The Exquisite Horror in Lana Del Rey's NostalgiaScroll through the photos that David LaChapelle recently shot with Lana Del Rey and you may be hit with a whiff of linoleum, or microwave dinner, or asbestos. She descends a spiral staircase next to a gaudy fake Christmas tree of the kind you just don’t see anymore, wearing an equally gaudy coat, her eyes squinting, the camera having snapped at the wrong moment. She stains a wedding table with red wine, her mascara running and the flash catching the blood behind her retinas, as a man in the foreground smokes in ripped whitey tighties. She poses in a ruffled dress in front of a tiered garden styled with person-sized candles, next to a sign reading, “Happy Birthday America … 1776 1976.”Pop culture has been mining the heyday of Polaroid in this fashion for a while now, and Lana Del Rey has led the way. Ever since the Los Angeles singer first achieved fame in 2011, she’s rarely been described without mentions of Instagram filters that make new photos look old, or of the way that platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest encourage young people to collage the bygone. So the nostalgia kick should be played out by now. Still, I can’t stop staring at these LaChapelle photos. In small ways—say, the body types of the people posing with Del Rey—they capture something about the era they reference. But in the colors, the couture, Del Rey’s impish glint, they’re novel. Most striking is the sense of menace underlying the garishness. Psychedelic burnout, Watergate disillusionment, serial murders—all tingeing images that otherwise might evoke “a simpler time.”The notion of not-altogether-fun slippage between generations seems more of an obsession than ever for Del Rey on her fourth album, Lust for Life. The title is an Iggy Pop rip, one of many blatantly referential turns of phrase on the album. In the stories her songs tell, time travel nearly seems real: a moment at 2017 Coachella can become “Woodstock in my mind,” leading her to interpolate “Stairway to Heaven” and contemplate nuclear apocalypse. She begins the album sighing about “you kids with your vintage music,” adding, “You’re part of the past, but now you’re the future / Signals crossing can get confusing.” She’s awed by the cultural history that mass media marinates today’s youth in—but she’s also unsettled by it.Del Rey’s music itself has always been retro-minded. In 2011, something about the way she sang sounded foreign compared to the try-hard emoting of Lady Gaga or Adele, and the description she often received was “dead eyed.” Really her shtick was semi-parodic throwback that swirled together B-movie blankness, girl-group earnestness, and Laurel Canyon introspection. Yet the way she married that sensibility with dramatic orchestration and snaking machine rhythms for her debut, Born to Die, was new, establishing a template for radio that still prevails today. Her two follow-ups, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon, were gauzier, slower experiments in rock and cabaret, but Lust for Life is really Born to Die’s sequel: a rather fabulous return to catchiness, camp, and faint hip-hop influences. She’s ever-more-cleverly casting the present in terms of the past and vice versa—and this time, there’s a political reason why.
TagsLana Del Rey Lust for Life Pop culture Woodstock in my mind