Art critique

Celebrating 10 years of Born to Die, Lana Del Rey’s acerbic critique of modern America

10 years after they were first uttered by Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, the words “My pussy tastes like Pepsi cola” remain immortal in the cultural imagination. The line – from the luxury version of Lana Del Rey Born to die, his unforgettable major-label debut – is a quintessential example of the fantastical, humorous portrayals of Americana for which the artist would soon rise to prominence. The album is and was a cultural reset: an evisceration of the American Dream and its emptiness through lyrical irony, bold visuals, and the playful discernment of the female gaze.

In 2012, Lana Del Rey sat on a throne in a church under a swirling frescoed ceiling, flanked by a pair of reclining tigers; a flower of blue roses resting on her head. The video for “Born to Die” made the rounds on Tumblr during the platform’s heyday, casting the star of the singer who originally came from the alternative music scene, and immortalizing Lana as the patroness of sad girls everywhere, alone in the world. world and deteriorate in their rooms.

Everything about the “Born to Die” video – from the emaciated, heavily tattooed boyfriend appearing as an apparition at random intervals, to Lana kissing him topless in front of the American flag – suggested opulence, melodrama and undulating tragedy. Both ridiculous and profound, it was high art with an intermittent lowbrow aesthetic: car sex, high-top red Converse, a lit joint. It was America.

Widely misunderstood by critics upon its initial release, Born to die was ahead of its time. Mixing genres like hip-hop and rock ‘n roll, fusing orchestral riffs with beats taken from rap music, Lana layered flowery, breathing lyrics inspired by classic literature in a raspy, sexy voice to complete her merger. She sang only of heartbreak, lost love and the dark depths of violence while still in love with an abuser. And while the taste makers mocked to the tearful romanticism of the album – critic Lindsay Zoldaz infamously called the album a “fake orgasm” in a rather scathing way Fork reviewBorn to die was a testament to the political moment of its creation in a surprising way.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, and 2010s pop culture was certainly no exception. In 2012, Barack Obama was president and Congress remained trapped in an impasse. The Affordable Care Act, dubbed “Obama Care,” was hotly debated across the country, a culture war about which conservative news anchors bleated on television screens daily. Same-sex marriage was still illegal, a claim the superficially progressive president blew hot and cold politically. Trayvon Martin, 17, had been shot in cold blood by George Zimmerman.

This polarizing set of cases injected Tumblr — the site largely responsible for Lana’s rise — with an overwhelming social justice ethos. Even as millennials and younger Gen Zs drew on academic theory to navigate these troubled times, the need for escape — whether through drugs, art, or romance — was intense. Lana’s music not only reflected a desire to numb itself, it also offered a dreamlike landscape to the disaffected youth of the time: drawn in by its monochrome shades of beauty, the nostalgia for an America that no longer existed ( if it ever existed), the siren looks like total submission to a lover, maybe even death.

From the second track of the album, “Off to the Races”, Lana invokes a quote from the infamous Vladimir Nabokov: “light of my life, fire of my loins”, as chanted by its pedophile protagonist Humbert Humbert in the novel by 1955. lolita. The song illustrates the dramatic swings between euphoria and depression characteristic of any abusive relationship – filled with love bombardment and sudden outbursts of violence – but also the use of the body as a means to gain access to money, notoriety and male protection: “Tell me you own me, give them coins.”

The women who appear in Born to die using beauty and sexuality to achieve fame and fortune, knowing what they can get out of it, and how the spectacle of femininity will allow them to cash a check. And the songs are obviously successful in their resonance. But despite all the darkness, a flickering sensibility prevailed. A 2017 to study, by Rachel E. Davis at the University of Tennessee, explores how sugar babies on Tumblr created memes about Lana Del Rey and the Lolita persona she often portrayed in her early music, joking about how whose music exemplified a truthful if hyperbolic expression of their sex work. In one meme, a pink-skinned Pepe the Frog is “dressed as Del Rey” with a caption saying that anyone posting the photo would “get a rich sugar daddy”. Lana’s digital engagement with music, much like the artist herself, expressed “a palpable sense of irony and knowledge […] characteristic of postfeminist sensibility.

Beautiful women constantly appear in the visuals surrounding Born to die, and are frequently embodied by the singer in his deluxe reissue, The Paradise Edition. Lana slips into the role of Marilyn Monroe as she sings a sultry “Happy Birthday” to the leader of the free world: JFK, played by A$AP Rocky in a suit and backwards baseball cap. She then transforms into Jackie O-type: raising puppies with a perfect little family, throwing lavish parties involving decadent broadcasts, vacationing with her devoted and insatiable husband in an idyllic port of Hyannis.

The video culminates, of course, with the assassination of A$AP-as-JFK. Private, in a cream-colored fascinator and near-absurd bouffant, our First Lady’s flawless performance of femininity proved obsolete, shattered by someone else’s boundless pursuit of power and glory . “Money is the anthem of success,” whispers Lana in the chorus, her sensual and provocative lips, daring her audience with a knowing gaze. In doing so, she mocks this empty promise alongside her own ambitions: Lana has indulged in this very performance, using her self and her body as a conduit for the American Dream, the tragedy and hedonism of the freedom, fame and unfettered ambition. made possible by capitalism.

Of course, this does not always succeed. The white-eyed boring video for Heaven “Stroll”, which repeatedly forgoes substance for the sensational, is an example of the kind of narrative confusion absent in a more mature record like Norman fucking Rockwell!. In these moments, it’s not hard to see how critics have struggled to gauge whether the singer’s engagement with topics like femininity or violence amounts to genuine criticism or even representation. Corn Born to die was an experience of identity: the influence of his hybrid percussion; his dark and striking words; its luscious yet biting visual themes are still evident in the pop landscape ten years later, and will likely endure in the decade that follows as well. Lana has always been America’s greatest satirist, because she’s an artist who truly understands that the road is a long time, so we keep going, and we try to have fun while we wait. What remains to be done?

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