A Step Ahead of the Critics on Lust for Life

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Lana Del Rey is far from everyone’s cup of tea. Having tripped, stumbled, and detonated onto the musical scene in 2012 with two critically-panned, albeit notorious, performances on SNL, Lana’s career seemed destined to be consistently lambasted before her first album even dropped.

Her debut album, Born to Die, was soaked in sounds of nostalgia for a bygone 1950s and -60s that Lana, born in 1985 as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant in Lake Placid, was never a part of. Her image began as a Hamptons-bred Jacqueline Bouvier who, instead of marrying a Kennedy at age twenty-four, went straight to courting a sixty-four year old Aristotle Onassis, and remained in perpetual mourning after his death despite inheriting his fortune. Coupled with film noir soundscapes and woozily vague lyrics celebrating death, relationships with generational age gaps, and deviant sexual escapades, it was a comprehensive album that, retrospectively, critics took way too seriously. Born to Die received a C+ from Entertainment Weekly, two stars from Rolling Stone, and mixed reviews by the Los Angeles Times. And those reviews pale in comparison to the continuing vitriol possessed by the general public.

As an avid fan since her first album, I am aware of all the criticisms that come with enjoying Lana’s music; I won’t extensively go through each criticism, which could be a topic for another blog post altogether. I’m sure a handful of readers perusing this piece either gave a short chuckle or rolled their eyes when finding out who I was writing about, and either enjoy Lana’s music, be it passively or passionately, or find her songs and her image ridiculous, anti-feminist, depressing, or even detrimental to young listeners.

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Lana and The Weeknd in the music video for Lust for Life

This brings me to what exactly I’ve been currently listening to: Lana’s most recent album, Lust for Life. It came on the heels of two atmospheric singles, one of which is the title track featuring her and The Weeknd superfluously and dreamily crooning “Take off, take off, take off all your clothes / Take off, take off, take off all your clothes / Take off, take off, take off all of your clothes” (get the picture?). The first single, “Love” (see extraterrestrial and hipster themed music video below), abandons Lana’s inclination for self-reflection and instead turns outward and talks to her fans, cheekily referring to them as “kids” who get “all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular / Back to work or the coffee shop / Doesn’t matter ‘cause it’s enough / To be young and in love / To be young and in love…”  

The album, her longest to date at nearly 72 minutes, contains distinct “Lana” elements, like in “Groupie Love,” which enmeshes A$AP Rocky’s raps against a backdrop of her signature cinematic orchestrations. When I read song titles like “Cherry” and “White Mustang” before even listening to them, I simply nodded my head and felt content; it felt right that Lana would have songs with such titles, and it only helps that she unnecessarily showers “Cherry” with expletives just because she can.

Then, there are the surprising moments on the album that even I was not expecting. It is during those handful of moments in which Lana dares to get political, which is a departure from her earlier songs (which primarily explore the politics of relationships) and a sharp contrast with the views many of her conservative fans attracted to her Americana image harbor. While never mentioning any political party or world leader by name, Lana asks “Is this the end of an era? / Is this the end of America?” on her track “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” The seemingly celebratory song “God Bless America (And All the Beautiful Women In It)” is peppered with thunderous gunshots after pledging allegiance to her country. In perhaps one of her most haunting songs produced, the piano ballad “Change” is palpable with the uncertainty of a looming catastrophe; she describes an unidentified entity “comin’ in softly on the wings of a bomb” as a “change gonna come, I don’t know where or when / But whenever it does, we’ll be here for it.”  

Released this past July, Lust for Life enjoyed a surprising amount of critical praise, which included many applauding Lana’s self-awareness when it came to her previous image and the one she is campily embodying now. Kevin Long of GQ Magazine wrote that “Lust For Life is an accomplished piece of art, an antidote to the banal tunes permeating the charts and one of the best albums released this year so far.” Many reviewers seemed relieved that they can now breathe easily when listening to her music, no longer finding the doomed damsel in distress so daunting. It was amusing to read such reviews; critics were writing as if Lana was finally not taking herself so seriously. However, I couldn’t help but be astounded and realize that exactly the reverse had taken place.

Lana has always been aware of her image. It is a carefully tailored creation that she takes pains to maintain, as evidenced by her lack of promotion for her albums or television appearances. The mistake many critics make when assessing a musical artist is that they either take the artist too seriously or not seriously enough; Lana’s career, up until recently, has suffered from the former. The mystique, the lure, the themes she addresses are meant to be through the lens of a femme fatale who time traveled to the 21st century to spread her kitsch to those willing to listen and look. She was never very on the nose about it. Now, she is.

In Lust for Life, Lana is in full control of every eye roll that could be evoked by critics and fans, alike. Whereas there were hints of self-awareness in her albums Ultraviolence (which contains choruses of her lazily chanting phrases such as “I’m a sad girl” and “I’m pretty when I cry”) and Honeymoon (which opens with the self-referential lyric “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me”), Lana makes it a priority to address the caricatures that critics have so long categorized as a sign of ignorance on her end. Leave it to her and Stevie Nicks to bask in the elegiac tones of “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems,” which comments more so on the reality of the privileged, petty problems of the upper echelon than it does on their own first-world tragedies.   

So Lana Del Rey is finally being found out for what she really is. Which isn’t a bad thing, since she had always wanted to radiate this image she continues to perform. Ironically, what garnered accolades for her recent music has very little to do with the soundscapes themselves; it’s no secret that, sonically, there are many similarities between albums and songs within the same album (but there’s also no denying that she has a penchant for catchy hooks and poetically memorable lyrics). What she had to figure out was that she has to be less subtle about her motivations and more pronounced in her intentions; more obvious, while still remaining as alluring and provocative as she always has; more silly, while still keeping a straight face and sexily chain smoking her way through concerts. 

On her track In My Feelings,” listeners are asked “Who’s doper than this bitch? Who’s freer than me?” For a little while, after experiencing Lust For Life, you might come up with no other answer than the stage name of the lady in question.

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Salvatore Casto