The singer-songwriter’s new single ‘hope is a dangerous thing...’ continues her project of subsuming American icons into her own pop mythology
According to the Czech philosopher Tomáš Kulka, there are three conditions for kitsch. Firstly, “Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.” Secondly, “the objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.” And finally, “kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.”
When Lana Del Rey sang “Elvis is my daddy / Marilyn’s my mother / Jesus is my bestest friend” on her debut album Born To Die? That was kitsch. When she announced that her upcoming album was called Norman Fucking Rockwell? That was kitsch. When she sang “I’ve got feathers in my hair / I get down to Beat poetry / And my jazz collection’s rare” on “Brooklyn Baby”? You better believe that was kitsch.
On her latest single, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have but I have it”, she refers to herself as “24/7 Sylvia Plath / Writing in blood on my walls / ’Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad.” While utterly outrageous (Plath spent much of her life plagued by depression, the illness that eventually killed her), it’s a perfect encapsulation of Lana Del Rey’s kitsch project. In keeping with Kulka’s conditions, Del Rey reduces Sylvia Plath to her trademark madness – the most “instantly and effortlessly identifiable” aspect of the late poet. In doing so, Del Rey diminishes Plath’s aesthetic value for the sake of her own melodrama. It’s the irresistible combination of low aesthetic intensity with high emotional intensity; it’s not the real Sylvia Plath, but more like a take on Alvy Singer’s ugly assertion in Annie Hall that Plath’s suicide “was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality”.
This is, if I haven’t already made clear, something that I love about Lana Del Rey. Her discography so far is ornamented with the kind of literary and artistic figures which men so often feel is their duty to explain to women – Woody Allen’s Sylvia Plath, the Beat poets, Jim Morrison – figures so imbued with solemnity that they’ve been crying out to be kitsched. In keeping with that kitsch, Norman Fucking Rockwell takes its name from the American artist, whose religionist depictions of early 20th century America still invite a broad appeal today. “It’s kind of about this guy who is such a genius artist, he thinks he’s the shit and he knows it and he won’t shut up talking about it,” Del Rey told Zane Lowe on Beats 1 prior to the premiere of the album’s second single, “Venice Bitch”. “So often I ended up with these creative types – or not, or whatever – and they just go on and on about themselves and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’”
Why Norman Rockwell specifically is used to encompass these “creative types” is most likely a doggerel choice. When she sings his name in “Venice Bitch”, it’s as obstructively vague and specific as the New York poet Frank O’Hara telling his lover that “having a coke with you is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne.” Del Rey’s artistic referents are stripped of signification to the point of comedy; until they become little more than a fashion accessory.
“Lana Del Rey does to men’s icons what the world does to women’s. She simplifies them, enchants them, and turns them into commodity”
That quite literally became the case on her debut album Born To Die. Its references to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita quickly attracted criticism, but no remark was made, as far as I’m aware, on how hilariously simple these references actually were. “Hey, Lolita, hey,” she sings over and over on the track “Lolita”. On “Off To The Races”, she bastardises the novel’s opening lines, “Love of my life, light of my loins,” adding: “Gimme them gold coins / Gimme them gold coins”. And on “Diet Mountain Dew” she instructs: “Baby, put on heart-shaped sunglasses.” It’s not a direct reference to Nabokov’s original Lolita, but a nod to the way she was stylised in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. That Nabokov has been aestheticised to this point is evidence of Lana Del Rey’s mendacious sense of humour. And as for the college bro’s favourite poet, Walt Whitman? Well, “Whitman’s my daddy,” Lana sings on “Body Electric”. It’s trolling for the precious and precocious at its very finest.
On her sophomore album Ultraviolence, she continues the trend of going through your boyfriend’s bookshelf, and bowdlerising his favourite authors. The word “ultraviolence” is itself a reference to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and my personal favourite song, “Brooklyn Baby”, is an asynchronous mismatch of references to boyish literary coteries and the culture which surrounded them: “I’m churning out novels like Beat poetry on Amphetamines,” she sings.
By addressing her kitsch, I’m not suggesting that Del Rey hasn’t actually read these works, or engaged with them in a meaningful way in her personal life – I can’t know that. But the way she enlists them in her music is mostly topiary. In her sybaritic world, Bruce Springsteen nestles up next to a Bugatti Veyron, and James Dean enjoys a bottle of Black Cristal. In her world, authors and auteurs are no more symbolic, and are taken no more seriously than luxury brands.
Lana Del Rey does to men’s icons, even if unwittingly, what the world does to women’s. She simplifies them, enchants them, and turns them into commodity, the same way Frida Kahlo has been turned into furniture. So, it’s of no coincidence that the consumers who take Lana’s artistic referents very, very seriously (like a Slant reviewer disparagingly arguing that she “can’t manage more than empty appropriation of her influences”) are also the ones who are irritated by her. To them I say: Bukowski is my daddy, Plath is my mommy, Muse is my bestest friend.