Lana Del Rey lied to my face. Sitting in the shadows backstage at Lollapalooza last summer, I asked her about her leaked Lady Gaga diss track (“So Legit”). She said she had never met Gaga, that this was a big misunderstanding and the press likes to turn one pop star against another. Thing is, they’ve been photographed together, including high-profile pictures shot by Terry Richardson. Later, an Interscope rep asked me to erase that portion of my interview, or Lana wouldn’t be signing the release forms for publication. He phrased it interestingly: “Lana doesn’t feel comfortable with what she said.”
I’ve thought of this strange incident often as debates over Lana Del Rey’s authenticity continue to make what feels like a real dent in the infinite abyss that is the Internet — because we still have no idea who Lana Del Rey really is. Face to face, she is a likable lost puppy, self-deprecating to Larry David lengths and much more charming. She’s smarter than people give her credit for, despite a tendency to jump from one symbolic topic to another, Dylan to Ginsberg in the blink of an eye. Still, the truth remains just another thing for Lana Del Rey to curate.
For her second act, though — her sophomore album, Ultraviolence — she’s trying to convince us of her authenticity. That this down-to-earth, self-aware woman in recent interviews is her true self, and the flower-crown glamor goddess in her songs is an act. I don’t believe any of it for a second, and I don’t care. Lana Del Rey is my only guilty pleasure.
I say this as someone who falls in love every time I listen to Top 40 radio, and who believes the guilty pleasure label to be a needless social construct. I make an exception for Lana Del Rey because truly nothing is new here, and I feel guilty because I recognize the culturally charged images she’s co-opting. She’s the Urban Outfitters of music: you know it’s a knockoff of someone else’s original idea and that its references are meticulously targeted to you as a demographic, rather than you as a real human being. You don’t care, you just have to have that circle scarf regardless.
Every season without fail, Urban Outfitters changes its displays to reflect new trends and moods, offering shoppers the chance to become a cast of interesting characters with just the change of a dress. Ultraviolence is a bit like that, too. From Thriller to Teenage Dream, the most commercially successful pop albums become collections of big singles that take on worlds of their own. On Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey creates distinct personas on each song, but they feel like they’re all capable of coming from one female narrator — not necessarily Lana — as she finds herself in increasingly fucked-up situations. “Brooklyn Baby” name-checks Lou Reed and speaks of a musician beau; “Shades of Cool” is about a hip guy who’s just out of reach; “Ultraviolence” hints, disturbingly, at either domestic abuse or BDSM; “Fucked My Way to the Top” is about a tawdry star-making affair; “Sad Girl” sounds like a wife’s counter to “The Other Woman.” On and on it goes, as the narrator changes from a leather jacket to a red party dress to fresh linen and curls.
The album’s dreamy final track, “The Other Woman,” recalls Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic, The Apartment, about an affair bringing Shirley MacLaine to the emotional brink while the perfect single man (Jack Lemmon) is standing right in front of her. Atop brooding brass and riffs, Lana sings of the other woman’s French perfume, manicured nails, and fresh-cut flowers in each room, all cheap prizes in comparison to her ultimate loneliness after the lust fades. If the song were meant as a consolation, consider it scratchy, generic brand tissue, while The Apartment is your grandmother’s handkerchief. We know one is significantly better quality, but does it really matter in the moment?
Think of it like a Tumblr feed that reblogs evocative photographs but never produces any itself. “I don’t think there’s any shock value in my stuff – well, maybe the odd disconcerting lyric – but I think other people probably deserve the criticism, because they’re eliciting it,” she told The Guardian recently, and she’s right: do you take issue with the curator, or the creator?
In this sense, Lana’s curation of imagery has improved since her first album, 2012’s Born to Die, where she famously dubbed herself the “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” She sounds less like an iconography-spewing Stepford Wife on Ultraviolence, an album whose title references A Clockwork Orange and where the songs can only be described as mournfully gorgeous. But it doesn’t mean these aren’t recycled narratives.
Until she produces her own original images, Lana Del Rey will remain a pop star for the Tumblr generation, for the girls who — season in and season out — look to Urban Outfitters to tell them who to be. What perfect synergy: they can buy a special vinyl edition of Ultraviolence there. And the rest of us? We still have no idea who the person behind this real-life Tumblr feed is. Which is just the way she likes it.