Lana Del Rey and the aesthetics of not giving a fuck
‘Woah, woah, woah, whatever, everything, whatever…’
So Lana Del Rey croons somewhere deep amidst the nine minutes of her single ‘Venice Bitch’, released at the end of last summer in anticipation of her upcoming album Norman Fucking Rockwell. In the build-up to the release of this new album there seems to have been a definite shift in Del Rey’s image; a move away from the heavily stylised aesthetics and carefully constructed personas that brought her fame, towards a rougher, rawer, and ultimately truer representation of who she is as an artist, and has in fact always been.
That Lana has stopped giving a fuck can be readily observed on the album covers of her three most recent singles. Whilst for ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’ she poses make-up less, hair pulled back in a rather practical looking bun (the kind I wear when my hair could really do with a wash), her very face reading ‘whatever’, ‘Venice Bitch’ features an off-centre photo of palm trees and apartment that looks as if it was shot on an iPhone and finished off with an Instagram filter. ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have but I have it’, meanwhile, uses a selfie of questionable quality with a black and white filter slapped over the top. Gone are the days of the dramatic, stylised photoshoots that made the artwork of her earlier albums (Born to Die and Paradise in particular) so striking and iconic. Instead, in this recent cover art, we encounter a Lana so beyond caring what you think that the question of her posing – a charge with which she was frequently bombarded when she first rose to prominence – seems laughable, and she is most definitely the one laughing.
The sheer length of the title of her most recent single ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have but I have it’ demonstrates the extent to which she is in command of her art (the lack of capitals, I like to think, a nod to poet e.e. cummings). Now, as an established icon of 21st century music, Del Rey need not adhere to the usual conventions of popular music – what will aid or inhibit radio-play – hers being an artistry beyond industry concerns over sales and hits, quickly developing to be on a par with the achievements of the likes of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush of the last century. The song itself (‘hope is a dangerous thing’) is a sprawling, indulgent and introspective rumination on the precariousness of ‘hope’ for Del Rey, and her name-dropping of Sylvia Plath in the chorus (rhymed, delicately or not, with ‘sociopath’), although seemingly superficial, in fact draws upon a career long relationship with poetry (in references to and quotations from Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot) which will culminate, this year, in the publication of a book of her poems.
One poem, ‘happy’, teased on her Instagram account (as, indeed, the majority of her album seems to have been at this point), demonstrates the long lines and full phrases we are to expect of her book, which seems to have developed concurrently with her lyricism, which, in the shift from her last album Lust for Life (2016), to 2019’s upcoming Norman Fucking Rockwell, has become more indulgent, more sprawling, and more beautiful than anything she has written before. Take ‘Venice Bitch’, for example. The lyrics of this song roll off the tongue so easily, and seemingly carelessly, that you’d be forgiven for considering them naïve. Yet it is in their very understated nature that their power lies. Listened to alongside the lyrics of another new song, and I would argue her greatest achievement to date, ‘How to Disappear’, their very carelessness works in tandem with moments of profound and sophisticated poetic vision to imbue a sense of mastery, and of a woman at the heights of her artist powers.
Del Rey has always been at her best when most left alone to simply be herself.
The videos, too, see a change, in their return to the homemade style that made Del Rey so famous with ‘Video Games’ in 2011. Yet, where the video for ‘Video Games’ appears more polished and intricately put together, the video for ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’ sees the same few clips, lasting hardly more than a minute in all, repeated, at varying speeds, across the four minutes of the song. This rough and ready nature to the video is in fact nothing new. The ‘Video Games’ video, which Lana edited herself in 2010, was in fact striking for how complete an artwork it seemed when compared against her other filmic endeavours. In many ways then, the Lana we encounter today is closer than we have ever been to the girl who would film herself on her web camera in ridiculous wigs, with tinsel strung about her, singing along to her songs with a sort of careless abandon un-paralleled in popular music. The shift in aesthetic is a development in Del Rey’s career, certainly, but also very much a return to the understudied nature of her earlier work as Lizzy Grant, prior to her adoption of her stage name.
It is my opinion that Del Rey has always been at her best when most left alone to simply be herself. I maintain that one of the most powerful vocal performances she has ever given was her performance of ‘Million Dollar Man’ at BBC Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend in 2012. In a bouffant red dress and thick black eyeshadow Del Rey gives a raw, often technically flawed performance of a song that on her album Born to Die (2011), although beautiful, seems easily forgotten amidst such company as the songs that made her name, ‘Video Games’, ‘Summertime Sadness’ and ‘Born to Die’. Forgetful is about the last way, however, I would describe this performance of the song. In giving herself up totally to the performance, disregarding accepted notions of how a singer should sing ‘beautifully’, Del Rey gives a performance that is as spell-binding as it is shattering, (my heart seems to swoop and careen every time she shouts, oh so angrily, ‘I’m fine’ into the microphone, again and again, more intensely with each round of the chorus) and that to me articulates completely the extent of her artistic achievement. Like the post-impressionist painters of the early 20th century, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, the beauty of Del Rey’s art lies in how it stretches prevailing notions of aesthetic beauty, presenting the rough-and-ready renderings of her soul as they are, imperfect around the edges, but all the more profound at their compositional centre for it.
At the end of her epic, ten-minute-long music video to her 2012 song ‘Ride’, Del Rey, in a mesmerising piece of spoken-word that surely anticipated the now looming poetry book, teases, ‘are you in touch with your darkest fantasies? Have you created a life for yourself where you can experience them?’ and then declares, triumphantly, ‘I have, I am fucking crazy, but I am free’. With her new understated, ever-powerful aesthetic already bearing the richest of artistic fruits, Norman Fucking Rockwell promises to show us just how ‘crazy’, just how ‘free’, and just how great an artist Del Rey is, and has always been.