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via Instagram (@lanadelrey)

Lana Del Rey: the reluctant, melancholic breakup queen we need in isolation

The Norman Fucking Rockwell musician’s sad, post-breakup voicenotes speak to the desires and fears we’re feeling in lockdown

If this is the end …I want a boyfriend

In a now-deleted Instagram post originally published last week, Lana Del Rey indicated via a screenshot of her iPhone voice memos that she had recorded two audio files. The first was called “Grenadine quarantine 2” – in an allusion, I’m going to take a punt and guess, to being quarantined in the Covid-19 pandemic that has consumed all our lives. The second, a file which was five minutes and 12 seconds long, was titled “If this is the end …I want a boyfriend”. It seemed to be Del Rey’s hint that she had broken up with boyfriend Sean “Sticks” Larkin or, as he was known to Lana fans, Lana’s Cop Boyfriend (Larkin himself subsequently confirmed the breakup in a New York Times profile he most likely got because he… er, was Lana Del Rey’s boyfriend).

The fact that Del Rey was dating a cop was apparently jarring to many of her millennial fans, given that her rise to superstardom had occurred in the 2010s: an era of renewed political resistance to and political critique of police brutality and state authoritarianism.

I’m not sure why people expected Del Rey to select a more politically progressive partner: her entire oeuvre is devoted, after all, to the regressive yearnings for self-effacement and humiliation that are inherent to heterosexual femininity. This was the woman who broke out with the refrain “It’s you, it's you, it’s all for you. Everything I do”, the woman who idly told The Guardian she wished she was dead already, the woman who said she was more interested in humanity’s “intergalactic possibilities” than feminism.

I don’t want Lana Del Rey to date a left wing social worker in corduroy. Where’s the fatalistic breakup album in that? I want Lana in a short-lived relationship of highly public devotion to a reality TV pig who was 12 years her senior. It’s called aesthetics, honey. Lana Del Rey is, after all, a role model for ideals and impulses that we know shouldn’t be role modelled. That’s her delicious appeal.

If this is the end …I want a boyfriend

The first time I heard about “the coronavirus” was in a text from my mother in late January 2020. I didn’t pay it much attention because it came the same night that I realised, just like Lana Del Rey, I was going to break up with my boyfriend. He and I had fallen reciprocally in love, unexpectedly, the previous spring. I soon threw myself headlong into the oxytocin and dopamine induced fantasy of our future together. The fact the relationship was long distance had, initially, only added to my Del Rey-esque sublimation of the inherent conflicts in the pairing.

Long distance relationships are defined by absence and yearning, in which the thought of the person abides with you more than he does. In the end, it started to become clear the futures we envisioned were vastly different and I spent months churned up; there were ever more frequent flashes of realisation that our differences were irreconcilable. When the end came, it was peaceful and devastating. We told each other we loved each other, lay in each other’s arms for a few minutes, then I left him at his home in another city for the last time and we both knew we wouldn’t see each other again.

“I want Lana in a short-lived relationship of highly public devotion to a reality TV pig who was 12 years her senior. It’s called aesthetics, honey”

In the month that followed, I listened to Norman Fucking Rockwell by Lana Del Rey, while crying, every day. People going through heartbreak are addicts going through a withdrawal, and like any addict, my ritual soon became less elaborate and more reductive: all my feelings, it seemed, could be expressed by the album’s final track “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have (But I Have It)”. In it, Del Rey intones “Don't ask if I'm happy, you know that I’m not / But at best, I can say I'm not sad / 'Cause hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have.” The song is, at times, comically overwrought and senseless. Del Rey calls herself a “24/7 Sylvia Plath” and “the most famous woman you know on the iPad”.

Yet, it is this adolescent melodramatic quality which makes it so perfect as a post-breakup anthem: the brokenhearted are all foolish teenagers and every possible way of describing the grief of separation risks cliché or tacky allusion. Lana’s lugubrious grandiosity just about pulls it off.

I’ve always felt Lana del Rey and I had a lot in common. Naturally, this isn’t an original thought: the bulk of her fan base (sad girls and wistful gays) seems to feel the same. Several of the other trans women I know seem to have a particular soft spot for her. Perhaps it’s because we see in her a pop culture icon who has been savagely critiqued as antithetical to feminist ideals, as trans women so often are, and yet doesn’t seem to give a fuck. Maybe it’s just because she, like us, has endured years of being mocked for allegedly having cosmetic surgery. When I saw Lana Del Rey’s Instagram post last week, I realised that she and I (and maybe, a few thousand others out there right now) perhaps share the unique experience of trying to move on with our lives at a time when the very fabric of our society and of our daily life, is shifting.

If this is the end …I want a boyfriend

Breakups make you feel like your life is over and the world is ending. People tell you – and people told me specifically – that this wasn’t true. Yet, bizarrely, in the time where I ought to be moving on: spending time with friends, taking exercise classes, having rebound sex or whatever else, a global pandemic has forced us all indoors, indefinitely. It is very strange to have the irrational belief that you will never be held like that again, never be touched so warmly again, never find love again underscored by the complete shutdown of public life and a ban on human contact with anyone outside your household. Lana’s cryptic voice note expressing the desire for a boyfriend is one I have seen echoed across my social media feeds in the past week.

Usually it is expressed comically, aware of how trivial and self-involved it can sound. “this global epidemic is reminding me how I used to have a boyfriend,” the comedian Rachel Sennott tweeted. “Congratulations to everyone with a boyfriend in this pandemic,” screenwriter Joshua Conkel posted. More tersely, the columnist Rose Dommu simply tweeted “Muting people with boyfriends have a nice life”. Articles reminding people not to text their ex appeared in the mainstream media. 

“Lana’s deleted voicenote is onto something: the impulse to so publicly desire something so, well, basic, has emerged as a reflex in this pandemic as a half-confession of a very basic fear”

Lana’s deleted voicenote is onto something: the impulse to so publicly desire something so, well, basic (boyfriends are, after all, often mediocre commodities) has emerged as a reflex in this pandemic as a half-confession of a very basic fear. People are lonely and scared and cut off, and capitalism is crumbling. In our present social relations, the boyfriend is the most reductive vessel of fulfilment of the human need for closeness, intimacy, sex and love. But who knows when I’ll next go on a fucking date? Those of us without the obvious figure of the boyfriend to provide all this perhaps didn’t need to confront the fact we were living in a society that elevated one route to mutual care and affection above all others until that society changed dramatically. The basic girl from work with her Insta-boyfriend turns out to have won the game after all. Perhaps, just as people are stockpiling dried pasta we should have stored up someone to love us while locked down in our homes?

Of course, this too, is just a fantasy: the reality is quarantine will intensify all the problems many people in relationships already had with each other. Hope is a dangerous thing: many who imagine having a boyfriend in the crisis would be disappointed with a real one. But I still want to hear the Lana track one day and remember how me and the little Venice bitch were going through it together, healing our hearts side by side in the grenadine quarantine.