Reborn on the Fourth of July: Lana Del Rey’s patriot games

The singer-songwriter’s eighth album ‘Blue Banisters’ is set to be released this Independence Day. Kevin E G Perry explores the artist’s long-running fascination with American iconography

Friday 02 July 2021 12:34
<p>Lana Del Rey in the music video for ‘Ride’</p>

Lana Del Rey in the music video for ‘Ride’

A decade ago, when Lana Del Rey first introduced herself and her “Hollywood sadcore” aesthetic to the world with the video for her 2011 breakout hit “Video Games”, it took just 14 seconds for the first American flag to appear, reversed and fluttering half-heartedly in a light breeze. The Stars and Stripes have been a frequent presence in her work ever since, part of her visual lexicon of Americana. That was true, at least, until the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. The following July, Del Rey told Pitchfork that her feelings about the flag had been at least temporarily transformed.

“It’s certainly uncomfortable,” said Del Rey. “I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing ‘Born to Die’. It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now – it didn’t feel weird in 2013.”

Del Rey was preparing to release her fifth album Lust for Life, a record on which she explicitly pondered whether the era of American geopolitical dominance was coming to an end. “Is it the end of an era?” she sang on “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing”, “Is it the end of America?” Four years on, Del Rey is set to release her eighth album Blue Banisters on Sunday 4 July, as America celebrates its 245th birthday.

Del Rey has been a skilled reassembler of American iconography since making her major label debut with 2012’s Born To Die. The artwork and video for that record’s title track featured Del Rey in the arms of a tattooed bad boy, with a vast American flag as their literal backdrop. On subsequent single “National Anthem”, she described Fourth of July celebrations with the words “Red, white, blue is in the sky” and cast A$AP Rocky in the video as the JFK to her Jackie Kennedy. The refrain, “Money is the anthem of success”, repeats throughout the song, driving home her finely drawn satire of America’s religious fervour for consumerism. In the video for “Ride”, from her 2012 EP Paradise, she wears American iconography as costume. She is seen variously in fringed denim and cowboy boots; a white dress that seems to reference Blanche DuBois; draped in an American flag; and – most controversially – in a full Native American headdress while hanging out with Hell’s Angels in Vegas.

One of Del Rey’s most famous lyrics, the opening line of 2012’s “Cola” (“My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola”), offers another wry observation of the deep ties between American patriotism and corporate brands. In 2013 she told an interviewer from the German newspaper Die Zeit that it was inspired by her Scottish then-boyfriend Barrie-James O’Neill, who “deems American girls very exotic. He once told me, ‘You American girls walk around as if your pussies tasted like Pepsi-Cola, as if you’d wrap yourself into an American flag to sleep.’ He deems us all very patriotic.” In Del Rey’s hands, what was maybe intended as a slight becomes a potent – and funny – metaphor.

By 2017’s Lust for Life, Del Rey’s biting wit had attracted the attention of some of the internet’s most virulent trolls. The right-wing website Breitbart fumed over her lyrics, sending angry Trump supporters her way with the baiting headline: “Lana Del Rey Trump-Era Album Asks ‘Is It the End of America?’.” Del Rey was undeterred. When she released follow-up album Norman F**king Rockwell! in 2019, The Atlantic called it: “Lana Del Rey’s Obituary for America”. On that album’s apocalyptic centrepiece, “The Greatest”, Del Rey sounds nostalgic not just for past relationships and the golden age of the West Coast music industry, but for the idea of America itself. In the lyrics, Los Angeles is in flames and getting hotter. “I’m facing the greatest/ The greatest loss of them all,” she sings. “The culture is lit and I had a ball/ I guess I’m signing off after all.” That same year, she released the standalone single “Looking for America”, as a response to fatal back-to-back shootings in Dayton and El Paso. “I’m still looking for my own version of America,” she sings. “One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly/ No bombs in the sky, only fireworks when you and I collide.”

While Blue Banisters was still being kept tightly under wraps at the time of writing, early singles suggest that one of her country’s most accomplished and perceptive songwriters is still grappling with all that it means to be an American in the post-Trump era. On “Text Book”, she juxtaposes the country’s contemporary civil rights movement with a classic from the American songbook: “And there we were, screamin’ “Black Lives Matter” in the crowd,” she sings. “By the Old Man River, and I saw you saw who I am.”

Del Rey’s well-intentioned attempts to support the Black Lives Matter movement have made her the subject of criticism in the past. In May 2020, she drew the ire of fellow musicians Kehlani and Tinashe after posting videos to her Instagram account showing people breaking into businesses during the widespread protests over the murder of George Floyd. Kehlani tweeted at her at the time: “Please remove your instagram post it’s dangerous as f**k and a very poor choice of moments to post. by all means protest, but DO NOT endanger people with your very massive platform.”

That controversy was perhaps still fresh in her mind in January this year when she revealed the artwork for her seventh album Chemtrails Over The Country Club on social media. The cover shows a group of women, including Del Rey, sat around a table. She accompanied the image with a rambling post that sought to pre-empt criticism of the group’s ethnic make-up. “As it happens when it comes to my amazing friends and this cover yes there are people of color on this records picture and that’s all I’ll say about that,” she wrote. “In 11 years working I have always been extremely inclusive without even trying to. My best friends are rappers my boyfriends have been rappers. My dearest friends have been from all over the place, so before you make comments again about a WOC/POC issue, I’m not the one storming the capital, I’m literally changing the world by putting my life and thoughts and love out there on the table 24 seven.”

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It was a strange way to announce a new body of work, although a fine example of the classic American pastime of shooting oneself in the foot. The album itself saw Del Rey exploring a more pastoral America, away from the bright lights of Hollywood and New York which previously alternately illuminated and blinded her. This drift away from the city towards the country’s heartlands seems set to continue on her new album. Title track “Blue Banisters” opens with Del Rey evoking the image of herself astride, of all things, a tractor: “There’s a picture on the wall of me on a John Deere / Jenny handed me a beer, said, ‘How the hell did you get there?’/ Oklahoma.”

By weaving herself into the pre-existing tapestries of national iconography, Del Rey has made herself the essential contemporary American songwriter. Her lyrics are dotted with cherry pies and farm machinery, but the sense is often of a culture in decline. She paints America like a late-era Marlon Brando, its beautiful promise and potential giving way to overindulgence and corpulence of every description. Even with Trump out of office, America remains in what she called a “transitional period”. Wherever the country may now be headed, Del Rey has already proved herself one of America’s most insightful and penetrating chroniclers, a subversive patriot who even in the darkest hours will still fly the flag.

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