Remember when Lana Del Rey was controversial? If you’re fortunate enough to have missed the back-and-forth that bitterly split the Internet toward the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, the argument went something like this: Her dour Lolita shtick was phony, her music was caked in retrograde artifice and it was an insult that something so tailor made for Jaguar commercials could ever be marketed toward enlightened music listeners OR all of that was fantastic, and you were just being a stick in the mud. Predictably, not much was learned or achieved from this. But something unexpected happened: Lana continued to release music that people sort of enjoyed (or at least enjoyed talking about), and the blogosphere naturally found plenty of new issues to divide itself over. There’ll be some revival over the drama whenever her newest album is on its way out, but the market had spoken: Enough people cared about Lana’s music to keep giving her another shot.
That window of opportunity won’t be open forever, being that she’s ostensibly a pop star making pop music. But something fortunate happened: She lucked into singing the most important song used in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, doubling as her most creatively relevant moment since she mysteriously released “Video Games” nearly two years ago. (There’s irony to this: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote is “There are no second acts in American lives,” but Lana found one by rebranding her relatively drab Lizzie Grant persona.) In the film’s most thematically important scene–SPOILERS if you never took high school English–Gatsby and Daisy have escaped his party to share a tender moment a nearby garden. During their makeout session (heyo!), Daisy whispers how she wishes they could just run away from her controlling husband Tom, which Gatsby reacts to with unexaggerated shock. He doesn’t want to run away; he wants to stick here and craft a new life together, regardless of the public scandal that would follow.
As the lover’s quarrel plays out, the muted strains of Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful,” filter in. A string-soaked ballad written specifically for the movie’s soundtrack, “Young and Beautiful” has Lana wondering if her love will still appreciate her after the glamour has faded away–a frequent topic in her songs, but finding its finest context in Fitzgerald’s story. Used earlier to score a montage in which the main characters frolic about Gatsby’s mansion and take in his wealth, it now reveals the blind spot in their relationship. Gatsby is optimistic enough to believe in forever, but Daisy’s marriage has conditioned her to be cynical about love. (She once loved Tom, too.)
It is, depending on your tolerance for the big and dumb, a very touching moment. (SPOILER: I was touched.) That Lana succeeded in creating an original piece of music deepened by its connection to the movie is also a flip from your run-of-the-mill corporate placement, where one product tries to cash in the established cachet of something cooler. This is something more symbiotic. Take, for example, those Bud Light Platinum commercials starring Justin Timberlake. They did for his more nonthreatening adulthood than any James Brown reference could, while also making Bud Light Platinum seem like something people might actually enjoy drinking.
Similarly, Lana’s entire career seems redefined by the suggestion that she’s just like one of Fitzgerald’s beautifully doomed heroines. I can’t grab a six-pack of Platinum (I mean, not that I ever do) without wanting to put on The 20/20 Experience. But, I also can’t hear any of Lana’s songs now without imagining her headached with drink and covered in glitter as she leaves one of those famous Gatsby parties, existentially distraught over where her life is headed even as she hops in some rich boy’s car en route toward another endless party.
There’s something insidious about aesthetic allure being used so aggressively and effectively for a marketing campaign, even if you’re not already suspicious about capitalism’s end game. Art’s thrill lays in the randomness of context — that how something was intended is not how we hear it, that you and I can experience the same piece of art and have violently different opinions. But how could any two people could go into The Great Gatsby and come out thinking differently on what “Young and Beautiful” is supposed to represent (aside from the more general consideration of whether it should’ve been used, whether it works, whether Luhrmann is out of his fucking mind, etc)? All the work has been done; the emotional conclusions have been wrapped into a neat little package.
Maybe this scans as creative bankruptcy if you’re not a fan of the final product. But I liked The Great Gatsby and the song; in my mind, they’re intertwined for the better. Movie industry types might feel the same way, and do something nearly unbelievable a few Internet argument cycles ago: Make it so Lana sings at the 2014 Academy Awards, faded glamour on glorious display. That’s a second act to show Fitzgerald.