It was January 2012, just two days before Lana Del Rey was to release her breakthrough album “Born to Die.” New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica had just written a scathing column trashing everything about her – her voice, her singing style, her stage presence – and wrapped up by saying, “The only real option is to wash off that face paint, muss up that hair and try again in a few years.”
Two-and-a-half years later, it seems as if Caramanica’s predictions were well off the mark. Not just because Del Rey – who will be performing here in August – has become an iconic pop star, but because her particular “look,” the one he had urged her to change, has become an integral part of the now-widely imitated Lena Del Rey package.
One can assume that Caramanica meant to criticize Del Rey’s artificial aesthetic as part of a hollow, inauthentic product of big record producers. But Del Rey, in a totally deliberate style, has based her creative enterprise on the art of pretense.
Before she changed her name, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Woolridge Grant was a bar singer fighting for recognition, who looked like your typical American adolescent. But then, almost overnight, Del Rey grew up and became the young mother of that same teenager. Her hair turned honey-colored and was combed in elegant waves, reminiscent of Veronica Lake. She had surgery on her nose and lips, her wardrobe became more tailored and conservative, and her new grooming habits – long nails, dramatic eyeliner and shimmering jewelry – brought to mind a mature woman appearing before a bored audience in Las Vegas hotels.
Del Rey imbibed this melancholy look from the lives of American legends such as Marilyn Monroe, Nancy Sinatra and Jackie Onassis. The singer, 28, has a decidedly sentimental attitude toward the heyday of American culture from the middle of the last century, and a huge appetite for nostalgia. Her longing for what was has influenced her public image more than anything else. And with her behavior, hairstyling, mode of dress and even her voice, she is nurturing a very defined aesthetic of a mature woman yearning for a past that was never hers. Through this flamboyant self-invention, she is also hinting that maturity is wasted on adults, parodying that old saw about youth and the young.
But the target of this nostalgia is not just the past for the past’s sake. Del Rey is specifically embracing female submission and women’s self-destructive tendencies. Many critics have criticized the desire Del Rey demonstrates for the oppressed and submissive femininity that preceded women’s liberation. Others have also defined the glamorous look she nurtures as that of a femme fatale, without the contemporary female empowerment.
Del Rey, who in keeping with this image adopted a smoky, film noir voice, remains firmly committed to these images of feminine Americana. Indeed, she has a symbiotic relationship with the fashion community – Mulberry designed a pocketbook bearing her name that has become a best-seller; she is under contract with the Next modeling agency and was offered a lead role in H&M’s advertising campaign.
But even this relationship hasn’t undermined her commitment to her range of characters. And within this defined range, she switches identities incessantly. Sometimes she’s the bored housewife, sometimes the girl hanging out with an older motorcycle gang; sometimes the glamorous actress whose outward appearance hides deep emotional wounds. Herein lies the difference between her and her contemporaries in the pop arena: While Rihanna, Katy Perry or Beyoncé change outfits, and Lady Gaga tries to create as many looks as she can in one show, Del Rey dons and removes identities.
Every personality she tries on instantly becomes hers, like clothes bought at a thrift store that “adapt” to the purchaser. As such, Del Rey has – ironically – become the poster girl for the international hipster movement, whose members wear ready-made identities and create an aesthetic affinity with famous figures from Western culture without shame and great glee.
But all that may be changing now. With the weakening of the hipster movement, even Del Rey seems to be dropping the melodramatic look. On her new album, “Ultraviolence,” she seems to be pursuing the more relaxed existence of a California girl who spends her days on the beach with her boyfriend. In the video for the song “West Coast,” which was filmed in black and white, the two [Del Rey and Bradley Soileau, the model who has appeared in several of her videos] remind one of the generic characters printed on thin cloth that teens hung in their rooms in the early 1990s.
The tendency toward melodrama remains, however. In an interview with U.K. daily The Guardian last week, the singer – who bears a tattoo reading “Die young” – expressed a death wish, not because she has it bad as a pop star, but to unite with her idols from the imaginary “27 Club” (whose members died at the age of 27), Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
But between Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse, and between the perfect suburban housewife and the California girl, there is slowly emerging another character – that of Lizzie Grant, the young woman from a small town in Upstate New York with a big appetite for remaking herself. With her tattoos, flickering of youthful folly and even the sadness in her eyes, Del Rey makes no effort to hide any traces of that girl. On the contrary, to be a great American legend, one must be seen as a successful case of self-invention.