In the summer of 2013, I hadn’t yet been kissed or gotten drunk, I could count the friends I had on one hand with several fingers to spare, and I spent most of my time visiting my beloved grandpa in hospital. But whilst my reality was filled with NHS wards, tea from paper cups and religiously completed Times crossword puzzles, my imaginary life was lines of coke off a dashboard, sitting in the lap of a sugar daddy, Californian sunsets, gambling and sweeps of silky straight hair. I had discovered Lana Del Rey, and she was giving me the gift that she continues to reliably provide: the summer you would have, were your moral standards and instinct for self-preservation several notches lower, if you had never heard of feminism and if, crucially, her brand of honey-glazed hedonism could actually exist as a reality.
Sceptics will say that Lana Del Rey produces the same album every two years, and fans agree, yet continue to glug it down like the Diet Mountain Dew she immortalises in Born To Die: it may not be nourishing or good for you, but its teeth-rotting sweetness cannot be resisted. She cherry-picks motifs from hip hop and rock, siphoning off the best of superficial cool from both genres to feed her persona. Breathy, slow vocals, building over rich soundscapes, sing of manicured degeneracy where Rey again and again stars as the wronged heroine, devoted only to her bad-boy lover and the wild American road. She presents the 18-rated version of a Disney story, as she plays the role of the adored princess. Although she has candy necklaces sticking to the skin instead of a tiara, and her Prince Charming arrives on a motorbike rather than a white horse, the fantasy of feminine passivity lives on. “If I get a little prettier can I be your baby?”; “I can be your china doll if you want to see me fall”; “I’m your jazz singer and you’re my cult leader”: Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’ is certainly not playing on Rey’s speakers on the beach, as she instead decides to hark back to an age where women’s liberation was as far off as heathaze over the sea, and similarly impalpable.
However, even as a seasoned, strident Angry Feminist™, I cannot drag myself away from her mythic world, where submission is glamour and pain is beauty. In the long, indulgent, spoken-word piece of the ‘Ride’ video, Rey proclaims “I believe in the country America used to be”. As problematic and rage-inducing as this is—remember segregation, Lana? Where does that fit into your rose-tinted view of the past?—what she really means is, ‘I believe in the country America never was’. It is a hand-clapping, ‘I do believe in fairies, I do, I do’ moment, as her will to live in this romanticised American dream creates and keeps alive a version of it in her music.
She is the master of creating a fantasy, as vivid settings spring into life from a few choice words: “Glass room, perfume, cognac, lilac fumes” creates the heady casino of ‘Off to the Races’, whilst “blue hydrangeas, cold cash divine, cashmere, cologne and white sunshine” conjures a picket-fenced, Gatsbyesque mansion for ‘Old Money’.
This talent for visuals comes across in her distinctive aesthetic. Her fashion is predominately 1960s prom queen, but with an edge of trailer-park princess. Gucci shoes encrusted with lacquer cherries will be downplayed by loose cotton dresses, the leather jackets and band t-shirts may be Chanel and Yves St Laurent, but who’s to know she didn’t pick them up from WalMart—the key is making her low-fi, lazy summer vibe seem effortless. Instagram videos seem to capture moments when she is off-guard, singing along to her own music in the car or simply blinking languidly, listening to Joni Mitchell: the implication is that she drives to the shops in extravagant old Hollywood fake eyelashes, and never snaps out of moody, melancholic nostalgia. On winning the Brit Award for International Solo Artist in 2013, she used her acceptance speech to thank her managers and her label for helping her turn her life into a work of art, and it does seem as if her every move consolidates the image of herself presented in her songs: if there are edges to her persona, they are safely out of public sight.
In a recent interview for Elle, Rey ominously claimed that her new album would be more political. That, combined with a recent Instagram speech about North Korea, suggests that she might be finally waking from her opiated dreams and dipping a tentative, kitten-heeled toe into the real world. I can’t help but be suspicious of the prospect—as the world rolls to hell in a handcart, she provides a much needed summer holiday from real life.