Mimicking Me Is A Fucking Bore
What makes Lana Del Rey more unbelievable than any of us?

Insincerity hasn’t disqualified any other major label artist’s output from being enjoyed-as-spectacle the way it’s allowed critics to take down Lana Del Rey. We understand her as an industrial misfire, caught somewhere between obvious major pop and authentic indie. Our affective distance from her music grows as we are forced to reckon with ourselves as listeners who would listen to LDR the product, the replicant. We don’t need to know exactly what we’re looking for as pop consumers or why her brand of artifice feels so artificial. Because we (her detractors, her ignorers) know who she is; we know how to read her.

On Ultraviolence, she’s working with familiar signs (see this Index for many of them), which are either a default commercial move, the symptom of a limited imagination, and/or beginning to feel vital to her project: a set of artificial-sounding relations and images that describe her stuckness in a weird role in a weird world. Bibles, guns, starlets, poison, cocaine, a red dress, a cult leader, boyfriends, other women’s boyfriends, etc. These outlines of a lovesick “sad girl/bad girl” we’re given are vague and contradictory, anachronistic, often pathetic. They implicate us in a system out of the ordinary, even as its every part is familiar. The static stock images of lost love fail to add up to anything that makes any sense, except as the words of Lana Del Rey.

These songs all together seem to tell the story of someone whose reinventions provide small comforts and not lasting changes, who doesn’t feel empowered to claim Beyoncé or Lorde-styled neoliberal feminist rhetoric, who is sad and lonely. The more we learn — her recent headline-making depression, her disinterest in feminism — the more fractured and strange our picture of Lana Del Rey becomes. She is a “Brooklyn Baby” and then down on the “West Coast” in back-to-back songs here.

There are pop stars whose stories are fake and easy to enjoy ironically or superficially like candy, the stuff we can just digest. We have little to lose by loving them, because their artificiality has nothing to do with us. Lana Del Rey implicates the listener in the impossibility of her authenticity and the conviction with which she holds onto abandoned Americana. We’d have to be out of touch for her out-of-touchness to resonate. We have guards in place to protect us from vapid pop stars who subscribe to heterosexist imagery and imperialistic consumer capitalism, but little patience for a pop star whose conceptual and sentimental fascination lies with an imaginary middle-class America that existed as a dream of the 50s, 60s (70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s…).

On its face, LDR’s politics might be broken, but her lyrics and persona have the potential to embrace a kind of Lynchian feminism, one that explores the power behind desiring something hurtful by exploiting images of women in trouble. But even that representation is problematic (especially on a massively mediated scale like radio music), because its meaningful exploitation will itself be exploited and then (deliberately) misread as sexy, backwards, proper, fake. So, there’s no real room for subversion, and it all becomes about Lana Del Rey’s personal fucked-upness, which still feels unreal. Her lyrical commitment to being dominated emotionally by the men in her life and swept up in red dresses is not that out of step with most of her contemporaries, but her aesthetic drags her into the past, away from progress narratives or play or irony or defense. We don’t know if the detachment is hers or ours, from reality or sincerity. She sings from a Twilight Zone of political irresponsibility, in which the singer’s self-obsession forces our gaze toward the possibility of our complicity in this broken present we pretend to know we can’t escape. And still, somehow, Ultraviolence doesn’t feel like a retreat or forgery.

Lana Del Rey implicates the listener in the impossibility of her authenticity and the conviction with which she holds onto abandoned Americana. We’d have to be out of touch for her out-of-touchness to resonate.

Opener “Cruel World” is all psychy guitars and wailing reverb’d vocals that trail off into nothing, a spacey torch (always) song that insists her lover is crazy for her. There’s an air of self-awareness about the debilitating role of a performer/uncanny valley doll: “Put my little red party dress on/ Everybody knows that I’m the best, I’m crazy” becomes “I’m a mess, I’m crazy” by the end of the song. Later, on “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” she sings the revealing lines, “Mimicking me is a fucking bore/ To me,”. And then comes “But babe,” as a disclaimer or reconsideration re: the fucking bore, before she launches into a soft-focus pre-chorus that’s interchangeable with half the lyrics on the album: “Lay me down tonight in my diamonds and pearls/ Tell me songs at night about your favorite girl.”

So, this is the mythology she revels in. For all the talk of her opportunistic artifice, there’s not much here to draw a bigger commercial audience or to readapt LDR for a pop landscape that doesn’t, say, clamor for a star as fucking brooding and Gatsbyphilic as she plays. It’s a bad act or maybe not an act at all, but either way, we should be listening intently because Ultraviolence finally finds the right sound to make Lana Del Rey’s everlasting sadness feel significant by the end of its 50 minutes.

Gone is Born To Die’s hip-hop-ish radio update to LDR’s bittersweet symphony strings and sighs, the vague edge of newness that pined for relevance via genre mashups. Under the direction of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the production on Ultraviolence is suitably old-fashioned, irrelevant. He gives LDR’s vocals plenty of breathing room and puts just enough dusty delay and reverb on the rock & roll arrangements. As removed from the “real world” as LDR’s lyrics feel, there’s a certain correctness that comes with sticking to a bygone genre (featuring an overabundance of guitar solos, a lot of synth strings, and just enough Mellotron).

Most of the songs come with pop hooks, memorable bridges, bells, whistles, and impressive vocals from LDR. The way “West Coast” slips into slo-mo for the chorus makes it a boring single, but it clicks as a show-stopping mid-album track that throws the momentum from bright standout “Brooklyn Baby” into clumsy confusion, a series of awkward restarts with a menacing barely-there synth that creeps up behind the verses. There’s real bite to her delivery and the bluesy, surfy Badalamenti guitar. Elsewhere, we get deadpan ambition (“Money Power Glory”), sneering resentment (“Fucked My Way Up To The Top”), and genuine heartache ([every song]).

LDR contains multitudes, and they’re all fading. It makes sense, then, that the album eventually arrives at an old story of a woman perpetually in trouble — trouble that she makes and remakes “for herself” as the other woman. Her cover of the Nina Simone-sung, Jessie Mae Robinson-penned “The Other Woman” has the feeling of an epilogue, with a tone that filters the album after the fact. LDR sings the tune drowsily and a little faded, but like she’s wishing on a star, too. She knows it’s the song she wants to leave us with, and it’s not even hers. To Lizzy Grant, to Nina Simone, to Lorde, the next Lorde, the Lorde after that, and to us, Lana Del Rey comes out as the other woman: made-up and manicured, covered with enchanting perfume, waiting, temporary, unreal. She’s resigned to a truth that feels inevitable, even upon her already. Loneliness. When she sings, “And as the years go by, the other woman/ Will spend her life alone,” she sings her heart out like you wouldn’t believe. She stretches out the final “alone” as if peace could come with it, and maybe then the other woman within the other-woman-skin of LDR could make sense on her own some day.

Is Lana Del Rey able to have feelings this embarrassing and overwrought and still mean them and have them meant? For those feelings to be so strangely articulated, on an album that’s too stuck in its ways to be a good fit anywhere, is the sort of topsy-turvy uncanny realness (we were born) to die for, or at least to take a second look into, and to maybe see the flicker of our own fake/real selves in the way we might linger on the right selfie: politically bankrupt, disarmingly genuine, captivating and alienating in its perfect composition. What we’re looking for isn’t there until we take a long look, where we find in the subject’s blanked-out fakeness the reassurance that either we are real and the subject is not, that we have the power to be as real in as many ways as the subject does, or that we are powerless — even in this moment as witness — not to be fake or a part of the spectacle.

[Photo: Jaguar MENA]

  

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