Why is it that Lana Del Rey is only taken seriously when she’s smiling?
Sometimes I think there must be a parallel universe in which Lana Del Rey is a true superstar. Of course, Del Rey is a household name still not at the peak of her fame, but for some reason she has not received the universal acclaim I would have thought she deserves. Who remembers Honeymoon, or even Ultraviolence? Indeed. I always feel that, ever since Pitchfork awarded Born to Die a 5.5 (in their review of the new album they gave the pathetic excuse that the Paradise reissue was much better), being a fan of Lana Del Rey is something to be secretly ashamed of. Maybe she’s too indie for the mainstream and too popular for the geeks. But that hasn’t stopped Beyoncé – and see how blasphemous that comparison sounds?
In any case, when I hear ‘Love’ for the first time it hits me with (almost) the same shattering impact as ‘Video Games’ six years ago. So much I don’t even listen all the way to the end and quickly close the tab, so when I put on Lust For Life I am again surprised by the way Lana’s voice sounds so much in control. This has always been hard to describe; it’s the paradox central to her music, the singular aspect that makes it interesting. When Del Rey’s singing, it doesn’t sound like she is exerting herself, but neither does it sound entirely effortless. When Del Rey’s singing, she sounds like someone at the same time obsessive and lethargic. She’s slow, because she’s bored and because she’s tightly pacing herself and because she doesn’t care, but she still manages to make it sound like it’s the orchestra catching up with her, like a bridespair being followed by their bridesmaids and the organ. It’s a bit like this: a voice, our voice, is something we cannot escape – it is a limit not in the sense of a limitation, but in the sense of an absolute border, there simply is nothing outside of it – and thus, by a twisted kind of logic, being in control over your voice does not give you more freedom, it gives you less.
Presented with such a capacity for spell-binding song, I’ve wondered slightly why Lana Del Rey, more than any other artist, is seen in the press as an object or appearance to be analysed and conceptualised. The same question – is or is she not ‘authentic’? – has been asked with the release of every album. To me, in 2017 the issue feels distinctly irrelevant. Are we still talking about this? The two standard positions are that either Lana is naïve, she does mean what she says (and for this, some have added, she should be villified), or Del Rey is ironic, she does not mean what she says (and then what does she mean?). In my eyes, she has been, from ‘Video Games’ onwards, journalistic. Del Rey’s music reflected her reality, and this put her outside the immediate sphere of judgment. This is where the vocal detachment I mentioned fit in so well: it was through her voice that we could hear the way she was at the same time acutely self-aware and hopelessly trapped, both in love and in hate with a multi-faceted ideal. What’s funny (funny in the way hypocrits are funny) is that only now, after the release of Lana Del Rey’s fourth album, Lust For Life, does it seem like she’s being taken entirely seriously. Suddenly, she’s “woken up” and addressing politics – as if she never had. Lana Del Rey is smiling on the front cover of her new album, and for the first time she is treated at least partly as a person with valid opinions and experiences.
But anyone who was listening to the music already knew she had a story to tell. Hence my call to return to the songs, even though the interpreting and the politics is important. You can do that, but first, listen to the way Del Rey wonderfully pronounces “particular” on ‘Love’. First, listen to the duet ‘Lust For Life’, and how Del Rey and The Weeknd swap lines in an eternal recurrence of creation, an asexual musical mating dance. It’s a simple trick, creating an expectation and then surprising you by breaking it. So, too, on ‘God Bless America – And All the Beautiful Women In it’, the best song on Lust For Life. The slowness, the restraint, that vocal detachment and control again, all conspire to produce a chorus which is stately and yet hardly patriotic. But what’s most surprising of all is Del Rey breaking her own rule-pattern and singing “And all the beautiful people in it” in the last chorus, and by this meaning that women are people too. Even when they don’t beautifully smile.
On the very last track, Lana Del Rey sings “This is my commitment / My modern manifesto”. Much has been made of that; it certainly sounds like a real statement. And maybe she is indeed now demanding to be taken seriously, being self-aware in a different way, namely by transcending the limits of her self-imposed self-control. But we should remember that a manifesto is not just a set of ideas; it is a work of art. It can be dissected and inspected, but that’s not enough: it has to be heard. So listen. Listen to Lana Del Rey.
-- Caspar Jacobs, August 23, 2017