Riding with Lana Del Rey and Courtney Love
The headlights from passing cars
They illuminate my face then leave me in the dark
The voice of Nirvana says, “Come as you are”
And I will
The night time is almost ours (1)
When I heard Courtney Love was scheduled to open for Lana Del Rey on her Endless Summer tour (2015), I was excited. I don’t know much about Love or her band Hole. But, it seemed as if some aesthetic statement could be made of the two of them sharing a stage, even if it was merely a business relationship. What kind of coincidence is it that Courtney Love seems to actually be one of the tragic, dramatic, iconic, rock star, infamous, bad girls that Lana Del Rey often sings about? And what can this pairing offer to the puzzle of Lana Del Rey?
Some of our more established feminist rock icons, such as Kathleen Hanna, Kim Gordon, and Ani Difranco, emerged as role models in a different time, a time of Riot Grrrl and “girl power”; the 1990s. Catherine Vigier, in a piece discussing Lana Del Rey and post- feminism, describes the atmosphere of the ‘90s: “Women’s liberation seemingly came down to a series of choices about image, lifestyle, and sexual expression. The important thing was to ... abandon any image that suggested victimhood.”(2)
In 2016, in popular culture especially, there’s still the idea that feminism is like this and only this: self-actualized, optimistic, smiling, empowered, go get ‘em. Del Rey doesn’t fit this model and has been harshly criticized as a result. However, we should not be misled. There are other modes of subversion available even to commercially successful pop stars. In that feminism is a way of relating to the world and making sense of that relation, Lana Del Rey’s music is compelling.
Critics’ reception to Lana Del Rey’s work has been dismissive. Perhaps it's because she’s awkward and for some reason they don’t believe her when she tells us how she sees herself and they can’t believe her lyrics to be true fictions. Criticisms of Del Rey include the perceived fakeness of her lips, having gone to private school, being shy, having changed her stage name, and the fact that she is signed to a major label. Criticisms of the work itself focus on what can be read as submissiveness or self-destruction, the use of stereotypical tropes of femininity, and generally being indecisive. If you like her music, you have to be prepared to defend it, or her, or merely concede that she’s allowed to be lame if that’s what she really is. As she herself says in the first line of her most recent album, “We both know that it’s unfashionable to love me.”(3)
So, being a Lana fan is like being her bridesmaid at a wedding ceremony. You’ve got to toast to her strengths, all of her virtues, proving her worth as a bride (while the groom is unquestionably deserving and expectant), just so she can go and marry a jerk in a misogynistic ceremony / make her pop music.
The altar is but one of the stages Lana unhappily sings from. In Del Rey’s view, coming out from under is not easy, everything is hard -- the booze, the men, the fame, the summer. Even true love is disappointing. And, indeed, feminism is a reckoning with disappointment. Theorist Sarah Ahmed explores this position potently in her essay Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects):
Becoming a feminist can be an alienation from happiness (though not just that, not only that: oh the joy of being able to leave the place you were given!). When we feel happiness in proximity to the right objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. You become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when you do not experience happiness from the right things. The gap between the affective value of an object and how we experience an object can involve a range of affects, which are directed by the modes of explanation we offer to fill this gap.(4)
This past summer, Beyonce gave a performance in Central Park where the words “boss” and “hustler” flashed on screens behind her, along with footage of the singer smashing a sewing machine and a vacuum. (5) There was at least one other performance, as part of a televised awards show, where large lit letters spelling out the word “feminist” was the entire set. Is Beyonce sending the message that these terms are interchangeable? For Del Rey, they don’t seem to be.
For one, Del Rey, unfortunately, has said on record “feminism is just not an interesting concept.” (6) And her depiction of hustling is not working extra hard, but the more vulgar meaning, slowly singing “I fucked my way up to the top.” (7) She consistently chooses a laconic gauzy floating loner aesthetic, instead of the typical defiance almost required of pop songs sung by women today. Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Beyonce’s “Who Runs the World” are but two of many such uptempo battle cries. Lana’s lyrical visions do not celebrate independent ambitions. She’s got white middle-class privilege to protect her from urgency, but her cynicism also runs deep. In the song “Flipside” she is icy and expectant: “Are you going to hurt me now, or are you going to hurt me later.” (8)
Her cynicism also prevents her work from suggesting that striving for the position of white men, i.e. a CEO, is feminism or freedom. There is no sense that honest hard work could free a woman, nor is it possible to self-actualize above society’s constricting expectations. Her work revels in alienation, victimhood, and gloom -- these modalities not only de-emphasize but actively negate the commercial success she has achieved. Again, unlike most popular performers, Lana declines to appear triumphant at all costs. The music industry is especially cutthroat, but on the subject of being a boss or a bitch or a feminist or self-aware or an artist, she leaves us doubtful.
This presentation rings true to me. Empowerment should mean more than the equal opportunity to completely submit to capitalism. Besides, as scholar Treva B. Lindsay asks, “Do we even know what an autonomous female looks like in pop culture? What does control even mean in such a corporatized mass-media space?” (9) The unmoved pessimism that is characteristic of Del Rey’s work is a very appropriate response to this question and the world we live in.
The lack of urgency, her polished lonesomeness, and her seductive scowl are well established traits in her work. These traits can be read as apathy or submission, and not obviously as resistance. However, becoming a feminist, in name or not, is a distancing from the things that are supposed to make us happy. (10) Refusing to be happy with those things is a refusal to justify social norms as social good.(11) That her refusal and struggle is obscured with lush sounds, overwrought symbols, and consumable beauty adds complications, because it allows us to readily accept any suffering she can dish out.
As a public figure, Lana knows acutely our banal expectations of her. She is working within these constructs, and it is without pleasure. As evidence, she often seems uncomfortable or annoyed on stage. I saw Lana in concert during the Endless Summer tour in 2015. (It was the East Coast leg of the tour and the artist Grimes was the opening act. Courtney Love had opened at the West Coast concerts). She was wearing a short but decidedly un-trendy white dress and wedges that were too high to easily move around in. As a result, or perhaps it was the intention, she hardly moved at all. Additionally, while she looks the part of a beautiful woman, she hardly ever smiles, and when deployed it is a smile almost of mania. Not only was she ungenerous in her movements, but she did not thank either her band or her fans. There is a sense that Del Rey intends to illuminate the narrow space of our progress, she wants to know for what should she be grateful?
I don’t come to Lana to get ragey, nor do I listen to her to escape into a boozy dream. I come for music and for the smoke and mirrors she simultaneously erects and sharply exposes. When I was a teen, Gwen Stefani sang to me:
I'm just a girl, I'm just a girl in the world. That's all that you'll let me be... I'm just a girl, what's my destiny? What I've succumbed to is making me numb. Oh I'm just a girl, my apologies. What I've become is so burdensome. (12)
Stefani’s sarcasm is overt and her obvious coolness and talent signaled to me that she had not yet succumbed and that she was expressing the power to rise above her destiny as “just” a girl. The music video shows Stefani’s male bandmates rocking out together with their instruments in a grungy garage-like space, the other half of the screen shows her frowny, angst-ridden, and alone in an orderly and confined domestic room. This sarcastic, frustrated Gwen is what I imagine when Del Rey sings “I got that summertime sadness” (13) and “This is what makes us girls” (14) and “They judge me like a picture book by the colors, like they forgot to read” (15) and “I like you a lot”, (16) where her own layered voice mocks the phrase as she says it. Lana is also obsessed with a forever love, but anyone actually dreaming of a forever is in denial. Either they aren’t reckoning with climate change or can’t understand institutionalized racism or see no connection between acts of terror at home and abroad. There will be no honeymoon. Personally, every time I hear Lana singing about “forever”, which is a lot, I hear sarcasm. Ahmed describes this space in her discussion of “feminist killjoys”: “You cannot always close the gap between how you do feel and how you should feel. Behind the sharpness of this ‘cannot’ is a world of possibility. Does activism act out of this gap, opening it up, loosening it up? Not to close the gap between what you do feel and what you should feel might begin as or with a sense of disappointment.” (17) Lana’s sarcasm is indicative of a disconnect, of a rift between what she is supposed to do, think, say, or feel, and her frustration with those expectations.
Del Rey is not a boss and she doesn’t think of herself as feminist.
Instead she croons about drugs and domestic violence, portrays women as victims, revels in the crass and vague search for glory and “having it all”. It’s possible that both Lana Del Rey’s strength and her weakness is that she remains “just” a girl in this world, in the sense that she has “succumbed” and it is making her “numb.” As evidenced in her album titles alone -- Born to Die, Ultraviolence, Honeymoon- Del Rey’s work generally echoes Stefani’s sentiment of entrapment expressed in the song “Just a Girl”. However, while Stefani has “had it up to here”, there isn’t the sense that Del Rey is planning an escape. But, being a dissident is exhausting. Being ambitious is exhausting. Instead, Lana will appear to stay the course and, for example, abide by the rules of conventional femininity. She’ll also be the first to tell you that all it gets her is one step closer to the grave.
To shift our gaze to another West Coast, drug filled, rock and roll scene, we can turn to the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck:
In one eye-popping 1992 home video included in the film, Cobain and [Courtney] Love are seen blissfully living in druggie squalor in Los Angeles. Standing in a towel in the bathroom with shaving cream on his face, Cobain teases Ms. Love about her tabloid image as a man-eating monster. ‘You and Roseanne,’ he says playfully, referring to Roseanne Barr. ‘You’re tied for the most-hated women in America.’ She pretend-pouts. (18)
This could be a scene, down to the pout, from a Lana Del Rey music video- if only it weren’t real. The events of Courtney’s life may be more extreme than Lana’s: the use of substances, the death/ suicide of a husband, peripheral status as an artist, estrangement from family.
And, unlike the icy distance Lana Del Rey has cultivated in her work, the music of Hole is overtly angsty and immediate. A home video clip is not the same as a music video.... Unless the music video is a kind of home video. Which is the case for the song “Video Games;” arguably the launch of Lana Del Rey’s career. Whatever the facts of their lives, there is an audience, and not only do they know it’s there, they’ve invited it, making us wonder what is scripted and what is not.
However, it is not up to us to decide which of Courtney’s or Lana’s stories are real. They are adept, consciously and not, at maintaining opaqueness with their audiences. It seems as if they both share the ability to shun our expectations, being out of control or daft, while simultaneously fulfilling our expectations, playing drama queen or girly girl. They are well aware of the artifice of fame and femininity. If they act manic or icy, isn’t it only appropriate, necessary for survival? If they seem vulgar or trapped, are we not rendered sympathetic? Or do we forgo our sympathy because, unlike most of us, they are unafraid of the consequences of seeming vulgar and trapped?
The coincidence of their pairing on tour is not that Courtney Love appears to live a life Lana Del Rey sings about. The coincidence is that they present the same foil to popular feminism as well as misogyny. Hole’s career defining album is called Live Through This, claiming life as something to be endured. It isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty, and for all their perceived posturing, exaggeration, or submission Lana and Courtney don’t pretend otherwise. Alienation is a part of feminism and their work represents this concept well. The suggestive contradictions and masterly indifference they each employ are very compelling approaches to self- expression and self-preservation. Also, whether they rage or mope, they act out from a place of disappointment with the status quo, which can threaten the status quo.
Their work reflects a misalignment between normalizing structures of happiness and not feeling happy. This is part of my experience when I try to make sense of the world and it is what I find so comforting when I listen to Lana. ⊗
(1) Lana Del Rey, Oh Say Can You See, Lana Del Rey AKA Lizzy Grant, 5Points Records, 2010.
(2) Catherine Vigier, “The Meaning of Lana Del Rey,” Zeteo Journal, November 15, 2012, http://zeteojournal.com/2012/11/15/the-meaning-of-lana-del-rey/
(3) Lana Del Rey & Rick Knowles, Honeymoon, Honeymoon, Interscope, 2015.
(4)Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects),” The Scholar and Feminist Online 8, no. 3 (2010): http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/ahmed_01.htm.
(5) Vanessa Grigiordis, “The Passion of Nicki Minaj,” The New York Times Magazine, October 11, 2015, 59.
(6) Duncan Cooper, “Lana Del Rey Is Anyone She Wants to Be,” Fader, June/July 2015, http://www.thefader.com/2014/06/04/cover-story-lana-del-rey-is-anyone-she-wants-to-be
(7) Lana Del Rey and Dan Heath, Fucked My Way Up To The Top, Ultraviolence, Interscope, 2014.
(8) Lana Del Rey and Blake Stranathan, Flipside, Ultraviolence [Target exclusive], Interscope, 2014.
(9) Grigiordis, 59.
(10) Nina Powers,”Run, Boy, Run,” in the Ms. America supplement, The New Inquiry, July 17, 2014: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/run-boy-run/
(12) Gwen Stefani and Tom Dumont, Just a Girl, Tragic Kingdom, Interscope, 1993.
(13) Lana Del Rey, Kieran Du Jour, and Rick Nowles, Summertime Sadness, Born to Die, Interscope, 2012.
(14) Lana Del Rey, Jim Larcombe, and Jim Irvin, This Is What Makes Us Girls, Born to Die, Interscope, 2012.
(15) Lana Del Rey and Barrie James O’Neill, Brooklyn Baby, Ultraviolence, Interscope, 2014.
(16) Lana Del Rey and Rick Nowles, Music To Watch Boys To, Honeymoon, Interscope, 2015.
(18) Brooks Barnes. “Coming Back as He Was,” The New York Times, April 19, 2015, AR1.