The Woodstock Conservatism of Lana Del Rey

By Kumars Salehi

In January, pop star Lorde responded to pressure from advocates for Palestine by canceling a scheduled concert in Tel Aviv, prompting outrage (including an Israeli lawsuit against activists in her native New Zealand). Lorde joined a growing list of music artists — from Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli — who have refused to violate the cultural boycott of Israel demanded by the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

On September 9, Lana Del Rey is scheduled to perform in Israel for the first time at Tel Aviv’s Meteor Festival, and it is regrettably unlikely she’ll join that list. The list of headliners, meanwhile, also includes Pusha T, the former Clipse rapper and president of Kanye West’s GOOD Music label, who has already demonstrated his willingness to compartmentalize politics for the sake of professional relationships when he distanced himself from the substance (if it can be called that) of Kanye’s recent statements about Trump and slavery.

Like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Lana has responded to pressure to cancel by pro-BDS fans and other activists by doubling down. First she tweeted a twopart statement of rationalization, “I understand your concern I really get do [sic]. What I can tell you is I believe music is universal and should be used to bring us together. We signed on to the show w the intention that it be performed for the kids there and my plan was for it to be done w a loving energy w a thematic emphasis on peace. If you don’t agree with it I get it. I see both sides.”

This isn’t the first time Lana has faced calls to boycott Israel, but it’s the first time she’s felt compelled to respond. In 2014, during the Israeli Defence Force’s month-long massacre in Gaza dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” her scheduled show in Tel Aviv was postponed indefinitely, ostensibly for safety reasons. Ticket holders were told their tickets would be honored, but nothing further came of it — until now.

A second statement, posted to Instagram, finds Lana in a defiant mood: “My views on democracy and oppression are aligned with most liberal views,” she writes, “I just wanted to let you know when I’m in Israel I will be visiting Palestine too and I look forward to meeting both Palestinian and Israeli children and playing music for everyone.” She even refers to Waters’s direct appeal to her with a revealing bit of misinterpretation that is, if not callous, then sincere in its ignorance: “Also Roger Waters, I read your statement about taking action even when you believe in neutrality, I totally understand what you’re saying and this is my action.”

I take Lana at her word when, instead of taking action despite her supposed ideological neutrality, she serves up a steaming side of wacky spiritualism: “But could a person as good intentioned as I,” she replied to a fan account on Twitter, “not perhaps with my presence bring attention to the fact that something should change and that a singer with a loving energy can help shift the energetic vibration of a location for the higher good even if it’s just for a minute?”

The new-age sentimentality of Lana’s anti-boycott statement is consistent with her trajectory as a nominally apolitical musician. In 2014 she responded to criticism of her artistic embrace of traditional gender norms and a passive, subservient femininity by declaring that “the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. 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.”

Her music has only recently started to feel the pull of U.S. pop culture’s now explicitly political center of gravity. Beyond the sultry vocals, gorgeous hooks, and the sonic melange of orchestral pop and hip-hop production that accompanies them, the thematic appeal of her music is a brutally romanticized negativity. This negativity isn’t a superficial “negative energy” that can be dispelled with positive thinking, as Lana’s spiritualism might explain it, but the gaping lack of being pulsating with loneliness and frustration in the core of her being. It’s the feeling of lack that pushes us away from a waking life in which we have no power and towards a fantasy in which we never needed it.

Lana’s is a self-absorbed interiority that drowns its anguish by immersing itself in the nationalistic and patriarchal tropes of the American imaginary, even making it her signature to perform and pose for pictures with an American flag in the background. Only with Trump in office did the flag start to represent something more sinister than romantic for Lana, as she told Pitchfork in a 2017 interview:

It’s certainly uncomfortable. I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. 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. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. 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.

Trump has even moved Lana to political action, prompting her participation in the mass hexing of the president. Yet it may not be obvious from this newfound political engagement why Lana Del Rey in particular is unlikely to be moved on the issue of the cultural boycott of Israel, which is styled after the cultural component of the boycott that in the ‘80s led American stars like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Run DMC, and Bruce Springsteen to boycott the Sun City luxury resort — apartheid South Africa’s equivalent of a concert in Tel Aviv.

If you asked Lana about her political views, based on her reference to her “liberal views” on “democracy and oppression,” it sounds like she would tell you she’s a liberal. And yet, perhaps not atypically for white Americans who describe themselves this way, but certainly more spectacularly, Lana’s work and image are even now shot through with the reactionary implications of her preferred tropes.

. . .

Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant to a millionaire internet entrepreneur in Lake Placid, New York, Lana Del Rey graduated with what she describes as a “degree in metaphysics” as a philosophy undergraduate at Fordham University. Metaphysics, the arcane-sounding subfield of philosophy concerned broadly with the nature of being, may partly explain the ethereal clichés Lana calls upon to deflect criticism of her politics, but her appeals to the power of an abstract universal love ring hollow.

The thematic gaze of her work is turned inwards, towards almost exclusively romantic feelings and interactions, the drive towards self-destructive hedonism, away from the problems of the world: the interior monologue of a modern subject caught in a vicious cycle between a frustrated but unending search for pleasure and the death drive, the aggressive and indeed self-destructive instinct that Sigmund Freud posited as the countervailing force to our erotic, social inclinations towards gratification and acceptance.

The death drive is the unconscious impulse of our tortured, riven psyche to return to inertia. As Freud points out in his 1932 letter in reply to Albert Einstein, who had consulted him on the topic of war on behalf of the League of Nations:

The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward, against external objects. The living being, that is to say, defends its own existence by destroying foreign bodies. But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct.

That our will to live is opposed by a will to nothingness is clear for Freud when we act out aggression against ourselves and others even against our own apparent interests. Lana’s death drive, with the rare exception that finds her shooting down paparazzi helicopters, is very introverted.

“I wish I was dead already,” Lana once told The Guardian, prompting Kurt Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain to publicly reprimand her, tweeting that “the death of young musicians is nothing to romanticize.” Lana clarified only that the discussion of her suicidal thoughts was unrelated to her music idols, blaming her interviewer for “hiding sinister ambitions and angles,” but it’s clear that for Lana the tropes of romantic self-destruction and self-objectification are the bedrock of her thematic engagement with the world. Even on her first (now scrubbed from the internet after a rebrand) studio album, Lizzy Grant AKA Lana Del Ray [sic], an uncritical fixation on abusive and asymmetrical relationships with clear references only to landmarks of American culture should be familiar to fans of her later, revamped persona: “Come on, you know you like little girls / You can be my daddy,” she sings on “Put Me in a Movie.”

Developed to staggering effect on her next two studio albums, 2012’s Born to Die and 2014’s Ultraviolence, as well as in the highlights from her 2015 album Honeymoon, Lana’s brand of Americana pulsates with death drive, rushing headlong into the dark night of the soul. Sexualized fantasies of domestic abuse and toxic relationships (“Video Games,” “Sad Girl,” “Pretty When You Cry”), suicidal thoughts laden with references to tragic celebrity deaths and Los Angeles landmarks (“Born To Die,” “Summertime Sadness,” “Heroin”), ambiguously tongue-in-cheek manifestos for the gold-digging femme fatale (“Off To The Races,” “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” “This Is What Makes Us Girls”), odes to drugs dripping with listless disdain (“Cruel World,” “Florida Kilos,” “High By The Beach”) are all set to haunting minor-key melodies that make a retreat into the nostalgic dream of 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood aesthetics sound like the answer to our suppressed, primordial drives.

Her strongest work to date assembles and presents these themes in a way that’s both ominously distanced and wistfully earnest, like an airbrushed David Lynch vision of America — the first two thirds of “Mulholland Drive,” the nightmare lingering just below the surface of the nostalgic desire for a lost past. The eroticized motif of the patriotic patriarch, the father figure who guarantees meaning and pleasure in national and gender identity, promises to make things right — but only as long as Lana conforms to the impossible shape of the girl of her man’s dreams, makes herself the object of a distinctly American male gaze.

This motif shows up throughout Lana’s oeuvre from “American” on the follow-up to Born to Die, the Paradise EP, to “Lolita,” the Born to Die cut that betrays at best a misreading of the Nabokov novel, to “Ultraviolence,” which finds Lana pining after an abusive lover: “Jim raised me up, he hurt me but it felt like true love / Jim taught me that, loving him was never enough.” Lana says she no longer performs the most controversial lyric in that song (“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”): “I sing ‘Ultraviolence’ but I don’t sing that line anymore.”

An equally iconic song from the Paradise EP has also become untenable for Lana, so much so that she has stopped performing it entirely. Lana explains that the single “Cola” was partly inspired by Harvey Weinstein, which makes sense when you hear the lyrics:

My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola

My eyes are wide like cherry pies
I got sweet taste for men who’re older

It’s always been so it’s no surprise
Harvey’s in the sky with diamonds and it’s making me crazy
All he wants to do is party with his pretty baby

“When I wrote that song, I suppose I had a Harvey Weinstein/Harry Winston-type of character in mind,” she told MTV a month after the first of the Weinstein revelations had broken. “I envisioned, like, a benevolent, diamond-bestowing-upon-starlets visual, like a Citizen Kane or something. I’m not really sure. I thought it was funny at the time, and I obviously find it really sad now.”

Trump and Weinstein can force her to rethink some of her aesthetic choices, to describe censoring her setlist as “the only right thing to do.” But Lana doesn’t consider that it’s not just the big-name associations that reflect poorly on the underlying worldview behind the hypersexualized, reactionary dreamscape she evokes. The second verse of “Cola” starts, “I fall asleep with an American flag, I wear my diamonds on skid row / I pledge allegiance to my dad, for teaching me everything he knows.”

. . .

Maybe now the American flag is gone too, but it hasn’t been replaced with a sense of political responsibility so much as a fear of seeming impolitic. Her most recent album, Lust for Life, announces Lana’s arrival in a wax museum of the late-60s counterculture, in some instances trading reactionary, solipsistic despair for a vague liberal concern. The more upbeat, almost triumphal melodies and numerous ham-fisted stabs at social commentary confirm our image of a revisionist Lana, no longer willing to sneer and give the finger to the idea of social responsibility, nor to present her music exclusively through the filter of her tortured interiority. Now, for the first time, there are an array of featured guests: The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky (twice), Playboi Carti, Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks — all of whose tracks sound like they were more fun to record than listen to and add little to the album but embarrassment.

“Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” Lana asks on “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” It is not clear which war she is taking as a model, but the titular motif already showed up in the lead-up to her album release when she debuted another track, “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind.” In a now-deleted instagram post, Lana digs deep into the well of her positivity and comes up with virtually the same answer she gave her fans and Roger Waters on BDS:

I’m not gonna lie—I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount. I find it’s a tightrope between being vigilantly observant of everything going on in the world and also having enough space and time to appreciate God’s good Earth the way it was intended to be appreciated….I just wanted to share this in hopes that one individual’s hope and prayer for peace might contribute to the possibility of it in the long run.

Once again Lana’s commentary on issues outside of the Woodstock in her mind, her private Hollywood Neverland, is limited to trite and feckless sentimentality. What was in reality the death knell for ‘60s radical counterculture is, against the backdrop of her conservative fatalism, itself the most beautiful triumph of aesthetic enjoyment and good intentions. Asked about her previous political apathy, she doesn’t just suggest that the 2016 election and Trump made her rethink the importance of politics in her music, but rather that politics itself simply became more important: “It’s more appropriate now than under the Obama administration, where at least everyone I knew felt safe. It was a good time. We were on the up-and-up.”

Now Lana struggles to reconcile the nationalist and anti-feminist imagery she draws inspiration from with her impression that not everyone she knows feels safe in Trump’s America. As she told Elle, one of the musical highlights of Lust for Life, “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It,” is a reference to the state of women’s rights under the threat of a Trump administration: “It would be weird to be making a record during the past 18 months and not comment on how [the political landscape] was making me or the people I know feel, which is not good. I wrote God Bless America before the Women’s Marches, but I could tell they were going to happen… I realized a lot of women were nervous about some of the bills that might get passed that would directly affect them.”

The overarching shortcoming both of Lust for Life and of Lana’s newfound interest in politics is that it’s glaringly obvious that she has no skin in the game and nothing but clichés to draw on: The mournful darkness of nostalgia gives way to caricature and sentimentality. She shares the basic assumption of the conservatives and liberals who have united in the #Resistance that the Trump presidency is an aberration and a departure from America’s innocent past.

If Lana Del Rey did a full accounting, she would find that her entire oeuvre is implicated in the outrage, not over Trump and Weinstein, but over the culture and institutions that created them — including the themes and soundscapes that gave her inarguably haunting voice its power and allure. The menacing distance that comes across in Lana’s best work, in both its hip-hop and orchestral pop inflections, comes in part from a sense that the identifications she derives meaning from in life and art are impossible to sustain, because in each case she gladly identifies as the object, not the agent, of whatever arcane myth sustains her.

What allows Lana to surrender her agency to the providence of traditional authority even in the very act of protest is her abstract identification with the mysterious negative, the secondary role carved out for her in a fairy-tale society that exists only in the fantasies of reactionaries. Songs like “Sad Girl” are painful to listen to in part because they speak to a fatalism that transcends mere passivity: “Being a bad bitch on the side, it might not appeal to fools like you / We’ve been around when he gets high, it might not be something you would do / But you haven’t seen my man.”

What Lana has yet to discover is solidarity beyond the shunning of disgraced personalities, beyond the over-identification with the existential embrace of powerlessness that makes “neutrality” in the case of Israeli apartheid seem like a liberal position, and makes a spiritual kumbaya seem like all the action a person who believes in “neutrality” can take. Freud called the energy created by the pleasure instinct, the pro-social instinct, the libido — Lana Del Rey has indulged its counterpart, the lust for death, on far too structural a level to really grasp the inadequacy of her “loving energy” to counteract the material darkness that lurks behind every myth, every great man.

It isn’t that Lana (or Lizzy Grant) was ever a self-identified conservative — her earlier immersion in reactionary nostalgia, and the indifference it engendered, were no less characteristic of millennial liberalism than her post-Trump politicization. Lana’s “Blue Jeans” paints her AWOL lover as a spitting image of James Dean: What could be a more conservative, stereotypically American form of rebellion than a rebel without a cause?

If the new Lana has a cause, it’s clear that it ends with the removal of a despised figurehead and a return to normalcy. While she censors the most explicit line of a song romanticizing domestic violence, far more innocuous lyrics from the bridge speak volumes about what Lana would prefer to do  when faced with radical choices — to return to the neverland of an idyllic America: “We could go back to New York / Loving you was really hard / We could go back to Woodstock / Where they don’t know who we are.”

While Palestine advocates should not waver in their demands on Lana Del Rey, Radiohead, or other artists who have crossed the international picket line, the challenge of appealing to Lana for solidarity is a valuable case study in the ideological obstacles that remain before Americans who think like her are reachable. Deeper than Lana’s statements of concern about the Trump administration is her own reliance on nationalistic and patriarchal imagery that leaves no political avenue for resistance but that of passive, sentimental nostalgia — a Woodstock conservatism that can never go home again.

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