, and where the fuck are they, too?
Once again, though, there’s some hidden magic afoot. When Lana doubles back on Ocean Blvd, to enumerate her own weakness and frailty for the thousandth time, it’s too easy to see only the hypercritical knife with which she eviscerates herself. It takes more consideration to observe the self-love below, the patience and steady hand required to scrutinize herself so thoroughly as a subject. There’s a devotion contained within her intensity of study, her willingness to make the endless inventory which will eventually force transformation. We are brave when we say the things that no one wants to be. When I finally saw that I married my husband out of love, yes, but also out of my own faceless, gnawing, need, I felt a bit farther from that gnaw, or, as some people put it, closer to God. It’s our honesty that makes us whole, and our desire to keep trying that makes us human. We will pray the words, Lana says, the words that are not enough, and we will continue to fly into the windows like sightless night birds. Some combination of these movements will ride us past the mountains into darkness, into dawn, toward the home of our hope.
Listen to the “A Prayer for Lana Del Rey” playlist here.
Lily Herman is a writer and former commercial salmon fisherman from the halo of Baltimore, Maryland. A chapbook of her poems, Each Day There is a Little Love in a Book for You, is available through Dryad Press. She writes about religious alchemy, has sent hundreds of commissioned love letters to friends and strangers, and has high hopes for the grief-to-contentment pipeline.