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. The affect is vintage, artistic even – and one must admit, there is a dream-like quality to the vocals combined with strings, a seamless and simple song earnestly displayed alongside seagulls and American flags. And yet for something so vintage, the reference to video games is arresting – as if there might be some comment being made about our culture through this stylized combination of old and new. As an expirimental musician and singer-songwriter, acclaimed a “self-styled gansta 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. Unfortunately, as I can’t help but speculate after examining her album “Born to Die,” Lana Del Rey is not the voice of a generation, nor does she have anything progressive to say. She’s not a secret genius nor is she doing anything ironic. She’s just really stuck in the stone age 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. On the bright side, she looked great! On the low, it is an understatement to say that her performance was disappointing, in fact, 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. The girl’s stage presence was lacking, which I won’t fault her for – 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 lyric 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. Overall, it is clear that Lana is evoking 1950’s and 60’s Americana – unfortunately, her romantic sensibilities are 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 a woman with no agency, a woman who cannot exist without the man she loves, because, as the song goes: “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you.” Lana somehow has managed to objectify herself and call it “art.” Even her music videos verge on pornographic – as we can see from this still from “Blue Jeans.”
Following is a list of the more problematic 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 Off to the Races: Light of his life, fire of his loins/Keep me forever, tell me you own me.
- 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
- From National Anthem: Money is the anthem,/God, you’re so handsome./Money is the anthem,/Of success
- 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.
There are more sexual politics to Lana Del Rey than these lyrics make clear. Critics have complained that Lana’s image is a farce – in fact, her true name is Elizabeth Grant, daughter of wealthy investor Rob Grant, and 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 is objectifying her perhaps as much or more than she is herself. As a woman artist, she is subjected to this mandatory scrutiny of image, questioning of appearance and motivation to which none are immune.
As manufactured as her lips do look, it is not Lana’s image I take issue with. The fact 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 gives 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. It’s just too bad she doesn’t have much to say.
The issue is, Lana and her music are not on par with expectations, yet there remains potential in the work she does that I feel is wasted. 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. Unfortunately, the brilliance we see in her video and instrumental editing is all on the surface; the progressive and interesting musical styling mean nothing without lyrical content 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 the important cultural analysis of our nation, but a reflection of one girl and her slightly pathetic and vacant love songs. I regret that heartbreak has not made Lana a stronger role model in this day and age– I certainly don’t aspire to wait a million years in a depression waiting for someone to love me. Maybe the problem is that we expect too much of her. I just think she needs a wake-up call before she strands her listeners in the 1960’s forever, within her hopelessly anti-feminist perspective on love and romance.
On the bright side, there are tigers in one of her music videos.