Magazine article Artforum International

The Year in Pop: Christopher Glazek on Lana del Rey

Magazine article Artforum International

The Year in Pop: Christopher Glazek on Lana del Rey

Article excerpt

IN A MIDDLING YEAR FOR POP MUSIC, the cleverest piece of cultural criticism nevertheless came in the form of a new hit from Lana Del Rey, aka Elizabeth Woofridge Grant, heiress to an Internet domain-name fortune and proprietor of one of the most promising voices of the Obama era. The track "National Anthem" (Born to Die, Interscope), Del Rey's parapatriotic send-up of American luxury, may not rank as the year's greatest song, but its eight-minute video, which reimagines the Camelot fairy tale of JFK and Jackie O, invents a new subset of pop: Call it postironic satire--a Swiftian revival that multiplies the objects of its parody with such reckless guile that it seems challenging and new. The satiric vision the video proposes is syncretic: Del Rey stands in for Jackie but also for Marilyn Monroe--and for herself, a contemporary celebrity princess; her costar in the video, fellow New Yorker A$AP Rocky, represents Kennedy but also Barack Obama and gangster rap, incarnating both the right-wing stereotype of black power and the liberal voter's fantasy of Obama-as-messianic-prince--a limousine liberal worthy of his vehicle.

As the video begins its long intro, Del Rey steps up to a lectern and croons Monroe's "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to a darkened audience. The clip is black-and-white and, like much of the video, uses digitally "aged" HD to evoke either vintage 8-mm home movies or, if you prefer, the filters of Instagram. Through the silhouettes, we see a bling-fingered, cigar-smoking Rocky imbibing Del Rey's performance with single-minded lust. The video cuts to color: In a car with a tan leather interior, a dark-skinned hand emerging from a suit jacket grasps the exposed thigh of a white woman in a short skirt; screams ensue, along with faux footage of assassination day in Dallas; then a three-second interlude of Del Rey in a patch of azaleas; then a shot of her hand grazing Rocky's leg; finally, the camera pulls back, revealing the couple enjoying a picnic with children on the lawn of their mansion (a lyric indicates the Hamptons, though it might as well be Hyannis).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As the intro fades and the song begins in earnest, we watch Del Rey fondle lion skins, butter toast, grind with her dice-throwing, sweater-setted prez, and stroll along the beach with their exquisite offspring--stand-ins for Sasha and Malia--while issuing blunt and brutish glorifications of American culture: "Money is the anthem of success," the chorus goes. Footage corroborates the claim, showcasing all that is wonderful, odious, and precarious in the image bank of American history. Del Rey's heavy-handed visuals revel in sex, money, miscegenation, fame, death--the pat psychodramas that propel the narratives of both reality TV and centuries of actual Beltway scandal. But Del Rey conies to praise her country, not to bury it. If her obsession with lost American innocence feels more automated than searching, that doesn't necessarily dilute its power. In place of critique, Del Rey uses historical mash-up to deliver a concentrated extract of contemporaneity, more eloquently pegging our cultural moment than any verse about smartphones.

According to Rocky, the video is "some swag shit ... some 2015 shit," suggesting its vision might be so contemporary that it could take a while to properly digest. If 2012 was the year that hip-hop finally embraced gay pride, it's worth noting, perhaps, that Rocky, as straight male, doesn't speak in Del Rey's video: His erotic, mischievously coded body is featured prominently on-screen, but he isn't "featured" on the track--he has surrendered his sexual self-presentation entirely to Del Rey. In a typical pop/hip-hop collaboration, Rocky would be allotted thirty seconds to voice his own desire and thereby reclaim the phallus. But the video for "National Anthem" isn't a collaboration--it's matriarchal reverie. A reversal allows Del Rey to style herself as a rapper, "winin and dinin / drinkin and drivin / excessive buyin / overdose and dyin," projecting a persona that's seamless and impenetrable even as her physical body stands ready to exercise its prerogatives. …

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