When Lana Del Rey first hinted at a foray into poetry via cryptic Instagram posts my mind went to a line from her last album Norman Fucking Rockwell: ‘Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news’. One year on she’s about to release an audio book of 14 poems set to music with the printed volume to follow in September: Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass. The title conjures up Fitzgerald’s short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair and more obscurely the ethereal Eighties pop of Virginia Astley, love songs to the English countryside. California is Del Rey’s playground; Los Angeles is her town. The setting has been the backdrop throughout five successful albums and is central to the opening poem ‘LA Who Am I To Love You?’
The actor James Franco has said her music reminds him of everything he loves about that city: ‘I am sucked into a long gallery of Los Angeles cult figurines, and cult people, up all night like vampires and bikers.’ That was back when she appeared to be channelling the young Eve Babitz, fixating on bad boys, drugs, sex and the Chateau Marmont. She’s since been described as the spiritual successor to Joan Didion who left her native west coast for New York while Del Rey did the reverse (‘Come to California be a freak like me,’ she sings on her third album Honeymoon.) Didion has written of how the Santa Ana winds keep a city under siege from earthquakes and fires forever on the edge. Or as Lana Del Rey put it: ‘L.A.’s in flames, it’s a getting hot/Kanye West is blonde and gone/Life On Mars ain’t just a song.’
The California she writes about is no longer that celebrity enclave of vapid glamour, wealth and ambition that once summed up her output as ‘Hollywood sadcore’. Gradually the muse moved beyond Wilshire Boulevard towards the sprawl that is home to the real America. The one that was always a far cry from the paintings of Norman Rockwell – as he was the first to admit. Her ‘politics’ are those of a liberal establishment that labour’s under the delusion it is marginalised and radical, with a cursory nod to the jejune concerns of the Hollywood herd. Yet she’s distinct from those celebrities taking the method approach to activism, exemplified by the risible Jane Fonda reprising the beret of the Black Panthers – from the salad days of radical chic – in support of Black Lives Matter.
Del Rey has been criticised for a lack of political commitment in the past, just as she was accused of presenting women as pitiful victims by pandering to male fantasies with the playfulness of a ‘Lolita’ in her thirties. ‘There has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me,’ she said, supporting the #MeToo movement while seemingly at odds with its depiction of women as fragile creatures in need of a crinoline or a burka to shield from the scrutiny of the male gaze. This year she sparked controversy when complaining she was cast as a ‘whore’ for content that passes as ‘art’ when practised by other performers. She mentioned names, alluding to those black female rappers that are a caricature of both their ethnicity and their gender. Needless to say the obligatory charges of racism and white privilege were levelled and she responded:
Can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money without being crucified or saying I’m glamorising abuse?
Sometimes silence and cunning are the best response in these situations, particularly when you’re too successful to even need the validation of your peers. She should follow the advice from the titular poem of the forthcoming collection: ‘I decided to do nothing about everything’.
Her ambition from the outset was to become a ‘beautiful poet’ and clues are scattered throughout her career, from Walt Whitman quotes to reciting Eliot’s ‘Burn Norton’. The epic wall of sound, the sumptuous strings that shrouded her voice and verse that aimed for Sylvia Plath and sometimes settled for The Shangri-Las, are in the past. A lyricism has appeared that’s both lighter and deeper, pushing the words to the fore along with that captivating voice. On the last album she was supported by beats that belonged in another building, and a tinkling piano in the next apartment. ‘The poetry in me is like a warm gun,’ she crooned.
Del Rey recites the words in that breathy, wounded voice warning there may be trouble ahead
Her long-term collaborator Jack Antonoff provides the understated soundtrack to the poetry collection, the words recited in that breathy, wounded voice warning there may be trouble ahead by way of heartbreak, tragedy, and broken dreams that are always big, and always American. Despite the subtle shifts in musical style throughout her career a constant has been her voice telling a story. The words were attached to the culture of the present, even though the music took its cue from the epic pop of a 1960s before the fall; the America of the Kennedy clan rather than the Manson family. Some compared it to the film scores of Nino Rota; others to a faked orgasm. The accusations of inauthenticity that plagued Lana Del Rey at the beginning of her career, when this wealthy east coast girl created a persona with a name suited to a Thirties starlet or a Seventies drag act, have diminished along with cute songs about James Dean and soft ice cream. What remains is a longing for something beyond the wealth, fame and success. The pursuit of a dream perhaps, which like that of Gatsby – Fitzgerald features heavily in the Lana Del Rey lexicon – is behind both her and her native country, particularly in the light of recent events. Last month Del Rey again incurred the wrath of her peers, for sharing footage of looters and protesters on Instagram therefore leaving their identities exposed. This was a greater concern to her critics than the destruction of poor neighbourhoods and the murder of the 77-year old African-American David Dorn, a retired police captain. It’s as though the violent ferocity of the Santa Ana winds that Joan Didion described has spread across America and put the entire country on the edge. The news is bad, but on the watch of Lana Del Rey the poetry is sometimes pretty good, and getting better.
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