Lana Del Rey Lives In America's Messy Subconscious Over a decade, the Los Angeles-based singer has built a career — one that peaks on her new album — and a musical identity on the idea that greatness doesn't have to be emotionally tidy.
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Lana Del Rey Lives In America's Messy Subconscious

On her new album, Lana Del Rey (shown here in 2018) is at her most instantly compelling, fully committed to the messy alignments upon which her art is built. Darren Gerrish/BFC/Getty Images hide caption

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Darren Gerrish/BFC/Getty Images

On her new album, Lana Del Rey (shown here in 2018) is at her most instantly compelling, fully committed to the messy alignments upon which her art is built.

Darren Gerrish/BFC/Getty Images

The trash on the Venice boardwalk sparkles like Wet n Wild lip gloss. This is what people forget about Los Angeles beaches: They're part of the city, inundated with the city's grit. Half-melted Icees in Styrofoam cups, one flip-flop, taco foil, condoms, a dead vape pen. Needles. But also: a Swarovski crystal earring. A pinwheel unmoored from its handle. A streak of gooey glitter. Coins of many lands. A few miles up the Pacific Coast Highway, away from the skateboarders and homeless people, WASPs sun themselves at country clubs as employees sweep the sands. But their brooms can't clear the ocean.

"I'm mostly at the beach!" Lana Del Rey exclaimed in a recent interview, explaining her cultivated disconnect from the Hollywood pop machine. Reading this, I wonder where she goes and what she does after she unfolds her towel and sets up her umbrella. Does she drive past Malibu to El Matador, where the water is the cleanest but the one Porta-Potty often overflows? Down to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, near the aquarium where schoolkids swarm? In her songs she dwells on Venice and Long Beach, two places where the red signs the city uses to warn of excess sewage in the water show up the most. I think she goes to the beach but she spends her time looking at that filthy, shiny sand.

Lana Del Rey is up to her elbows in water in the video for "F*** It I Love You," one of the singles that built excitement for Norman F****** Rockwell! (referred to hereafter as NFR!), her fifth album and the one that has cemented her status as a serious artist among critics who may or may not have thought her previous work problematic, or at very least, incomplete. In several shots, she holds onto a surfboard. Her hair is in in Dutch braids, similar to the styles cholas wore in the 1990s. See, there's the slippage, the step away from an authentic or even consistent narrative: Few Latinas from East L.A. would have made it the 15 miles west to the beach 20 years ago, or even at the height of the surfing craze in the 1960s, when as a kid the writer Jack Lopez almost got beaten up by a tough guy for walking down Western Avenue in board shorts, clutching a copy of Surfer magazine. "Cholo meets surfer," he wrote in his memoir. "Not a good thing." But Lopez was insistent in violating the boundaries of the acceptable; that wrongness, he wrote years later, endangered him but also helped him get free.

Music videos juxtapose disconnected images to induce a kind of dream state in the viewer: to approximate the effect of music itself. There's a subtle tension within many popular songs, however, between the unsettling effect of juxtaposing disparate elements — say, English folk melodies and Delta blues (that's Led Zeppelin) or Caribbean inflections and Nordic electronic beats (many Rihanna singles) — and the comfort of a unified narrative, the songwriter's art. The rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1960s reinforced the value of narrative pull and shored up other hierarchies: rock over disco, sitting and listening over dancing, lyrics over sound. (Exhibit A: The Poetry of Rock.) Hip-hop, a revolution in fragments, challenged this order, yet it still exerts itself in most discussions of what makes great songs.

For most of her career, Lana Del Rey has not participated in this discourse. Instead, she has made slippage the basis of her approach. It took her time to master this practice, and she's gone to extremes: Over the course of five albums, she's often repeated herself, mixed signals and followed her impulses over the edge of good taste. Critics have doubted her motives. But she has earned a following among listeners who value unmonitored reveries.

On NFR! Del Rey is at her most instantly compelling, a pro asserting her future spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as her closest peer and rival Stefani Germanotta did with her turn in A Star is Born. Words like "classic" and "greatest" adhere to her now; she writes songs that use them unironically. The possibly fictional shade whose fluttery alto flickered and beckoned on YouTube nearly a decade ago is a woman now — "a modern day woman with a weak constitution," she intones on the album's billowing final track, "hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it." That's one of several moments in which Del Rey seems to open herself up; another is the melancholy "Mariners Apartment Complex," four and a half minutes of gospel-inflected transcendence in which her pastiche is so perfectly constructed that it becomes flesh, an utterly believable plea by a weary but steadfast soul to the lover whose tether she refuses to loose. It's a story about which most people can feel something.

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Yet the sensitivity and compassion Del Rey expresses in these songs really resonates not in its straightforwardness, but because of all the pings it sets off in the listener's brain, each one hitting like a nearly-erased memory. In "Mariners," she deflects the Elton John comparison its piano part demands ("I ain't your candle in the wind"), only to build to a chorus that seemingly echoes the Oscar-winning theme from a classic 1970s disaster movie (Maureen McGovern's magisterial "The Morning After") and, in its warm but uncanny multi-tracked vocal hook, the synth-kissed love songs that brought Leonard Cohen back from obscurity in the 1980s. At least that's what one fan, namely me, hears. That's the gist of Lana Del Rey, and still her superpower as she floats toward more readable songcraft: Whether her music makes cultural connections that are obvious or obscure, they always feel deeply personal, individuated, like mementos.

In her early days, what she claimed — bouffanted femme-fatalism weirdly aligned with a tattered Fourth-of-July style patriotic nostalgia, Bettie Page reborn as an Instagram star — felt undeveloped and, because of that, cynical. Intimations that she'd had help in inventing herself clouded her status. But as she built her repertoire, Del Rey proved fully committed to the messy alignments of her art, and better able to articulate how they formed the stories by which she, or the characters she claimed as her own, lived. She would be a problem — a loyalist to outdated ideals like mad love and bad-boy machismo, a constant gardener of the weediest patches of the contemporary psyche. On NFR! she remains that artist, even as she asks herself if she might, with insight, better compartmentalize her impulses.

Lana Del Rey is all about wrong combinations: sunset dreams and dirty water, Mexican-American braids and a wetsuit, hip-hop flow and torch song feeling, conventional feminine submissiveness and post-feminist self-possession. Cognitive dissonance is the essence of her art, the way she builds her dream logic. Satin slips, Freudian slips: Throughout her tenure as a pop star, Lana has pursued revelations about how desire disassembles and recombines elements of a woman's personality. "Heaven is a place on earth with you," she whispered in her first hit, 2011's "Video Games." She sang it just the way you do a line from a song that pops into your head unbidden, wondering if you're quoting your favorite current pop star or the one your mom loved in the '80s or something some guy said back in the '60s to a girl trying to be his perfect date. The sentiment is soaked in banality, but also in the perfume of all those other girls. "Tell me all the things you want to do," Lana continues. "I hear that you like the bad girls, honey, is that true?" And so a dream of romantic fulfillment slipped into self-negation, the way it has since time immemorial in the scripts that young women learn from those songs and from movies, their moms, other girls and the boys who benefit. The tone of her voice as she uttered these words was forever after labeled "sad," but was really something different. My mom would have called it "needy"; today, more common descriptions are "disempowered," "self-sabotaging," "unwoke." "Women hated me," Del Rey told writer Alex Frank in 2017. "I know why. It's because there were things I was saying that either they just couldn't connect to or were maybe worried that, if they were in the same situation, it would put them in a vulnerable place."

But we know this. Over the course of her five albums, as she has learned to be a more specific writer and a more adventurous vocalist and to make room in her echo-saturated arrangements for her words to resonate, Del Rey has continued to stand firmly against the ideal of self-empowerment. Instead, she has explored what happens when women call themselves children; when they stumble in high heels; when they put the love of a man before all. Mostly, critics have perceived this as an anti-feminist stance. Lindsay Zoladz sympathetically recontextualized it in a cogent 2017 essay, seeing Del Rey's embodiment of the weak woman as an antidote to "empowerment as the default aspiration of the pop star" – the tendency of chart toppers from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift to configure their careers as one long therapeutic, vaguely political pep talk. Del Rey herself simply said she found feminism uninteresting. She's modified that stance somewhat in the aftermath of the #metoo movement, citing Trump's infamous "grab 'em" remark as a sign that sexuality has been weaponized beyond even her tolerance levels. Yet even on NFR!, an album some writers have extolled as a (circuitous) form of protest, Del Rey remains much more invested in describing how people — mostly women — fall apart, how they take risks or otherwise work against their own best interests in the pursuit of pleasure, intimacy and what she still guilelessly calls "love."

To many of its champions, NFR! is Del Rey's revenge against those who would misinterpret her, a fully realized conventional singer-songwriter album offering a critique of 21st-century decadence rather than another chance to wallow in it, an "obituary for America" that still extends some hope that, with the proper perspective, its best qualities – its beauty, its small-d democratic impulses – can be redeemed. The album certainly boasts Del Rey's most artfully constructed narratives, extending the arc of apparent self-realization also evident in widely framed narratives that stood out on her previous album, Lust For Life. In songs like "Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind," in which she made a cosmic quilt of her experience watching her artistic soulmate Father John Misty perform for fourth-generation flower children at a festival built on the countercultural helium fumes of electronic dance music, Del Rey made a sonic and emotional argument for collapsing the boundaries that uphold authenticity as a cultural value. Referencing a Led Zeppelin lyric in an easy-listening arrangement, she shared her view of utopia: a place in which parents and children and their children's children dissolve into each other under the sway of art. Music's power to unite is an old fashioned idea, romantic, even mystical — and conservative, in that it argues for art as a conduit for personal transformation rather than an identity marker that fuels political or cultural debate. At first considered a nihilist, Lana Del Rey became a champion of the meaningful, even as she maintained her stance that meaning is best communicated through strange juxtapositions.

With NFR!, Del Rey further invests in meaningfulness. She seems to have become more interesting in standing alongside (or towering over) her peers; in league with producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff, she makes space for comparisons to Lorde and the aforementioned Gaga and even Taylor Swift. The album's dominant story line describes an affair with a fellow artist in which the power roles never solidify, a situation Del Rey depicts as unsustainable but clarifying. Addressing this bohemian deadbeat, she upends the gender roles she's so often fetishized, trading in her kitten heels for kicks that allow her to keep walking. She cusses at her "man child," demanding that he grow up; she describes herself as the more active breadwinner ("you write, I tour, we make it work"). At one point, in a sonic nod to Leonard Cohen, she simply announces, "I'm your man."

These are the most cleanly satisfying moments of the album, evoking what we expect from singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Tori Amos, both of whom are clear inspirations in Del Rey's pursuit of legible expressiveness. She and Antonoff don't try to imitate Mitchell's tricky musical fusions, but they do invoke the finely honed confidentiality of Amos' music, and similar moods cultivated by other women in the 1990s, when Mitchell served as a beacon lighting many different approaches to the singer-songwriter role. (Fiona Apple is another obvious source of inspiration.) These artists made spaces where women could share complicated thoughts and otherwise unspoken feelings, using tools traditionally associated with the feminine: piano, lyric poetry, a voice cultivated by singing hymns and lullabies. The most straightforward songs on NFR! have that morning-light quality: a woman sitting at a keyboard, singing what she needs to say.

But as winning as those moments are, they aren't what makes Lana Del Rey an interesting artist. The power of NFR! emanates from another source: her compulsion to collapse logic, to violate boundaries musically, through imagery and within her storytelling. This is not only about Del Rey's persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done; her supposed confessions would be nothing more than reality-show fodder if not for the way she and her collaborators construct them. On their own, taken song by song, her lyrics – even in the full flower NFR! represents – often read as unremarkable and derivative. What hooks the listener is the way she enacts her dramas just as the mind replays formative memories, especially painful ones. She repeats herself. She veers into cliché. Her touchstones fall into each other across time. Many people have called NFR! a 1970s throwback, but its songs barely dip into that era's experimental sounds, instead touching down in the baroque-pop 1960s, the cyborg 1980s and the G-Funk 1990s without distinguishing between its reference points. And its lyrics, as always with Del Rey, similarly recombine references, not to make them fresh, exactly — no shout-out to Sylvia Plath can feel new, not since about 1981 – but to put them in our faces as old friends, old adversaries.

Take "Cinnamon Girl," one of the new album's deep cuts. The title's a mildly clever cop from a Neil Young classic, and the first line, "cinnamon in my teeth from your kiss," takes you somewhere. But then? There's a line about different colored pills, alluding to her sweetheart's addiction, and one about her frustration becoming like fire. B-plus poetics. There's some moaning about how no one has "held me without hurting me," and half-formed thoughts about words she cannot speak. Compare this vague non-story to four lines randomly pulled from Mitchell's 1972 song about her then-lover James Taylor's heroin habit, "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," written when she was five years younger than Del Rey is now: Concrete concentration camp / Bashing in veins for peace / Cold blue steel and sweet fire / Fall into Lady Release.

Mitchell's lyric reads as poetic and incisive. Next to it, Del Rey's feels uncooked. Musically, "Cold Blue Steel" also strikes the listener as much more sophisticated, with its subtle arrangement and a melody that sinuously moves from folk to jazz.

Yet let Del Rey's song sink in, and it offers its own revelations — sensual and emotional, like Mitchell's, but less clearly mediated. The simplicity and directness of "Cinnamon Girl" hits as its leaden rhythm seems to grow more elastic. A syn-drum keeps the narcotized time as a string section puddles around it. Del Rey moans her lyrics in a small voice, almost pleading but also self-soothing. Sometimes she makes a trilling leap that sounds like the squiggle of one of the vintage synths Antonoff employs — a sign of her indebtedness to West Coast hip-hop, whose smudged arrangements and stoned cadences she often assimilates. Sometimes all the song's effects fall away, only to push forward again; there doesn't seem to be much order to the dynamics. The whole effect is slippery, unattached to the process of telling a story. The song feels more like you're in a story, in someone's head at a particularly unsure moment. A great songwriter, as we tend to understand that role, would offer a more coherent view. But for Del Rey, the mash-up of affects and references is the point. It is emotion's actuality.

The principles that direct Del Rey's artistic practice are embedded within a particular cultural lineage — though perhaps it's more accurate to call it a tendency. We can think of this inheritance as one aspect of the American Dream, though not in the usual sense of that phrase. It's more like America's dream life, its psychic swamp, its nocturnal emissions. The 20th century saw the development of a scientific language designed to shed light on this realm, one that is unique to each person but also shared, culturally shaped and individually rearranged. Artists responded, differently every decade, forming a timeline that connects European Surrealism to American horror and noir, free-associative jazz improvisation to the transgressions of post-punk. Lana Del Rey took this lineage to heart as a teen named Lizzy Grant and created a character through which she could explore it. At first, she followed her impulses and landed on clichés: She was a bad, bad, girl, "born to die." But even then, there was power in her commitment. Over time she has developed the ability to step back from her compulsions, and though she still finds power in them — NFR!, like all of her albums, remains a repository of masochistic out-breaths and bad-girl flexes — she has become curious about how this language formed and why it speaks to her.

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As virtually everyone who's commented on her work has noted, Del Rey accesses the twin realms of Surrealism and the psychoanalytic most often through their cinematic manifestations, particularly film noir and its latter-day revival, especially within the work of David Lynch. To adopt a noir style is not original, but Del Rey has outdone her rivals in this arena by going deeper into its essence — that phenomenon of slippage that also defines her music. Noir is Surrealism unleashed in the city, amidst its noise and grime and electric-lamp shadows. Like that art movement, it privileges psychic interiority over other aspects of experience. In a film like Edward G. Ulmer's 1945 noir Detour, in which a man kills a woman because she is blackmailing him, but also because he can no longer stand to hear the sound of her voice, the crisis leading up to the murder is depicted as a visceral assault on his senses, the pressure of his situation magnifying everything and eventually leading to disaster. That's just one example. The most powerful scenes in Lynch's films often build to a similar level of disorientation, with characters morphing into monsters for a moment, or being absorbed into rips in the time-space continuum. These baffling scenes affect the viewer because they express the ways stress and a trauma can reconstitute a person's internal life.

It's easy to read the Del Rey's map of the noir landscape, but just as enlightening to consider how her musical precedents set the stage for the work she's doing. West Coast rappers and producers have tread similar ground for decades: A playlist of songs that lay deeply embedded within the Lana Del Rey aesthetic would include Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill A Man," with its insights into the mood of murder, and Warren G's "Regulate," a drifter's tale as redolent of menace and magic as any of Lynch's scenes. Those sources linger like friendly ghosts on NFR!, as do Kim Gordon's explorations of the abject in Sonic Youth – the tenderness she brought to Karen Carpenter's story in "Tunic" prefigured Del Rey's faded warmth in "How To Disappear." If this album signals the peak of Del Rey's singer-songwriter period, it's worth remembering that her first debts were to hip-hop and post-punk, and noticing how crucial those sources remain even as she nods more noticeably toward Laurel Canyon.

"Beloved imagination," Andre Breton wrote in the manifesto that, in 1924, announced Surrealism's intent, "what I like most in you is your unsparing quality." We live in a time when the interpretation of dreams has given way to psychopharmaceutical rebalancing, and when the neatening effects of self-actualization are generally considered more rewarding than the dwelling on the psyche's dark expanse. Recently, though, in the music of young artists like Billie Eilish and Logic, in the podcast-driven true crime craze and the work of women auteurs like Joanna Hogg and writers like Elena Ferrante, that expanse has again come into view. Lana Del Rey began her inquiries there. She is a creature born of trauma, possibly literally, if you take Lizzy Grant's teenage experiences with addiction into account; but certainly aesthetically. At its best, her music absorbs and disorients. It calls for interpretation, but in the most personal sense of the word – it wants to be crazily loved or angrily hated. It wants to trigger you.

NFR! still allows for that seductive uneasiness. It surfaces in the long outro to "Venice Bitch," a psychotropic soak that buries the chorus of the bubblegum drug trip "Crimson and Clover" in reverb, guitar noodling and Del Rey's voice murmuring a line that smudges the line between tenderness and obsession: If you weren't mine, I'd be jealous of your love. Even as she learns the comforts of coherence and closure, Del Rey still knows there's something to learn from the weird and the wrong.