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Lana Del Rey and American Existentialism

By Todd Davis

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

Music often is a reflection of the people and society it was written for. There is an indelible feel to an 80s’ or 90s song. Hearing Elvis subconsciously brings up images of diners serving 10-cent coffees with ‘57 Chevys parked out front. Taylor Swift, while singing about universal themes like heartbreak and bad boyfriends, is talking to her generation of listeners. Lana Del Rey attempts no such thing. Lana, with her soulful, sultry voice is singing to a time from the hazy past, not so much an era but the idea of an era, a myth fragmented by the modern American religions of consumerism and social justice. She calls out to that myth, a reflection of what America once was, or might have been, what culture was lost in the trying crucible of globalization, and how we are left to cope with the isolation and depression caused by losing our identity. 

Originally Lana established herself as something of a West coast noir pin-up girl singing about the California dream filtered through the lens of L.A. Confidential. She wasn’t a one-hit wonder, quite the contrary, her first two songs, Video Games and Blue Jeans weren’t even studio-released singles. Lana released them herself on YouTube in the process of becoming a forerunner of the YouTube famous sensation. 

Freedom to Ride

The albums Born to Die and Paradise established Lana as the melancholic siren of Route 66 finding tragedy and triumph in her dark paradise. In particular, the pop-rock epic Ride unveiled a vision of America that had no grounding in the modern subsistence that’s centered around cubicle-driven workdays and suburban languorous streaming by nighttime that much of the country toiled within. Ride comes in at over ten minutes, including a combined five minutes of prologue and epilogue narrated by Lana. Half poetry, half philosophy, this voice-over establishes Lana’s reign as Queen of the existential highway. 

Ride is a story about America from the perspective of bikers, neon-lit motels, and party stores hung with faded Busch Light signs too harshly lit for the night. Lana rides through this world draped in an American flag, sporting a Budweiser t-shirt, or wearing an Indian headdress while brandishing a colt revolver. A self-described loner who had dreams of being a beautiful poet, Lana’s character now exists somewhere between a drifter and a prostitute. And yet, the same drive that pushed her to be a poet exists in her current state; an obsession for true freedom. Freedom that can only be found in a past filter of America. Freedom so free it is terrifying. Janis Joplin said, “freedom’s just another word, for nothing left to lose”. No one can be free if they are beholden to a mortgage payment or a relationship that has lost all fire but continues because it’s better to sit together in silence than to sit alone. 

Freedom for Lana is getting into Impalas after midnight that smell like stale beer and cigarettes. It’s a quest to find her people. In that regard, her pursuit is not unlike everyone else’s; we all want to find our people, individuals who get us and share our likes, interests, and ideas. Modern America with the dawn of the social media age promised that, but the product turned out to be poisoned, and tainted, an obfuscation of what we had once thought so marvelous and free. Our interests became monetized, our interactions cold and impersonal conducted through iPhones. Conversations are no longer face-to-face but take place in texts and Tweets where there is no room for nuance. Along the way, we traded our most precious things, our personality, and freedom for convenience and instant gratification.

During the epilogue of Ride Lana says, “I believe in the country America used to be.” These words touch on a familiar longing in current American culture. President Donald Trump won an election based on a campaign message of Make America Great Again. Hit TV shows like Yellowstone tap into the collective yearning many Americans have for a time that might not have been as great as the memory but, in their perspective, is certainly better than now. 

Myth and Romance in the Western

Three major events shaped the course of the American identity, the Civil War and Emancipation, the amalgamation of capital and rapid industrialization of the country creating an oligarchical aristocracy, and the loss of the Western frontier. Much has been written about the first two events and they continue to be significant topics today. An entire genre of movies and television, the Western, arose dealing with the loss of the frontier. In some ways, the Westerns of the 50s and 60s were a nostalgic callback to a prior era of America as people struggled to deal with modernization and cultural change. Lana’s music can be interpreted as Western Noir, a solitary hero dealing with life in panoramic settings with only herself to rely upon. Lana Del Rey is the Gary Cooper of music. 

Yearning for the lost West is now problematic. The current academic narrative pushes westward expansion and manifest destiny as one of the original sins of America. Genocide is carelessly thrown around at settlers and pioneers, once revered for their courage in going into the wilderness and hacking out an existence with their own hands bearing their children along the way, these forebearers are now labeled thieves and murderers. Ironic that the vast majority of these pioneers were poor people moving west because all the land was taken on the East coast and was already being concentrated in the hands of the elite. Modern-day elites slander their efforts from ivory towers hundreds of years removed from the homesteads made from sod and fields tilled with gnarled worn hands. The West cannot be so easily erased from the American spirit.  

Westward expansion did come with violence. Violence is deeply ingrained in the character of the American soul. Cormac McCarthy’s seminal novel Blood Meridian is a haunting, allegorical look into the drive west. The recent Amazon series The English looks at the raw violence to be found on all sides of the western experience and how people had to deal with the consequences. Examples abound, endless, like the thousands of unmarked graves set off the trail from Ohio to California. Simon Kenton, Donner Party, Wounded Knee, Tombstone, and on and on. Freedom to strike out with a wagon and a gun to make your destiny or die trying was a foundational pillar of America’s founding. 

Within the lineage of this world is where Lana drifts. The West isn’t gone. The scenery, so gorgeous it almost makes you cry, so inspiring it almost makes you want to leave your suburb and cubicle and go work on a ranch in Wyoming, is still there. The English and Yellowstone weren’t filmed in 1890, they were shot today, and the landscape is constant, eternal. But we aren’t. We have changed. For the better, in some ways, certainly, and yet so much has been lost in the process of civilization. Americans no longer define success as the freedom to live and do what they want, we now determine our worth in commodities and consumption. We live, consume, and die leaving behind a trail of plastic water bottles and Land’s End bathing suits. There is never enough money to be made, never enough clothes to buy, goods to own, and devices to plug into. Never enough club memberships, bubble-wrapped lifestyle security, vacations to White Lotus safe locations, and random gadgets to collect like retro pinball machines or bottles of artisanal moonshine. There is no destination, no finish line, there isn’t a number anyone can reach where they sit back and say, “I’ve lived a good life because I have all I need.” Enough is never enough. America is haunted by Gordon Gecko’s words, “Greed is good.”  

Happiness and Existentialism

The America Lana explores doesn’t offer happiness. Happiness was never part of the grand bargain. We were promised freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Somewhere along the line equity of outcome tried to ensure happiness. That isn’t possible. Happiness is elusive to define let alone guarantee. Lana invokes pornographic fatalism and blown American dreams. The gratifying glamor of failure. Coming up short following your heart. Losing is not a disease, it is a victory. A triumph of the blazing, burning, American spirit. If she was born to die then so be it, her days won’t be spent clipping crab bake recipes from Southern Living.

Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls, his most existential novel, said “all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again.” Days spent calculating 401Ks, and toiling away in mid-level management in the hope that one day you’ll have a corner office, a bigger house, or a faster car, are all days wasted. They are days spent planning and not living. Hemingway again, “Living was a hawk in the sky…Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.” Lana can relate as she straddles an iron horse and disappears into the desert. 

And yet, for all her ambiance and moody romantic resignation, who is Lana singing for? Is she singing for the bikers, dreamers, hookers, and lonely old men in Ride? Or is she painting a picture of these lives for hipsters in Brooklyn and Malibu who believe music only sounds real on vinyl and spend $200 on yoga pants? Does she believe in the myth that she’s writing? There is a sincerity to Lana, an authenticity that quells our doubt. When she sings, in Ultraviolence, about being deadly nightshade because she’s filled with poison but blessed with beauty and rage, we believe her. Lana says that being hit by her lover feels like a kiss. A startling, controversial line that has drawn heavy criticism. We may or may not relate to this sentiment but there is no doubting its authenticity. Lana said about the song, “There’s great emotional pain to that as well, as it shows that their partner would rather hurt them than understand them.”

There is that word again, understanding. Lana and her characters are on a constant journey to be understood, to find the people who can relate to their views, views that are considered abnormal and out of place in general society. Finding that acceptance has never been easier in the modern world due to interconnectivity yet still feels as difficult, if not more than ever before, to make true connections within the framework of a swipe left or swipe right digitized world.  

Ultimately, we are preconditioned to accept the loneliness and quiet desolation of life because the suburban boulevard is a safe, well-lit space. This carefully nurtured atmosphere has been reinforced in people through education and nurturing since elementary school. There are no winners and losers, everyone is special. A fine thought, but certainly not reality, the real world breaks dreamers and enslaves most of the rest. Lana herself likely would admit that her professional success was one in a million. The line between being a star singer to her character in Ride feels precariously thin. Freedom is promised not success. And Lana’s view of freedom offers no safety net.       

Norman Rockwell

All these motifs of hers coalesce on her sixth studio album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Both an exploration of the freedom America offers and a deconstruction of the American dream, the lyrics are a graceful, excruciating look at being alive. In the titular song she sings;

Goddamn, man-child

You fucked me so good that I almost said “I love you”

You’re fun and you’re wild

But you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through 

Lana’s recrimination isn’t the pop-rock paean to break-ups we’re familiar with in Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, or Carrie Underwood. She accepts the pain as part of the journey. In California she offers a safe harbor singing;

You don’t ever have to

Be stronger than you really are

When you’re lyin’ in my arms, baby

Bartender contains one of the more moving declarations of personal freedom, “I bought me a truck in the middle of the night. It’ll buy me a year if I play my cards right.” We are again reminded of Hemingway and Robert Jordan. Lana, in many ways, is our modern Hemingway reincarnated as a doomed breezy California heroine obsessed with the tragic beauty of violence and freedom so free it hurts. In the same song, Lana declares “the poetry inside of me is warm like a gun.”

She’s not worried about the risks, remember it’s life without a safety net. Life more alive, in the moment, freer than anything you’ve tasted, like biting into a star fruit from a twisted tree in a beautiful garden oasis surrounded by desert and howling wind. The temptation, the allure, the danger, the promise of happiness, not the guarantee. Lana intertwines all these thoughts, living for a day in Albert Camus’ Oran, dying on a hill like Robert Jordan within Happiness is a Butterfly;

Happiness is a butterfly

Try to catch it like every night

It escapes from my hands into moonlight

Every day is a lullaby

I hum it on the phone like every night

If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst

That could happen to a girl who’s already hurt?

I’m already hurt

If he’s as bad as they say, then I guess I’m cursed

Looking into his eyes, I think he’s already hurt

He’s already hurt

Once we’ve left the academic halls of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and virtue signaling we enter a world still dominated by the same laws of nature found in Call of the Wild or Lord of the Flies. Everyone will be hurt. Some argue that the invention of aspirin, more than anything else, changed the modern world. Aspirin took away our pain. We traded emotional and physical relief for the grit and constitution of our forebears. We became weaker and less able to endure, we subconsciously gravitated to those things which offered the least amount of risk, the most safety, and the littlest pain. And still, everyone is hurt. Freedom and the chance at being alive are worth more than anything else in this paradigm. If I’m already hurt, already near death, then what’s the worst that can happen if I take a chance and live free?

The last song on Norman is Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman like me to Have – but I have it. I’m not sure any other artist can pull off ten-minute songs or titles like this in modern music without sounding pretentious but Lana does, goes again to the authenticity we feel from her voice and lyrics. Hope is dangerous. Hope leads to being hurt again. At your job, relationships, and dreams, hope is the special sauce that brings it all together only to leave a bitter acrid taste in your mouth when, invariably, you are disappointed. Hope is Sisyphean. And yet, without hope, there is only surrender. Lana rages in the song;

I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown

24/7 Sylvia Plath

Writing in blood on the walls

‘Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad

Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not

But, at best, I can say I’m not sad

She’s not sad. She’s not sad because she’s free to get on a bike and ride, go off into the wild and die in the Alaskan wilderness, or take a chance to live an entire lifetime of memories into a week. Lana closes Ride with the line, “I am fucking crazy, but I am free.” Am I? Are you? And, more importantly, do we want to be free? The idea of America remains, hidden behind the blue and red vitriolic social media discourse, behind the Robber Baron wealth gap that has squeezed the life out of the country, and behind the seemingly endless wars the government spends our future funding. The idea of America, where no one has to live the life their father or mother did, a place where you aren’t beholden to some unelected bureaucrat telling you where to go and how to live your life, the idea that with a horse, a wagon, and free will a future can be made. A better future. Those ideas still exist, if we want them if we aren’t too afraid to take them. If, we are free.

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Todd Davis

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