Lana Del Rey's New America

Why the pop maven ditched the American flag.
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Why the pop maven ditched the American flag.
Lana del Rey performs in Paris on January 30th, 2012.

Lana del Rey performs in Paris on January 30th, 2012.

If you Google image search "Lana Del Rey American Flag" today, your results will overflow with shots of Del Rey in front of American flags, or an American flag waving behind her like a cape, or Del Rey wearing an American flag sweatshirt. In front of the flags she is smiling, or winking, or saluting. At least in the years before 2017, Del Rey was very interested in the national aesthetic, her music a dissection of a very specific, retro-fitted Americana; everything on her records felt drowned in nostalgia for an American time and place where the only true danger was desire, or lust, or romance. Her sound is patterned as a type of baroque pop with a vibrant sheen—updated not only from late-'60s Brit-pop groups, but also from bands like Panic! at the Disco, who played with the genre in the mid-2000s. Almost all the songs from her first three major-label albums (2012's Born to Die, 2014's Ultraviolence, and 2015's Honeymoon) were about the minutiae of an inward-facing turmoil, rarely looking outward. Del Rey was trafficking in romance more than anything else: romance for the past and the romance of escape, with emotional torture waiting at every intersection. In her mind you could hear a Hollywood version of retro America, where she was the only star.

Suddenly, though, Del Rey has done away with the American flag, saying that she is no longer comfortable using its imagery at her shows.

It bears emphasizing that Del Rey came of artistic age in a different America from the one we are in now—specifically, Barack Obama's America, where people were more willing to ignore global (and local) atrocities committed in the name of the flag; an era of a cool president who made a lot of people feel good. Del Rey's past interest in a relic of America, paired with her notoriously apolitical stances early in her career, would almost certainly make her a target for derision in 2017. Still, in 2012, she was seen as refreshing. Despite lukewarm critical reviews, Born to Die became a cult classic, eventually going platinum. In a 2014 interview, when asked whether she was a feminist, Del Rey gave a bizarre response about how feminism wasn't interesting to her. "I'm more interested in SpaceX and Tesla, what's going to happen with our intergalactic responsibilities," she said.

With all this in mind, it is fascinating (and still somewhat refreshing) that Del Rey's musical evolution over the past five years has also involved a political one. Lust for Life, Del Rey's fifth album, was released last week. It infamously shares its name with Iggy Pop's second solo album, released 40 years and one month ago today. For Iggy, it was the second album he made in collaboration with David Bowie in Berlin, where they both went to record albums and heal—getting back on their feet after bouts with drug addiction. Iggy's Lust for Life is notable because it seems like the first album where he's seeing clearly, as if the world has become, for a moment, not blurry and instead a whole and aching thing, needing to be archived. There are certainly dark moments on Iggy's record, but the darkness serves the process of his crawling into the light.

This is an album of awakening for Del Rey. It's as though she had lived comfortably in a neighborhood of burning houses for several years and recently decided to step outside.

Del Rey's Lust for Life is channeling similar interests. The light, for Del Rey, is what finally allows her to see something beyond whatever's rattling around inside her own head. Lust for Life is Del Rey's album where she sees the world for what it is. On her 2012 single, "Ride," she sang: "I've got a war in my mind." But there was never a war inside of Del Rey's head; she just thought there was. War is a glossy metaphor, but it falls flat the moment one realizes that only war is war. And sometimes, there is war—real war—outside, in a world you live in, in a space you inhabit. This is an album of awakening for Del Rey, though a lot of the sound template is similar. Del Rey maintains her obsession with pop-culture nostalgia, but turns the lens slightly. Before, it was all about her own interior and nothing else. Now, it's about how her interior sits in a living world that she seems increasingly uncomfortable with.

There is a thing that poets and writers like to talk about in workshop spaces: how to raise the stakes in a poem or a story. For me, I like to imagine that shift is subtle: a changing of how the "I" sits in the narrative voice. On Lust for Life, whereas once Del Rey used to mythologize a distant American fantasy as a luxury, now she's clinging to it out of fear for a country that isn't like the one she built in her mind.

This isn't to say that Lust for Life is a fiercely political statement, but it does have a sheen of the political laid atop her usual romantics. For Del Rey, this development feels like a big leap. "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing" sounds exactly as the title suggests, the chorus opening itself up with: "Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?" "God Bless America—and All the Beautiful Women in It" is, in part, a track referring to the women's marches that swept the nation this past winter. In a Pitchfork interview, when asked about the song, Del Rey said: "Women started to feel less safe under this administration instantly. What if they take away Planned Parenthood? What if we can't get birth control? Now, when people ask me those questions, I feel a little differently."

It also bears mentioning that Del Rey's American vision was never perfect. On her past albums, at the core of the retro-American narrative, were a set of flawed characters, often receiving or enacting violence. There was a filter of supposed beauty laid over this violence—or, at least, that seemed to be Del Rey's vision—but the violence existed nonetheless. Ultraviolence, her most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album, walked this edge deftly, observing a sort of dark cinema where characters are capable both of being damaged and of damaging. Finally, it seems, Del Rey's flawed vision has come to life, in the real world, and she's visibly and vocally wrestling with that. It is one thing to write songs in the imagination where women are at risk; it is another thing to be rattled out of one's imagination, to awaken to a place where real women have always been at risk, and where their risk feels—at least to Del Rey—more urgent than ever.

In that same Pitchfork interview, when asked about whether she was becoming more political, Del Rey began her response by saying: "It's more appropriate now than under the Obama administration, where at least everyone I knew felt safe. It was a good time." Here I am reminded that Del Rey is seemingly among the masses who were jarred awake by Donald Trump after a life of imagining a world where no one was at risk before him. I don't necessarily want to punish or hand down a sentence to Del Rey based on this—I think she is in the company of many; rather, I bring it up to mention once more how fascinating it can be to watch a public artist's politics evolve in real time, particularly in an era where an artist's political missteps can result in popular abandonment, or at least relentless mocking. I don't find myself particularly impressed with Del Rey's political shifts, at least not in tone. Which is to say that I'm not particularly interested in her politics themselves, but rather in the urgency with which she seems to be catching up. It's as if she lived comfortably in a neighborhood of burning houses for several years and recently decided to step outside.

For now, then, Del Rey is going to stop using the American flag as a part of her aesthetic, telling Pitchfork that Old Glory would "feel weird to her now" in a way that it didn't in the past. This is a weighty move for Del Rey, who—while also a being a skilled songwriter with a stellar ear—has survived in part on using aesthetics to create a feeling. When Del Rey wielded the American flag, it was decidedly not the same as, say, when Toby Keith does it. She wasn't aiming for blind patriotism, but instead for a spirit of simplicity that this country's flag still represents, if only for some: How the stars and stripes might sit on an abandoned vintage truck outside of a field in anywhere, U.S.A., while you sit in the front seat and a song you love plays on the radio, a breeze blowing in through the windows.

That's done now. At the end of every feeling built up to be larger than life, there is a stubborn reality. Like Iggy Pop in the '70s on his album of the same title, Del Rey is finding her new reality and finding herself in it. The album feels like her best and most complete. She wears self-awareness well, takes risks with her guest spots (hers is surely the only album this year that will have efficient and delightful guest turns from both A$AP Rocky and Stevie Nicks), and has produced a record stunningly consistent all the way through. Del Rey's home country has always been sadness, even if she didn't always imagine the country of her birth as sad or compromised. On Lust for Life, both parts of that machine are finally speaking to each other. Del Rey is done winking in front of flags. She's found a touchable, inescapable thing to be sad about. And yet, for the first time on an album cover, she is smiling. 

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