“Move Baby, Move Baby! I’m In Love”: Listening to Lana Del Rey

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[photo credit: David Martínez]

When I purchased Ultraviolence on vinyl at my local Zia Records recently, the young woman who handled my transaction placed her hands reverently on the alluring black and white cover, saying “I love this album.” “I do, too,” I responded, then explained how I wasn’t really listening to Lana Del Rey before—in fact, I wasn’t listening to her at all—but last night I played her latest release on Spotify, when I found that I couldn’t stop listening. I became obsessed with her voice, her lyrics, her face. Hence, my trip to the record store the following morning.

For the longest time Lana Del Rey was just another starlet whose was more image than talent. In my mind I kept confusing her with Katy Perry, just another retro pin-up girl who sang a little. Well, of course, there’s no arguing that Del Rey has spent a lot of time and effort at developing her post-whatever-era-we’re-in good girl gone femme fatale persona. Nonetheless, that persona adds to her music’s appeal, particularly on Ultraviolence.

What emerges on the album’s four sides is a sultry narrative of lust, love, and spiritual decay set to a languid yet intoxicating beat. This is not to suggest that the songs blend into each other indistinguishably. Rather, what I’m trying to say is that the album evokes a collective mood of despair, in which women are exploited for their beauty as much, if not more, as they are adored for the fantasies they inspire in the minds of men.

“Cruel World” moans through a luscious break up wrought by drugs and fame, complete with a twangy intro. “Share my body and my life with you, That’s way over now. There’s not more I can do, You’re so famous now.” The title track evokes the trauma of domestic abuse, which is complicated by the intense emotions that often draw the victim back into a cycle of mistreatment. “He hit me and it felt like a kiss, I can hear violins, violins, Give me all of that ultraviolence.” “Shades of Cool” and “West Coast” take turns showing us the underside to life in the proverbial fast lane, in which dreams die the hard way under the glare of a life of decadent luxury, or as they say on the West Coast, “If you’re not drinking, you’re not playing.”

When Ultraviolence was released earlier this year (June 2014), Mark Richardson said in his review for Pitchfork: “After so many interviews and so much media attention, we don’t know all that much about Lana Del Rey, and we’re not sure what we’re told is real. She’s become a screen onto which we project our desire and/or our loathing. With Ultraviolence, Del Rey has found new synergy between the character she presents to the world and the content of the songs.” While not every listener will identify with the persona that inhabits the songs of Ultraviolence, let alone the dreadful experiences that are recounted in its lyrics, the album works as a kind of aural noir movie. Ultraviolence is a black and white romantic tragedy whose characters, like the one in “Sad Girl” and the “The Other Woman,” are fraught with contradictions hidden behind gorgeous faces and the sexiness of a life lived dangerously.

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