“My body is a map of L.A.,” sings the poet of “Arcadia,” but she is no Virgil, and these are no Eclogues:
My chest, the Sierra Madre
My hips, every high and byway
That you trace with your fingertips like a Toyota
Run your hands over me like a Land Rover
. . .
My curves, San Gabriel all day
And my lips like the fire licks the bay
. . .
In Arcadia, Arcadia
All roads that lead to you as integral to me as arteries
That get the blood flowing straight to the heart of me
America, I need a miracle
I can’t sleep at home tonight, send me a Hilton Hotel
Or a cross on the hill, I’m a lost little girl
Findin’ my way to ya
Home of Pan, god of the pastoral and wild, the satyric and impromptu, Arcadia is the Hellenic equivalent to the biblical Garden of Eden, a bucolic highland in the Peloponnese untainted by the corruption of man and yet named for Arcas, its king. Arcas is the son of Zeus, who raped Callisto while disguised as his own daughter before Hera, jealous as always of her husband’s victim, transformed the young mother into a bear nearly killed, much later, by the arrow of her unknowing spawn—a hunter, of course—upon which the boy’s father sent them both to the sky, where they abide as Ursa Major and Minor, celestial Madonna and child.
But the Arcadia in question is a suburb of fifty-five thousand, thirteen miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, and is, like its namesake, perilously associated with bears. In dry spells, sleuths routinely descend from the hills to roam its streets in search of food, an increasingly recurrent omen of certain and imminent climate apocalypse. Something more and less than a paradise lost, a fool’s goldmine off the last exit of the air-conditioned nightmare, this ambitiously dubbed prefab idyll is one among many signposts that populate the second-largest megalopolis in the United States, encompassing Santa Barbara to the north, Las Vegas to the east, and crossing the Tijuana border to the south: Agoura and Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Calabasas, Long Beach, Malibu, Newport Beach, Palmdale, Rosemead, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, Ventura, and Vernon, to list only those incorporated municipalities specified in the songs and poems of Lana Del Rey.
The geographical precision of her lyrics, through references to freeways, thoroughfares, and intersections (Interstate 405; the Pacific Coast Highway; the Rim of the World Scenic Byway; Genesee, Melrose, and Rose Avenues; Hollywood, Ocean, Pico, Santa Monica, San Vicente, Sunset, and Wilshire Boulevards; Bella, Bundy, Mulholland, and Ridgeley Drives; Bel Air Road; Lime, Sixth, Tenth, and Vine Streets; Bali Way) connecting the vast sprawl of neighborhoods (Bel Air; Benedict, Laurel, Topanga, and Woolsey Canyons; Elysian and Hancock Parks; Lake Arrowhead; Larchmont Village; Mar Vista; the Pacific Palisades; Reseda and the San Fernando Valley; San Pedro and, offshore, Catalina; Skid Row; her beloved Venice) and landmarks (Black Rabbit Rose, the Brentwood Market, Chez Jay, Coachella, Delilah, Dodger Stadium, Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood and Rose Bowls, the Mariners apartment complex, the Pacific Ocean and its beaches, the Paramahansa Yogananda Self-Realization Fellowship Temple, Ralphs, the Ramada, SoulCycle). These shout-outs credential Del Rey as an adequately assimilated Angeleno, though she spent her childhood back east, upstate, in rural Lake Placid, New York. The enormity of L.A.’s locational lexicon is but one way to apprehend the city’s ethnic, cultural, economic, and ecological diversity, which was already contentious when real estate developers S. H. Woodruff and Tracy E. Shoults erected a fifty-foot-tall advertisement for a “superb environment without excessive cost on the Hollywood side of the hills” to be called “Hollywoodland,” on Mount Lee, in 1923.
Historian Mike Davis, who was born in Fontana and died in San Diego, chronicled L.A.’s troubled past in several books, most notably City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, published on opposite ends of the 1990s, a catastrophic decade for the City of Angels. For Davis, the mythology of the city fabricated in literature and film is crucial to comprehending its ongoing political and racial strife, the competing auras of apocalypse and utopia. He divides the “Los Angeles intellectuals” who have serially refurbished this myth since the end of the nineteenth century into at least seven categories: the Boosters, the Debunkers, the Noirs, the Exiles, the Sorcerers, the Communards, and the Mercenaries. Each school has pushed the semiotic needle of L.A. further in the direction of salvation or damnation, but it is the Noirs—in which he includes hard- and soft-boiled modernists James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, Harlemite tourists Langston Hughes and Chester Himes, Joan Didion, the science fiction and postmodernism of Aldous Huxley, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Bradbury, John Rechy, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis, James Ellroy, and movies from The Big Sleep to Blade Runner—who are most responsible for electing Los Angeles, and not Las Vegas, as “Sin City” in the minds of the pious and starstruck throughout the world.
Alongside the cynical cryptographers of L.A.’s songwriting renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s, from Neil Young and Randy Newman to Warren Zevon and Tom Waits, and successive generations of artists, these are the architects of a California Gothic unique from but no less idiosyncratic than its European and Southern relatives. The urban fog that has trailed shibboleths of progress to the Pacific Rim hovers over a reflection in once-clear water that looks final in its murkiness: finding the barbarisms of modernity exacerbated and multiplied on the outer cusp of the American continent, settled under the false assurance of beginning anew, we can no longer dispute that the monsters are us. It is through Del Rey, a moody transplant with a made-up name, that this lineage finds its most opportune and poignant expression. A damsel in distress inured to the fatalism of our time, her songbook is a secular Revelation for the coming fall, illusions of redemption having all but burned out.
The purest distillations of noir ideology, a Hollywood mutation of the Gothic imported with the palm tree, function as allegories for the history of Los Angeles. Noir, in Paul Schrader’s view, eludes classification as a genre insofar as it eschews “conventions of setting and conflict” in favor of “the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” In such a world, “style becomes paramount; it is all that separates one from meaninglessness.” Or, as Lana stans might have it, noir is a vibe. Though “the how is always more important than the what” in noir, overriding themes surface: characters are sworn to “a narcissistic, defeatist code”; unable to survive one day at a time, they “can only take pleasure in reliving a doomed past.”
Schrader restricted noir, in 1972, to “a specific period of film history,” however, its continual resurgence highlights its distinction as a mode “opposed to the possible variants of film gray or film off-white”: a way of seeing, being in, and filtering the world that is not ahistorical but belongs to an unfinished chapter which, like its heroes, “dreads to look ahead.” This “passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future” haunts Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which is quite literally a ghost story, narrated in voiceover by a protagonist, hack screenwriter and reluctant gigolo Joe Gillis (William Holden), who floats dead in a swimming pool, à la Jay Gatsby, in the film’s opening scene. The murderer, Norma Desmond, is a washed-up diva of the silent screen, as was the actress who played her, Gloria Swanson; Desmond’s grotesque downfall, complete with a chimpanzee funeral, offers a cautionary tale of the fortune awaiting all starlets who, “sick of going along for the ride,” as Schrader has it, begin taking others for one. In his neo-noir western, There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson diagnoses mastery of the Occidental frontier as an Oedipal struggle between Christianity and capitalism, while statutory rapist Roman Polanski reimagines, in Chinatown, super engineer William Mulholland’s irrigation of the desert by means of the Los Angeles Aqueduct as an incest fantasy (a prevalent subgenre of the Gothic and noir) wherein the archetypal small-business owner, private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), uncovers the extent to which developers have fucked the local citizenry, their own offspring not excepted, for eons to come—and as Nicholson’s 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes, attests, boy, will they fuck again.
This constellation of plenitude and scarcity, madness and perversion, desire and death was inscribed on the landscape of Southern California long before the invention of celluloid. Contact with the West Coast’s Mediterranean climate revealed an oasis to the Franciscans of the eighteenth century after traversing the wilderness of the Sonora; its “abundant springs,” “beautiful rivers,” “well-watered” land, and “infinity of wild rosebushes in full bloom” were familiar to Fathers Juan Crespí, Francisco Palóu, and Pedro Font, whose diaries Davis cites in Ecology of Fear, coming as they did from Spain. But California’s radically intermittent precipitation and tendency toward disaster—earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and drought—struck the WASPs who stretched their Manifest Destiny westward following the Gold Rush as erratic, infernal, and thus needing to be tamed, to say nothing of the young state’s Catholicism and incomplete genocide of the indigenous population. The civilizational mania that ensued has only managed to aggravate the natural patterns of immolation and rebirth that these pioneers misunderstood; the inadequacy of yearly standards for an environment that marches to the beat of a different drum belies the fact that, compared to the geological record, the definitive calamities of the modern age amount to an interval of relative inactivity. Messianic anticipation of “the Big One” has made billions for Hollywood via the disaster genre, evidence of which Davis meticulously compiles from fifty novels and a multitude of films, leading him to conclude that the “entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed by the San Andreas fault.”
Scientists agree that the worst is still to come. Davis admits that it “is tempting to assert an analogous relationship between the literary destruction of Los Angeles and the nervous breakdown of American exceptionalism” beyond the twentieth century when L.A. supplanted New York as the playground of the Antichrist, “where contemporary fundamentalists expect the world will begin to unravel,” in spite or because of the city’s proliferation of religious nuts and white supremacists. It is no accident that the LAPD is a notorious caricature of racist pigs, nor that the American Nazi Party was formerly headquartered in Glendale, at the edge of the second-largest majority-minority metropolis in the United States.
Rather than lean into this eugenic vision of her adopted fatherland, capitalizing on her lily-white birthright as a Disney princess, Del Rey’s eschatology is more complicated. A natural blonde dyed brunette to match a Hispanic pseudonym shared with a yacht harbor, Del Rey’s questionable solidarity with the marginalized, as the multimillionaire daughter of a Jimmy Buffettish advertising executive, occasionally gives way to something resembling irony, or worse, nihilism—archvillain of the Californian nightmare, if The Big Lebowski is to be believed. Like Thomas Pynchon, himself a bicoastal New Yorker who regularly enlists California as the setting for novelistic microcosms of discrete junctures in American history, Del Rey mines Los Angeles folklore for its stock characters—the pin-up, the ingenue, the beach babe, the black widow, the stoner, the side piece, the fallen angel, the poet—which she has refashioned into a singular composite. Diffusing her confessional first-person across a colorful dramatis personae, Lana has harnessed the innate artificiality of the pop idiom into something heteroglossic, as the greatest novelists do, collaging Hollywood’s portrayals of itself into a thematically cohesive body of work, in which the smoggy gloom of the West Coast’s past and future emerges as a sunspot on the American Dream approaching twilight, a “Summertime Sadness” of the soul induced by the bleak conditions of material reality.
The orgy of apparitions Del Rey calls forth reinvigorates the witchy woman persona that enchanted midcentury representations of Los Angeles. “Raven hair and ruby lips / Sparks fly from her fingertips,” snarled the Eagles in 1972, two years before Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac and Eve Babitz escaped the Rimbaudian shadow of her late boyfriend, Jim Morrison, as author of Eve’s Hollywood. In 1970, Joni Mitchell eulogized Woodstock to announce a new locus of hippiedom in Ladies of the Canyon, lamenting that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Del Rey, who covered Ladies’ “For Free” on Chemtrails Over the Country Club and duetted with Nicks on Lust for Life, answers the handwringing of “Big Yellow Taxi” with existential dread, trading in Stevie’s gypsy lace for cut-offs and cat-eye makeup. Even as Lana has hoarded pink dresses from her bombshell days, the white gowns and platinum wigs she now wears onstage have taken on an arch subtext, fulfilling the obligations of feminine stardom but matching incongruously with a girl so “sweet, bare feet” who wants to “run marathons in Long Beach by the sea.” When not writing, she is “at Starbucks, talking shit all day,” but Del Rey is no “basic bitch”: they can be found at the Beverly Center, she tells us in “Sweet,” third in the lineup of Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, her ninth and latest studio LP.
Elizabeth Woolridge Grant became Lana Del Rey in 2010 after a series of lesser sobriquets—May Jailer, Sparkle Jump Rope Queen, Lizzy Grant and the Phenomena—failed to capture that “little something extra” which James Mason defines in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born as “star power.” Lana, as she has come to be known mononymically, was born, she announced in the title of her major-label debut, to die. At thirty-eight, she has yet to live up to her promise. One of the first beneficiaries and casualties of virality, she premiered with a self-made video for “Video Games,” uploaded to YouTube in 2011; something about the retro timbre of her voice, the nostalgia for the present peddled by her words, and the art-school iMovie montage, interspersed with webcam shots of the chanteuse herself, hailed the despondent millennials of Web 2.0. A record contract and stilted performance on Saturday Night Live soon followed, the latter introducing Del Rey to the tempo of backlash she has not entirely managed to outpace. The Obama-era fixation on authenticity thwarted efforts to remind critics, as Lady Gaga and countless others already had, that nobody is who they claim to be, but her awkwardness on SNL did not deter her fans, who understood, perhaps, that a promotional spot on a network television sketch comedy show is not a proper venue for artistic achievement. A lurid modeling campaign for American Apparel, the Los Angeles brand co-opted as a uniform by indie sleazed Brooklynites, enticed viewers to “Meet Lana,” while others for H&M and glossy magazines (one shot by Terry Richardson, pre-cancellation) seemed to entrench Del Rey in the fashion world of New York, her birthplace, then exiting its “Meet Me in the Bathroom” phase. But the iconography of Born to Die pointed toward L.A., where she moved upon the album’s release.
In the video for “Ride,” the biggest hit off her Paradise EP, Del Rey dons the guise of Hell’s Angels, Scorpio Rising, Easy Rider, and Altamont, revving the hedonic signifiers of the biker chick to establish residency in California. Her next project, 2014’s Ultraviolence, sidelined the “cinematic” strings of her juvenilia (which crept back in 2015’s Honeymoon) for electric guitar-forward production from the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, winning the acclaim of the remaining rockists of the music press. Auerbach is one of several Svengalis who have been alternately credited or blamed for the evolution of the Del Rey aesthetic, a surface misreading of the Star Is Born narrative that confuses discovery and patronage with creativity and art: Gene Campbell, her English teacher at the Kent School in Connecticut, who turned her on to Biggie, Tupac, and Allen Ginsberg, fating her to a degree in philosophy from Fordham and, in 2020, a collection of poems, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass; formative collaborators; romantic interests; and celebrity producer Jack Antonoff, the man to whom Del Rey’s genius is most frequently misattributed. In the service of Lorde, St. Vincent, and Taylor Swift, in particular, Antonoff’s imposing résumé has softly drowned out all but his loudest detractors.
Norman Fucking Rockwell!, which Antonoff produced in 2019, is Del Rey’s unparalleled magnum opus, rightfully meriting the frank praise of Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly: “She is the next best American songwriter, period.” A synthesis of the piano balladry of “Video Games” and the psychedelia of Ultraviolence, NFR! subdues the preoccupation with hip hop that reduced much of her early records, through 2017’s Lust for Life, to pandering bids for radio play. Antonoff recognized Del Rey as the folk singer that she is, and even recent forays into trap, such as “A&W,” Ocean Blvd’s second single, benefit from the finest ingredients of their creative partnership: arpeggiated strums of acoustic guitars, analog synths, cymbal-heavy live drums, choral layering, and gymnastic exercises of her smoky mezzo-soprano. The trio of albums they have made together, including Chemtrails, comprises a maturity and skill so consistent as to be rare in any songwriter’s catalog; their moments of calculated informality, assuming a mutual trust with her audience that feels so cavalier it must not be, are trademark Lana, flaunting the signature of their lovesick auteur.
A consummate bricoleuse, Del Rey is most herself when alluding to others. Whether lifting the titular refrain from the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” for the hook of “Ultraviolence,” shouting out “the bar where the Beach Boys would go / Dennis’s last stop before Kokomo,” “Life on Mars,” and Kanye West on “The Greatest” (a probable nod to her idol Cat Power, who christened her own masterpiece identically), listening to the White Stripes and Kings of Leon on “White Dress,” or “kickin’ it like Tribe Called Quest” in “Candy Necklace,” Del Rey knows how to profit from the well-placed namedrop, Hollywood’s unofficial currency. In verse two of the title track of Ocean Blvd,
There’s a girl who sings “Hotel California”
Not because she loves the notes or sounds that sound like Florida
It’s because she’s in a world, preserved, only a few have found the door
It’s like Camarillo, only silver mirrors, running down the corridor
Linking the Eagles’ metaphorical underworld to its alleged inspiration, the infamous Camarillo State Mental Hospital that Governor Pete Wilson closed in 1996, Del Rey counts herself as one of the select who see something bright not at the tunnel’s end but out the back door, through the cracks—a thematic riff from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” that she elaborates on “Kintsugi” and “Let the Light In,” harmonizing with her friend Father John Misty. “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / But I have it,” she testifies in the finale of NFR!; here, her faith has wavered somewhat:
Harry Nilsson has a song, his voice breaks at 2:05
Something about the way he says “Don’t forget me” makes me feel alive
I just wish I had a friend like him, someone to give me five
Leaning [or maybe “Lennon,” invoking Nilsson’s producer] in my back, whispering in my ear
“Come on, baby, you can thrive”
But I can’t
Nearing the climax, a dueling counterpoint in the pre-chorus between Lana’s own childish plea of “When’s it gonna be my turn?” and the line she borrows from Nilsson crashes into the title, and the call-and-response of “Don’t forget me” and “There’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard” merge, the orchestra swelling below a single, desperate appeal multitracked and repeated twice in case we didn’t hear it the first time: “Don’t forget me / Like the tunnel under Ocean Boulevard.”
The Jergins Tunnel, in Long Beach, has been closed to the public since 1967, but Del Rey’s commemoration of civic ephemera is less impressive than the emotional mileage squeezed out of the grammatical substitution “like the” for “there’s a,” the careful attention to one’s craft that she admires in Nilsson’s delivery. As a vocalist, Del Rey is comparably nuanced and moving, especially with Antonoff behind the glass. Last year, she told W about her practice of “meditative automatic singing, where I don’t filter anything. I’ll just sing whatever comes to mind into my Voice Notes app,” sending the files to arranger Drew Erickson, who scores them. The fruits of this technique are evident throughout Ocean Blvd, as in “A&W,” where she reaches above her three-octave range to imply more than intone breathy ghost notes that evoke, almost, the saxophone of late John Coltrane at the peak of ecstatic transcendence. Religion has a place here too: Del Rey’s narration of “the experience of bein’ an American whore” precedes a four-and-a-half-minute interlude of minor noodling beneath a sermon from megachurch preacher Judah Smith, interpolated by Lana’s (Lizzy’s?) assenting laughter and utterances of reverent affirmation. Sacrament is a distant memory by the album’s conclusion, where our would-be penitent expands the “Venice Bitch” come-on of NFR!, appending pride, greed, wrath, gluttony, and sloth to her reprised confession of envy and lust. Some sins may be too rich even for the blood of Christ, but the evangelical mission for which California was conquered has reawakened the Catholicism of Del Rey’s upbringing, whose tenets she internalizes piecemeal but not without sincerity.
Gods & Monsters
Once mouthpiece to the feelings of so many others, an artist runs the risk of losing herself altogether, which happens to Rebekah Del Rio on the stage of Club Silencio in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, her rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish persisting as though immortal or, at minimum, pre-recorded after the singer has collapsed, possibly dead. As Del Rey has discarded the ethnicized, outer-borough pronunciation of her youth—see 2012’s “National Anthem,” in the video for which she reincarnates both Marilyn and Jackie to A$AP Rocky’s Black JFK—she has flavored her celebration of old Hollywood glamor with a progressively uncomfortable “Spanish tinge.” New Orleans jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton, who died in L.A., coined the phrase in conversation with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax for his 1938 Library of Congress recordings to describe the influence of Caribbean rhythms on African American music; this “contradanza” or “habanera” is today a standard convention of the pop canon, from the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” through Del Rey’s “Carmen” and “Salvatore,” which summon the melodrama of Latin canciones if not their syncopated accents. Del Rey’s own elocution verges on minstrelsy in stage banter, whose inflections can be heard to mimic stereotypes of the East L.A. chola, and were her fondness for hoop earrings insufficiently eyebrow-raising, Ocean Blvd’s “Taco Truck x VB” stumbles along the tightrope of cultural sensitivity:
That’s why they call me Lanita
When I get down I’m bonita
Don’t come find me in Reseda
I’ll go crazy
Read my gold chain, says, “Lanita”
When I’m violent, it’s Carlito’s Way
Blood on my feet on the street
I’m dancin’ crazy
The figure of the hotheaded Latina has roots in the English Gothic, for which she signifies a return of the repressed. In broad swaths, bookish Northerners of the eighteenth century darkened the complexions and muddled the origins of their femmes fatales, vaguely gesturing toward the Mediterranean and West Indies. For the succubus, dubious whiteness signals insanity and ill intention, alerting readers that the monuments to rationality erected in the Enlightenment were built on a shaky foundation: we moderns have yet to exorcise the demons of our primitive, medieval, and superstitious heritage. The projection of counter-enlightenment onto swarthy peoples from the south outlasted the Romantics, however: the Southern Gothic cannot abolish the residual horrors of Antebellum slavery just as the fabulists of the California Gothic continue to dig up the incriminating bones of Californio and pre-Columbian antiquity.
John Fante, a Great Depression chronicler of Bunker Hill depravity superior to his post-Beat imitator Charles Bukowski, undertakes this ritual in his best novel, Ask the Dust. Anticipating William S. Burroughs, whose accidental execution of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City, exhumed an “Ugly Spirit” that chased him toward a career in words, Arturo Bandini, Fante’s autobiographical puppet, arrives as a fledgling novelist at the cost of not one but two women: the despairing and Jewish Vera Rivkin, who perishes in the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 the morning after Bandini sleeps with her, thus bequesting him with a story to tell; and Camilla, the mercurial Mexican American waitress with whom Bandini is actually in love. Cursed with impotence on the night she invites him to take her on the beach, Arturo courts Camilla in the manner of a schoolboy, hurling racial epithets and scolding her dirty huaraches; ultimately, his imperialist advances prove no match for her debilitating addiction to marijuana, provoking Bandini to throw his just-published book into the sands of the Mojave.
Ask the Dust was Fante’s breakthrough success, securing steady work for its author filing unproduced screenplays, and thus legitimizing the motif of the unknown prodigy scribbling away in a fleabag room as a ticket to subsistence in Los Angeles. The madwoman in the attic is not always nonwhite, as she is coded in Jane Eyre, or a writer, as in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but in her own contributions to women’s literature, Del Rey bridges the gaps in experience and perspective that separate Bandini from Camilla, Fante and his subject: “Tearing around in my fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath / Writing in blood on my walls / ‘Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad.” The hysteric is a part in Del Rey’s repertoire she is eager to recite, and her conflation of mental illness with exoticism and the feminine mystique has more in common with the old guard than with many of her peers. But Bandini’s interpretation of Camilla’s instability as a consequence of her womanhood and otherness overlooks the madness in his own frenzy to write: a “romanticism with a protective shell,” as Schrader describes noir, which Del Rey accepts as the cost of artistic disposition, perpetuating the Faustian vision of creation that gave rise to the horrors of the Gothic.
Like her relationship with race, the issue of Del Rey’s feminism, which she denies, is fraught, and one wonders if the ribbing of the Jims, Joes, and other “goddamn” manchildren in her songbook (“Jim raised me up / He hurt me but it felt like true love / Jim taught me that / Loving him was never enough,” she sings in “Ultraviolence”) constitutes a reclamation or romanticization of the domestic abuse and eroticized cruelty of Lou Reed, who she had hoped would sing on “Brooklyn Baby” before a planned meeting between the two was eternally deferred, her red eye touching down in New York too late, on the morning of his death. Rejecting a consolation prize as Pygmalion or muse, Del Rey the tortured artist inflicts violence of her own: hurt people hurt people, so they say.
As with Taylor Swift, whose liberal politics defy her allure as Aryan superwoman, conservatives have made bids for Lana as counterrevolutionary icon, misunderstanding that her conception of good and evil is, like Nietzsche’s, in an extramoral sense. This is not to say that she has not provided fodder to propagandists on the right or enemies on the left. Despite Del Rey’s firm denial, the “black narcissist” on her back in “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have—but i have it” was widely read as a dig at social media nemesis Azealia Banks, and in “Question for the culture,” posted to Instagram four days prior to the killing of George Floyd and two months after breaking up with celebrity cop Sean Larkin, she singled out the hypersexuality of prominent female artists of color (with Italian-American Ariana Grande added inadvertently or for good measure) in clumsy self-defense against allegations of misogyny. The subsequent fallout drew attention to the glaring whiteness of the girls on the Chemtrails cover when it was revealed in January 2021, prompting a fumbled allegiance to diversity and inclusion, again on Instagram, that emphasized the Mexican background of one or more of the women pictured. (For the kicker: “My best friends are rappers my boyfriends have been rappers. . . . I’m not the one storming the capital [sic].”) In the interim, a video for “Summertime (The Gershwin Version),” the Porgy and Bess standard whose trip hop adaptation by Sublime, “Doin’ Time,” she had reworked for NFR!, didn’t help her case: “The cotton is high,” Del Rey assures her audience as three Black women sing backup from the porch but are conspicuously absent when the rest of the band rides away in a jalopy, her dark-skinned organist at the wheel.
Just as film noir, according to Schrader, “attacked and interpreted its sociological conditions,” Del Rey has created a simulacrum that goes “beyond a simple sociological reflection,” dramatizing a “nightmarish world of American mannerism.” Rather than caving to popular demand for a coherent politics in her art, a scourge of her time, Del Rey embraces the ambiguities and contradictions befitting a woman with “Nabokov Whitman” tattooed in cursive on her right arm and “Chateau Marmont” on her left. The artistic and nation-building traditions she furthers have quasi-fascist implications, but her aestheticization of tragedy elevates its meaninglessness above any significance; the grandiosity of her allusions paired with an affective anomie make her poetry as appealing—and American—as T. S. Eliot’s was once assumed to be. Her wasteland is cool, even at the onset of middle age.
Such missteps, whether born of ignorance, apathy, ressentiment, or some combination of the three, may not be endemic to the California Gothic, but they are symptomatic, conjuring the original sins of Western expansion which linger, unexpunged. What Del Rey adds to this legacy is a chilling reminder of its tenacity, the sublime lure of its call. Any peaceful, easy feeling earlier waves of transplants were able to dredge up from the soil of coastal Babylon was overharvested by the time Lana landed at LAX, if it could be said to have ever existed at all. Malaise is one reaction to the inevitability of crisis, aggression another. In the decades since Ronald Reagan seized his tenure as the dominant Golden Stater on the national stage, Joni Mitchell belatedly retired a blackface alter ego, Mike Love began fighting for the wrong side of the culture wars from the casino circuit, and the considerable Latino fanbase of the Smiths, which Morrissey acknowledged in his paean to Chicano Los Angeles, “First of the Gang to Die,” has not inoculated the Mancunian Pope of Mope against spewing virulent racism from his hillside perch in West Hollywood. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, it has been said, is the most segregated hour in American life, and in the prolonged hangover incurred by our Anthropocene Saturday night, Saint Lana might not be the Second Coming we were expecting to save us, but, sipping her vape in the melodic break, she is the prophetess of Armageddon we have come to deserve.