The Sexual Politics of Lana Del Rey

The Sexual Politics of Lana Del Rey, Queen of Video Games

“I hear that you like the bad girls honey, is that true?
It’s better than I ever even knew, they say that the world was built for two
Only worth living if somebody is loving you. Baby now you do.”
 — Video Games, Lana Del Rey

In her music video for her single “Video Games,” Lana Del Rey drawls these lyrics vacantly over clips of skateboarders, spinning girls, and palm trees that appear to have been run through an Instagram filter. There is an old-school, dream-like quality to the vocals combined with strings that evoke a seamless and simple musicality earnestly displayed alongside visuals of seagulls and American flags.

And yet for something so vintage, the reference to video games is arresting – a stylized combination of old and new.  As an expirimental musician and singer-songwriter, acclaimed as a “self-styled gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” what Lana is doing has the potential to be great – or would, if she gave a damn about anything but diet mountain dew, heartbreak, and glamour.

But after closely listening to her album Born to Die, it is readily apparent that Lana Del Rey is not the voice of a generation, nor does she have anything progressive to say. There is little evidence of secret genius or irony in her lyrics. In fact, she seems a bit “stuck in the stone age,” for lack of a better term, when it comes to feminism.

I was first introduced to this indie-sensation through the same song (Video Games), but under different circumstances. Lana was chosen as musical guest on Saturday Night Live – a bold choice, seeing as she had yet to release her album “Born To Die” and was virtually an unknown in the US.

Though she looked lovely, the performance garnered a fair amount of backlash post-show, during which Lana floated uncomfortably under spotlights, her voice shifting awkwardly from highs to lows. Her stage presence may have been lacking, but I certainly would do worse in her shoes and vocal chords. Yet the words being warbled stood out as less forgivable – for example, “you fit me better than my favorite sweater,” a purely nauseating phrase unworthy of cliché.

This said, the sweater line is really just the tip of the iceberg in the ocean of Lana’s lyrical tragedy. “Born To Die” is chock full of love songs; romance, heartbreak, and desperation dominate the lyrical content with several fresh and modern references cropping up now and then.

It is clear that Lana is evoking 1950s and 60s Americana, but her romantic sensibilities may be stuck there as well. As noted by Pitchfork, Lana never figures herself as more complex than an  “ice-cream-cone-licking object of male desire.” The “protagonist” woman of Lana’s music is one with little agency who cannot exist without the man she loves. Lana somehow has managed to objectify herself and have it perceived as art, an oddly impressive yet simultaneously depressing accomplishment.

Following is a list of the more problematic and/or teeth-grindingly cliche lyrics in Lana’s Album:

  • From Born To Die: Come and take a walk on the wild side/ Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain /You like your girls insane
  • From Blue Jeans: I will love you till the end of time /I would wait a million years /Promise you’ll remember that you’re mine /Baby can you see through the tears?
  • From Video Games: I’m in his favorite sun dress /Watching me get undressed /Take that body downtown /I say, “You the bestest.”/ Lean in for a big kiss /Put his favorite perfume on /Go play a video game

(It would go over less well if I tried to dress up (or undress for) my boyfriend and his response was to sniff my perfume for a second, then go play video games. He may be the “bestest” at WoW, but don’t expect me to swoon about his boyfriend skills. If this is heaven on earth for Lana, I’d hate to know her hell.) 

  • And Finally, from This is What Makes Us Girls: This is what makes us girls /We all look for heaven and we put our love first /Somethin’ that we’d die for, it’s our curse.

(Here I’ve been thinking what makes girls are breasts, vaginas and estrogen, and not putting pleasing men above simply being alive.) 

Lyrics aside, there are more sexual politics to Lana Del Rey than her album makes clear. Critics have complained that Lana’s image is a farce — her true name is Elizabeth Grant, daughter of wealthy investor Rob Grant. There have been speculations about plastic surgery, all of which Lana have denied:   “I’m sorry, but I was living in a trailer park for a few years. I didn’t even have enough money to buy Cocoa Puffs,” she claims in an interview. “It’s not like I crawled from under the bridge and got surgery.”

As strange as it seems that Lana lived in a trailer park at all (by choice or necessity), this harsh scrutiny on her image is another aspect of sexual politics: the media objectifying her perhaps as much or more than she’s done to herself. As a female artist, she is subjected to this mandatory scrutiny of image, a questioning of appearance and motivation to which none are immune.

It is not Lana’s looks or background I take issue with. That female celebrities are subjected to sexually based criticism where their male counterparts are largely let off the hook is a problem of its own. Lana’s place within this conversation could in theory give her a chance to prove herself as a strong woman capable of withstanding the image backlash and finding a voice worthy of 2012. But Lana doesn’t care about that — she just wants to sing. That is absolutely her prerogative, but I’d be a more willing fan if she had something to say. 

Though Lana’s first album, to me, was disappointing lyrically, there remains potential in the work she does that could show future promise. Her vintage looks and eclectic influences, from jazz to hip-hop, make her a force in indie-pop that has brought her well-deserved attention and recognition. But the brilliance we see in her videos and instrumental editing is mostly on the surface: progressive and interesting musical stylings mean very little without the words and messages to match. 

Taking into consideration that Lana’s image is not a game (video or otherwise) and neither is her music, we are left not with a important cultural analysis of society, as some may readily assume from the hype, but a reflection of one girl and her slightly pathetic love songs. 

On the bright side, there are tigers in one of her music videos.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. itsrkd says:

    I’m not usually into music reviews, but this was pretty good. You make an interesting point about Lana not being a role model for young women. Is it automatically her job to be a role model the second she steps into the spotlight or can artists say “hey, I don’t wanna be a role model. Let me just make the music I want to make?”

  2. jenmarkert says:

    You definitely have a point, Arkadiy. I don’t think it is as simple as shirking the position of role-model and just doing what you want, though I wish it was. Whether they like it or not, anyone assuming celebrity status sets an example because of the attention they get – and because her music isn’t “bad” the lyrics do get exposure. I don’t blame her at all for being herself in her music, but I am disappointed in the very weak self she is projecting.

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