Lana Del Rey dodges political questions like Neo dodges bullets: with style, dexterity, and a brazen lack of subtlety. The notoriously media-shy pop star doesn’t give many interviews, and when she does she’s quick to brush off reporters’ inquiries. In 2014, when the Fader asked her if she was a feminist — long after the Hollywood party line for female celebrities had shifted to responding with an adamant “yes” — Del Rey said she was more interested in our “intergalactic possibilities,” SpaceX, and Tesla than feminism. Through four albums, her only stated political interest was, as she sang on “Ride,” the “war in my mind.”
Del Rey has never claimed to make “purposeful pop” like Katy Perry, dubbed herself head of a “girl squad” like Taylor Swift, or stood up for animal rights like Miley Cyrus. While artists like Beyoncé and St. Vincent have confronted the American political landscape, Lana has just floated through it. Her work has existed in a nonexistent otherworld where America is a flag that waves behind her, Hollywood is a neighborhood that reminds her of an ex-lover, and everything traffics in gold-shimmering, utterly depressing nostalgia. To hear her sing, “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” in her hazy, lazy voice on her new album, Lust for Life, is not only surprising; it’s jarring.
Lana Del Rey hasn’t evolved from album to album so much as she’s doubled down on her already cartoonish persona. With every release, she’s become more and more the lab-designed sad girl she was criticized for being at the beginning of her career, starting with her nom de plume, and continuing with 2011’s “Video Games” and 2012’s Born to Die. Lust for Life continues Del Rey’s association with sun-bleached, SoCal sadness — songs about love and nostalgia and the dizzy feeling of youth.
That’s why most of the conversation around Lust for Life has revolved around Del Rey’s newly embraced political stance. “Lana Del Rey Is Worried About America,” she “Searches for Happiness in a Dark World,” she “Wonders ‘Is It the End of America?’ ” The album was political enough to warrant a write-up by the conservative news site Breitbart. Most of this chatter isn’t coming from the album’s lyrical content but from Del Rey’s personal comments. This press cycle, she’s dropped the Neo act, telling Pitchfork that she feels “less safe than I did when Obama was president” and, regarding the current administration, that “when you have a leader at the top of the pyramid who is casually being loud and funny about things like that, it’s brought up character defects in people who already have the propensity to be violent towards women.” But even this newly voiced political stance is more a whisper than a shout. “I started out thinking that the whole record was gonna have sort of a Fifties, Sixties feeling with some kind of Shangri-Las, early Joan Baez influences,” Del Rey told a BBC DJ earlier this year, “but as the climate kept on getting more heated politically, I found lyrically everything was just directed towards that.”
Previously, Del Rey had been vague enough in her pro-America nostalgia to inspire a 2015 Federalist piece dubbing her a “Conservative Icon.” The author claimed that Del Rey embodied “a spirit of sociocultural yearning for an earlier era — a longing to conserve or return to iconic American traditions.” That tension between nostalgia and wokeness is apparent throughout Lust for Life, the first half of which is classically Lana Del Rey: dreary, mushy, and floating. Here is the heavy dose of depressive Del Rey, the entrancing examples of bad boys who hypnotize, and the reminder that the sensual is often so closely linked with dread.
The politics come in the back half, where there’s not enough melodic variety to keep listeners hooked despite a sprinkling of featured artists including Stevie Nicks and Sean Lennon. Altogether, the 72-minute-long album is supposed to tell the story of an awakening, and part of that awakening is political. But to focus analysis of this album on its political statements is to miss what makes Lana Del Rey so appealing.
In the cultural climate of 2017, we pay special attention to anything addressing the political realm, but what has made Del Rey so relatable has been the emotional core of her songs. We, as Americans, are consuming so much news, spending so much time thinking and reading about what is happening in a single-mile radius of a crumbling White House, that the easiest art to see as valuable is that which meets us where we are in our singular focus and our frustration. Momentary relevance makes for good headlines, but it doesn’t make for good art. The best art doesn’t need to be explicitly relevant to be honest about what it means to be human and flawed and afraid.