When you first push “play” on Lana Del Rey’s sophomore record, Ultraviolence, I urge you to do the following: Close your eyes. Picture yourself in a darkened movie theater, the projector flickering to life — the screen filled with a young actress who employs the Meisner method at times, but who’s an actress all the same.
And I urge you to refrain from pointing your finger and yelling, “Fraud!” Because, when it comes to the art world, who ever promised you truth?
Lana Del Rey is a storyteller of the highest order. She’s Andy Kaufman — with plump lips and cascading hair. And there’s nothing, readers, wrong with that. On the Dan Auerbach-produced Ultraviolence — and the rest of her recordings — she’s doing what many musicians have done before her: She’s taking on a character, or characters. And she’s using those characters to tell stories of love and loss that may be true — and may be just that: stories.
Throughout the track list of Ultraviolence, Del Rey dons and discards personas like a kid playing dress-up. On the dark, twangy opener “Cruel World,” she’s preening, lollipop-licking Lana — a “mess” with her “little red party dress on,” eating candy and singing almost menacingly about a former lover: “I got your bible and your gun … And I’m so happy now that you’re gone.”
Then, on the title track, “Ultraviolence,” some of the bravado chips away as she sings about a man named Jim who may or may not be the leader of a cult she once joined and quit in New York, according to an interview with The New York Times.
Strikingly, she quotes The Crystals’ 1962 song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” on that track, then croons, “I can hear violins, violins/ Give me all of that Ultraviolence” — likely a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” in which the closeness between the words “violence” and “violin” is explored.
But Del Rey isn’t the only singer to play with multiple guises, although LDR seems to elicit a different response. Lady Gaga, for instance, says she was “born this way” as she vamps around in mermaid costumes, taking on the persona of everyone from a dominatrix to the Venus de Milo — and we send up a cheer, despite the fact she was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. David Bowie becomes The Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust and a litany of other characters — and we make him an icon, even though he was once David Robert Jones. The list goes on.
So why is it that when Lizzy Grant becomes Lana Del Rey, we decide there’s a money machine behind her transformation and call her a construct? Why do we allow some musicians the exploration of their selves while condemning others for not being “authentic”? And how authentic are our icons and stars in the first place? That’s a whole other story.
Right now we’re talking about Lana and hers — and it’s ever-changing.
“Brooklyn Baby” marks a noticeable shift in Lana’s character, as she becomes a tongue-in-cheek parody of the modern hipster. “I’m churning out novels like Beat poetry on Amphetamines,” she boasts, feathers in her hair, and continues to brag, “Yeah my boyfriend’s pretty cool/ But he’s not as cool as me,” while real-life musician boyfriend Barrie James O’Neill sings backup.
There are moments of twisted-grin truth like this scattered throughout the record — truths that fans can only ascertain by shifting through interviews and conversation snatches.
The presence of such truths may seem, in a sense, like Lana is asking us to buy into the myth — to believe that the character she has created is 100 percent her. Still, there’s always a wryness, always an absurdity that accompanies her brooding earnestness that seems like too much of a wink.
It carries over into her real-life persona as well. In a recent interview with The Guardian, she surprised the interviewer by exclaiming, “I wish I was dead already” — a sentiment she expressed first in “Dark Paradise.” There’s also her assertion that she finds feminism boring and that she likes “a little hardcore love.”
Both statements seem designed to push buttons, but somehow it feels like getting mad at anything Lana Del Rey says/sings would be like getting mad at a book character for doing something you don’t deem moral. And that’s not to say Lana Del Rey is fake or a construct of some evil label system — it’s to say she’s an artist.
She’s an artist or, perhaps, an unreliable narrator — like Humbert Humbert in her beloved “Lolita” looking for the elusive Quilty. Del Rey told us as much in the monologue preceding the “Ride” video: “My mother told me I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality.”
In interviews she has called her music autobiographical, then turned around and stated to The Times, “I either want to tell it exactly like the way it was, or I want to envision the future the way I hope it will become. I’m either documenting something or I’m dreaming.” And she doesn’t tell us where the dream leaves off and real life begins.
The image that has been projected on her by the media snarls her persona even further on this record — which in some places reacts to reactions to her Born To Die (untangle that mess).
“Carl Jung said that inevitably what other people think of you becomes a small facet of your psyche, whether you want it to or not,” she told The Times, referring to the crowing jam “Money, Power, Glory.”
“I learned that whatever I did elicited an opposite response, so I’m sure ‘Money, Power, Glory’ will actually resonate with people as being what I really do want,” she said. “I already know what’s coming, so it’s OK to explore irony and bitterness.” Yup, not everything sang is sang in earnest.
The aforementioned “Brooklyn Baby” seems to be another moment of explored irony and bitterness — reacting to what many have considered her overly calculated hipster persona — as does “F–ked My Way to the Top.”
That songs contains another kernel of truth — but twisted. Del Rey told The Fader she had a seven-year relationship with the head of a label — but the man never signed her.
Therefore, her almost petulant-sounding assertion that “this is my show” seems more a parody of what others have said about her and how they perceive her than anything else. In a way, she’s taking the false image that others have created of her and handing it back to them, gussied up like truth — with a sneer. And that’s kind of brilliant.
Out of all ilks of artists, we often place a unique burden on the musician. We allow writers their fictions, actors their mimicry, painters their abstract inner eyes. But when it comes to musicians, “authenticity” becomes a sticking point. We expect their songs to be autobiographical. Their personas to be in earnest. And when we see artifice there, we cry foul — or manipulation by some money-grubbing industry. However, we are strangely inconsistent with our expectations.
In the end, only Lizzy Grant knows how much of Lana Del Rey is woven into her atoms — only Lizzy Grant knows how true the words she sings are or whether the emotions are authentic. And, in the end, it’s not our job as listeners to peel back the layers and ask to see the real Lana Del Rey — it’s our job to enjoy the show.