Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life may well be the funniest piece of post-ironic conceptualist performance art project you’re likely to hear this year.
Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life may well be the funniest piece of post-ironic conceptualist performance art project you’re likely to hear this year. It’s the perfect answer to modernity and the empty gestures and sentiments of our social media-driven world. Just look at the vapid smile plastered on her face in the image that adorns the album’s cover. This is the next logical step in her long-running commentary on beauty and perception, as started with her debut record – which featured an unsmiling, haunted looking young woman of indeterminate age and equally unidentifiable era – and continued through successive releases that grew more complex in their unspoken critique of the 21st century woman.
Moving away from the West Coast look and feel of her previous cover images, Lust for Life finds Del Rey in full farmer’s daughter mode, a motif borrowed from the perception of Midwesterners being naïf, uninformed simpletons responsible for our current political climate. In her ornate lace-sleeved white dress she could just as easily have been captured on her wedding day as her senior prom. Here again she is playing with the fluidity of age as embodied by the physical presentation. This faux-innocence and lack of worldliness continues on the opener “Love.” Addressing the insipid nature of teenage idealism and the inane profundities cribbed from the pages of a Midwestern farmer’s daughter’s dollar store diary, she coos, “Look at you kids with your vintage music/ Coming through satellites while cruising.” She’s referring to the simple activity of driving aimlessly for hours at a stretch, a primitive form of social interaction whose image pairs nicely with her post-modernist view of latent nostalgia in a mind that has barely lived long enough to feel it. “You’re part of the past, but now you’re the future,” she continues, “Signals crossing can get confusing.”
Here she elaborates on the feeling, again using the voice of the product of Middle America: “It’s enough just to make you feel crazy, crazy, crazy.” Note the repetitive use of the word “crazy” to indicate just how totally crazy the idea is. It’s one of many moments of meta-textual breaking of the fourth wall, Del Rey slyly winking at us to show she’s aware of the inanity of such phrases while engendering her role with a level of deep character work exhibited only by the best method actors. “You get ready, you get all dressed up/ To go nowhere in particular [cf. cruising]/ Back to work or the coffee shop/ Doesn’t matter ‘cause it’s enough.”
A massive metaphorical eye roll indicates this line of thinking is patently absurd and most likely the result of someone with a bit of a mental deficiency (once more harkening back to the cover image). “To be young and in love!” she sighs over the song’s anti-chorus, adopting a new role as the wizened sage shaking her head at the kids these day; it’s a more poetic treatment of the preferred axiom of the elderly, “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Mind you, all of this transpires within the first 90 seconds (!) of the album. That’s a lot to process in such a short period of time. Fortunately, Del Rey favors molasses-slow tempos designed to evoke thoughtful black and white images of beautiful young people contemplatively taking in the world around them. It’s an aural existence inspired by and predicated on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” video, updated and re-contextualized for contemporary, commercialized set accustomed to ads for fashionable jeans once favored by those laboring in the field of Middle America but now adorning the ultra-slim writhing bodies of an ethnically diverse friend group prone to winsome looks and slow-motion running at night through fields with sparklers in their hands.
Fortunately, “Love” is but an easy-to-consume distillation of the profundity to come. In truth, Lust for Life requires a full, in-depth book-length analysis in order to be fully unpacked and appreciated for its brilliant social commentary. But since this is simply an album review there is no time to get into each and every pearl of wisdom – a folksy saying, generally used by Midwestern elders – and wickedly funny one-liners she delivers throughout.
Take, for instance, the topical “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind.” Opening with a Del Rey avatar at the former of the titular music festivals gently swaying to the music, getting lost in the moment, her eyes slowly closing as she moves about in slow motion. It then takes a quick turn into the harsh realities of our Facebook news streams as she sighs, “Then the next morning/ They put out the warning/ Tensions were rising over country lines.” This imbues the lyric with a universality perfect for soundbites. Sensing the world now very much in need of her character’s millennial philanthropy, she sings, “I turned off the music/ Tried to sit and use it [note the ambiguous pronoun, leaving the listener to wonder what marvelous “it” she will use to bring about world peace]/ All of the love that I saw that night.” Ah, yes! If only we could harness the pure bliss of entitled youth to bring about peace in the Middle East.
The sheer absurdity of this base idealism is not lost on Del Rey’s character, however, as she knows well that this is a sad impossibility. “‘Cause what about all these children?” she rhetorically considers, “And what about all their parents?” Finally, someone has the guts to ask about the children and their parents! “And what about all their crowns they wear/ In hair so long like mine?” Here she redirects the focus to herself, as is the wont of the highly stylized millennial character embodied here. But that’s not the end of her litany of questions about these foreign people with hair so long like hers: “And what about all their wishes/ Wrapped up like garland roses/ Around their little heads?/ I said a prayer for a third (!) time.”
Truly, her consideration for others knows no bounds. But the sheer depth of her selflessness is not yet fully enumerated. As she reaches the triumphant, lumbering chorus she informs the listener that “[she’d] trade it all for a stairway to heaven [hip ref, natch]/I’d take my time for the climb to the top of it [no sense rushing these things]/ I’d trade the fame and the fortune and the legend/ I’d give it all away/ If you give me just one day to ask him one question.” She then repeats this last statement to further prepare us for the wisdom she’s about to impart. But she throws a comedic curveball and instead of stating the all-important “question for God,” she uses a classic misdirect and refocuses the narrative on her Coachella experience, never actually getting back to all those poor children and their parents. But she did think it was “hella cool” how the band won over the crowd and then, as a perfectly deployed non-sequitur, she states, “Critics can be so mean sometimes!” Brilliant.
There are so many other wickedly funny and slyly subversive moments scattered throughout: the existential struggle to find some alone time and perfect isolation in “13 Beaches” (guess which one proves just right!); the ironic commentary on fame and materialism that is “White Mustang”; the geographically historic allusions generously littered throughout “Heroin” (watch out for ol’ Charlie Manson, kids, his evil is still in the air out there!); the amusing abstraction of the stately piano ballad “Change” (sample lyric: “Every time that we run/ We don’t know what it’s from/ Now that we’ve slowed down/ We feel close to it/ There’s a change gonna come [points for the Sam Cooke reference]/ I don’t know where or when/ But whenever it does we’ll be here for it” ); the Suessian “Summer Bummer.” It’s all too much to consume in one sitting.
Thankfully, there’s the timely and topical “God Bless America – and All the Beautiful Women in It.” The most biting bit of social satire on Lust for Life, she uses a flamenco guitar to signify ethnic diversity, immigration and President Trump’s proposed see-through wall. “Even when I’m alone, I’m not lonely/ I hear the sweetest melodies on the fire escapes of the city/ Sounds like I am free/ It’s got me singing “God Bless America” [double gunshots for emphasis] and all the beautiful women in it.” It’s a wonderfully multi-pronged subversion of our innumerable social ills, tackling both the marginalization of women and the lack of effective gun control, all while looking longingly out on the sparkling sea of lights and lives burning brightly below her.
Lust for Life is a virtual masterclass in post-modern social commentary. Not since Randy Newman have words been as bitingly effective – and effectively funny! – as they are here. Of course this is all based on the probably not-at-all-correct assumption that Lana Del Rey is in fact a brilliant post-ironic conceptualist performance artist pulling the collective wool over the eyes of the stumbling giant that was the music industry and not just some vapid tart releasing the aural embodiment of all the most insufferable qualities of millennials. The line between art and artifice may have forever been erased. But hey, at least the album sounds amazing, amiright?