Lana’s look is not to make it look easy.
In 2011, Lana Del Rey showed up to the chillwave party with flowers in her hair and a video she’d made herself. She was awkward, a pity guest tugging at the hem of her hand-me-down dress. She didn’t know how to do eyeliner. The video—for “Video Games”—looked something like a camcorder montage played at an early funeral, and something like a collection of messages left on Skype for a long-distant lover, and then like something less altogether, a naive and half-stoned distraction from full-time basement life. Singer and video both were accused of the ultimate high school don’ts: “being fake” and “trying” (the new “selling out”). In response, Lana shrugged and said that really, she should’ve tried harder. “Had I known so many people were going to watch [it],” she told The Daily Star in 2012, “I’d have put some more effort into it. I would have got my hair and makeup done and tried not to be so pouty, seeing as everyone talks about my face all the time.”
That year in fashion, the yen for pastels reached a zenith, and few stars went paler than Lana. I remember trying the trend, sort of—I’d bleached my hair to death in 2010, then infused it with lavender, rose—but when it came to clothes that matched, I felt ridiculous. I balked at what I then called “the bad girl gone Lula” look, which a “hazily pastiched” Del Rey embodied in and around her “Video Games” fame. I didn’t care if her lips were fake; I cared that the cigarette between them went unsmoked. (As a failed evangelical Christian, I have never understood why anyone would pretend to have sin.) Her songs I liked, but the outfits bored me: stiff, prim, and so often pastel, a hue synonymous with sweetness and artificiality. Pastels, and the Pleasantville styles they come in, also connote (to me) an anodyne, ladylike feminism that prizes smartness and self-righteousness at the expense of not only sex appeal but those who use it to win, as if brains are any less a thing of luck and cultivation than bodies, or as if the average intellect is any less artificial than (allegedly) Lana’s lips or Lana’s nose.
I find it funny-sad-true that in trying to look “smart,” she basically just dressed “non-slutty”: Google-image “Lana Del Rey 2011” and “Lana Del Rey 2012,” and you’ll get gowns to the floor, shirts buttoned all the way up, fuzzy sweaters, and cinch-waisted frocks. She dyed her Lizzy Grant–era, Britney-blonde hair a respectable, honeyed shade of brown. She lowered her voice, because “people didn’t take [her] seriously with a high one,” but then they didn’t trust her femininity with a low one. So she sang “Blue Velvet” but wore strawberry pink and mint green, peach and lemon and violet. And white—never white like a bride, but white like the girl who wears white to someone else’s wedding.
Why was Lana never believable as a Kennedy, whether she was playing Jackie or dressing like Carolyn Bessette? Because she was in on the joke. At 14, she was sent to Kent School, the 19th most expensive private high school in America; famous graduates include composers, actors, opera singers, Meryl Streep’s daughter, and a “yachting cinematographer and lecturer.” When she left to go sing about it (see: the painfully pre-fame “Boarding School,” 2009) she knew exactly what she was running away from; when she sang about “doing crack and drinking Pepsi,” she was announcing herself as the anti–Diet Cokehead. The kind of girl she grew up against is classy, symmetrical, “well off” (not “rich”), and thin; her beauty labor is 90 percent hidden, an alembic of genes and expense. She gets $900 blonde highlights, $140 blowouts, and $18 juices, goes in for daily personalized workouts and twice-weekly facials, and spends an hour a day taking vitamins, only to smile apologetically and say, “I swear, it’s just lip gloss and Touche Éclat.” Meanwhile, Lana came out looking like she spent more time on her face than in bed.
Accordingly, Born to Die (2012) took a Blue Velvet-ier direction. But for the album’s Pepsi-colored cover shoot, and for most of that year’s concerts, acceptances, and appearances, Lana put on a Sunday look she couldn’t altogether pull off. Pale prep revivalism made Taylor Swift look like a debutante, and Lana Del Rey like a runaway in shoplifted trends. Both Taylor and Lana are former tomboys with loaded dads and blue-collar origin stories. But Lana, dressed like a sweetheart, was nobody’s.
Not until the video for “Ride,” with its naive Amer-arcana and manic declaration of independence, did my impression make sense of the rest. Lana’s whiteness had never been innocent, or wasn’t now; her look was suddenly so conscious, so caricaturing of its influences that I could have sworn she was appropriating whiteness. The dresses had never been “daddy’s girl,” but “daddy’s little girl.” I was wrong about the cigarettes, too. Fader’s cover story has her “chain-smoking Parliaments,” a brand nobody buys to look cool, and her speaking voice is first-hand proof. Sober for a decade, she still sings about whiskey and “white lines.” She has never been spotted near a gym. Nor has she ever “opened up” about her weight, in regard to which she’s one of the less bothered pop stars alive. As seen in Tropico, Lana’s body is ripe, trembling, and defiantly unmaintained, a body as far out of time as her voice.
Because she seems not to take care of herself (that unfairest of modern mandates), Lana’s beauty is both laborious and ad hoc. It’s fake nails, false eyelashes, and lashings of powder and kohl. Her hair, which has always looked dyed from a box, is now the nightshade hue of Secret nylons. Just as her reply to “trying too hard” on “Video Games” was to try a lot harder—her colors more and more saturated over the course of Born to Die—so too, now that she’s famous enough to get her makeup done for a bodega trip, does she refuse the kind of Beyoncé-level mask that looks (but isn’t) effortless, or even good, up close (see: her Fader cover shoot, in which the cameras get hi-def and the makeup stays lo-def). The message is clear: stay your distance. Or maybe: I can’t bear my skin, but also: Who the fuck are you to think you’re entitled to the “real” me? She looks suprareal. She looks…exhausting.
“I wish I was dead already,” she says, but “I wish I was dead” was already sung on “Dark Paradise,” and we (the media) didn’t freak out two years ago. We either did not hear or did not take seriously the lyric. Failed to believe she had written it, assumed she herself did not believe it, we are trained to think of the pop star’s persona as safely removed from the person, the same way we recast as “fantasy” what we’re afraid to say we really, really want. I too think this of most personas, but not of Lana’s. I think, What if Lana did fuck her way to the top? What if she was hit? What if she liked it? What if her pussy tastes exactly like cola? And if all she wants is dope and diamonds, so what? What if the most radical—fuck it, feminist—thing you can do is believe everything a girl says about her life, whether or not you like it?
Two years ago, the prevailing (male) establishment didn’t like it one bit. Reviews had Lana looking not all that dark, only noir: a vamp, a tramp, the new Blue Angel, accused of luring lonesome crowds of indie boys from their shitty lo-fi principles. The New York Times’s Jon Caramanica called her a poser, a meme, and a has-been, suggesting she could only try again by “wash[ing] off that face paint” and “muss[ing] up that hair.” In other words, Lana Del Rey should do a better job of passing—of being a “natural woman.”
Instead, Lana has replaced Anna Nicole Smith as the reigning “faux queen,” a former blue-jean baby whose rejection of upwardly mobile feminism and/or high-class femininity in favor of fatalistic glamour and female-to-female drag makes her a gender deserter to some, but a godsend to most, because at least she never makes it look easy. And what a relief. When straight girls and women are meant to choose between chic, studied effortlessness (creative upper class/Manhattan) and tweely aestheticized failure (creative underclass/Brooklyn), Lana’s truth is way, way in between: Being a man-loving woman is not an identity; it’s a job. It’s a glamorous job, but the hours are long and there’s often no future and it sucks, it scars, and it hardens, and it’s hard. (Here I admit that it’s tempting to read “man” unliterally, as something big and impossible to get out from—drugs, fame, money, a whole damn country. In melodramatic pop songs, almost any relation is easier read as a relationship.)
Against the glistening “unlistenable” void of Ultraviolence, its clamor and glitz and classless, naked aspiration (shared also by the best songs on Born to Die), Lana’s old pastels seem cold in a newish light. Everything Ambien blue, Paxil pink, Oxycodone mint. Celexa peach, Klonopin yellow, Wellbutrin violet—the “violet pills” she sings of in a bonus track, maybe… but she’s off it all now. Gone are the prescriptive hits. Gone the flowers. Everything fades to bruise, until: the cover of Ultraviolence is her in black and white with a white car and a white simple V-neck over a white, visible bra, as if to say, “Is this real enough for you?” It’s strange. No one has ever looked less comfortable in a T-shirt. For a week I couldn’t figure it out, and then I thought: She looks like a patient escaping.