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Kurt Iswarienko / The New York Times

September 11, 2019

YANDAVA | Lana Del Rey’s Ever-Evolving Aesthetic

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You couldn’t ask for a more perfect encapsulation of what comes to mind at the name “Lana Del Rey” than this picture on Twitter of a rose smoking a cigarette, accompanied by the caption “is this lana del rey.” For years — ever since she first appeared in the cultural consciousness with “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” in 2011 — Del Rey’s image has been based on an aesthetic of romanticized Sad Girl postwar Americana: cherry pie and Pepsi-Cola, the American flag, Old Hollywood glamour, New York, Los Angeles, JFK, the aforementioned roses and cigarettes, the desert, fast cars and older men. And most importantly, acting as what Rolling Stone has called the “vamp of constant sorrow.”

Though Del Rey is by no means the first pop singer to sing forlornly about heartbreak, sadness and other similarly dark themes while employing the patina of a retro aesthetic — cf. Amy Winehouse, Adele — she is perhaps the first to do so so self-consciously. It’s a level of artifice bordering on narcissism that has both fascinated and repelled.

Audrey Wollen, an artist and feminist theorist who became the proponent of Sad Girl Theory around the time young women on social media were starting to craft and objectify images of their own sadness, has stated, “The Sad Girl has obvious investment in individual style and persona.” For Wollen, this investment is positive: Through social media, the aestheticizing of female sadness becomes “active, autonomous and articulate. It’s a way of fighting back.”

Of course, nobody wants to look sad and ugly. That’s just too much, especially for Instagram, where even when there have been movements to capture what’s “real” or “imperfect,” inauthenticity is always inescapably lurking.

Ultimately, being sad, hot and young is not a sustainable image, simply due to the obvious fact that people get old. While Sad Girl Theory might sound nice on paper, its dependence on image, narrative of wallowing in the tragedy of one’s own life and tendency to cling to bad relationships without making any movement towards personal growth or agency starts to get a little tired.

This is why Lana Del Rey’s latest album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, is so refreshing. Del Rey seems to be winking at us from the title, playing on our perception of her. Not only is she making fun of her own heavily romanticized aesthetic but she’s also raising the question of how to reimagine American identity in the Trump era.

In “Venice Bitch,” Del Rey sings, “Nothing gold can stay,” echoing Robert Frost’s 1923 poem about the end of summer and the disillusionment that comes with it. In “The Greatest,” she gets more specific: “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blonde and gone.”

However, there’s another vein running parallel to that one. While America burns, Del Rey appears to have grown up. In “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” she no longer submits to a bad relationship but confronts the man responsible for it, singing, “You don’t know half the shit that you put me through.” In “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but i have it,” she calls herself a “24/7 Sylvia Plath,” as aware of her Sad Girl image as ever, imploring the listener, “Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not.” However, she manages to admit, “But at best, I can say I’m not sad.”

This also goes hand in hand with the highly self-referential nature of the new album. While in her previous album she might sing “My boyfriend’s back and he’s cooler than ever,” in “California,” she croons, “You don’t ever have to act cooler than you think you should.” As a listener, you can’t help but wonder if Del Rey is sending that message not only to her boyfriend or her audience but also to herself.

Perhaps what’s changed is not so much Del Rey’s attitude towards America as her attitude towards her own idea of herself. By climbing out of the wreckage of the American Dream, she’s able to shatter many of the negative aspects of her image without losing the core of who she is. Instead of seeing love and life as processes of buying in and pledging blindly, she tosses off the rose-colored glasses and declares, “I see you for who you really are.” 

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ry86@cornell.edu. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.