Lana Del Rey, Welcome to the Party by Alex Dimitrov
Keith Haring thought of his life as a party. Every person has their own. Who you invite allows for who you become. It doesn’t matter who you are before coming or what happens after you leave, after taking everything off. Who knows really. Who cares. To stay at my party you must wear a mask. The place is my bedroom, the guests are Warhol, Whitman and you. Of course there are others you’ll recognize…and here is just one. She’s fairly new.
In the summer of 2011 after my first book was taken I began thinking about a smaller project called American Boys. I wasn’t entirely sure what it would be—there would be poems, yes, but I knew I wanted to use the internet as a way to explode ideas of performativity and what is considered the confessional mode in poetry. To take performance too far, to push what we think of as confessional to a kind of excess where it is no longer itself. What does it mean to be seemingly personal on the internet where you can be anyone and no one at once? “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” asks Emily Dickinson. It seems to me an American question.
All summer I thought about how I’d tackle the project. I began collecting material: screencaps of emails, texts, interactions on various social media. I read Ginsberg, Whitman, Didion. “America. The internet. Intimacy. Who we are at the party. Who we are when alone.” Those were the first fragments written on a boring July day in a Word doc that began American Boys. And somehow by October I found myself well into the project, thinking around and through New York, Hollywood, sex, money, language, the internet—the exchanges of desire that we participate in, the spectacle that is America. Pleasure and disgust. Identification and rejection. And late one night I saw Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” and recognized her as someone thinking about similar things. She soon became the soundtrack to my project. She joined Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin and then became the only one I listened to for a long time.
Lana Del Rey’s first tweet was on June 6, 2009. It read, “Love you.” Her second tweet, on the same day, was the opening lines of Ginsberg’s “Howl” – which, as you’ll see, I later retweeted.
This began a cheeky set of references to poetry for Del Rey—mainly quoting Ginsberg and Whitman, who she also nods to in her song “Body Electric” (after his poem) in which she sings, “Whitman is my daddy, Monoco’s my mother, diamonds are my bestest friend.” And whose “There Was a Child Went Forth” she seems especially fond of as seen through her social media presence, which is also how I found out about her homage to Sylvia Plath in a photo shoot for Australian Vogue in 2012.
This isn’t the first time a pop figure has liked us (poets, monsters, whatever we are). Marilyn Monroe’s love of Whitman and Joyce was well known. Note the campy, hyper-posed for pic below.
Monroe, a self-made mystery, is a figure Del Rey borrows from and perhaps reminds of. Their invented names—one taking the name of a famous Broadway star (Marilyn Miller) and her mother’s maiden name (which is what her childhood idol, Jean Harlow did), the other taking the name of an American car, the Ford Del Rey, produced by the Ford Motor Company in Brazil in the 1980s. There’s their fascination with literary figures who were themselves personalities and inventing personality (Monroe even married one). Their fondness for dressing mostly in white—and here you see them, both of them, coy and deliberately inarticulate in interviews as if to conceal a deeper sense of self seen only in the films, in the songs, and even then, elusive. Del Rey affectionately included her rendition of Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in the video for her “National Anthem.” And yes, there’s also the American myth that is Hollywood and that other star which first had Del Rey’s name. Someone who, as poets, we’ve seen on screen and in print—“oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” And here O’Hara joins the party.
O’Hara’s Lana Turner line is what I tweeted after Del Rey’s genius failure to perform her hits “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” on Saturday Night Live in January of 2012, her American television debut. And staring at my computer screen and the highly trafficked YouTube video, the second thing that came to mind was Warhol’s tongue and cheek posturing in saying that he didn’t really paint his paintings, someone else did. As Christopher Glazek observed about Del Rey’s SNL performance in Artforum, “…she covered her own hits as though she were a drag-queen impersonator…”
Who could tell which Lana Del Rey showed up? The Coney Island queen, trailer park jukebox sweetheart, or the coy kitten safely tucked away in the Hollywood hills of fame and obscurity. Did she even show up? America barely knew her—too busy watching Lady Gaga’s reheated Madonna feminism—and here she was, Lana, landing a huge primetime spot without even a record out, rousing up all sorts of jealousy and old sexism—and of course this was a chance for a major introduction after which we, America, still barely knew her at all. She made little eye contact with the camera, mostly staring into her microphone and playing with her hair with a boredom interested only in its own pleasure, a boredom that sure, wants you to look at it, knows you want to look at it, but isn’t going to return or ask for your gaze, and will keep it…somehow. Del Rey is a pop star invested in the performance of self for the self. Anyone missing this just isn’t paying attention. She celebrates the individual like Warhol, like Whitman—one of our first great self-promoters. “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume…”
And what did we assume about Del Rey after that Saturday night? She was everywhere. The New York Times, The New Yorker, your Facebook feed, music blogs. A (boring) conversation around authenticity in relation to both her music and aesthetic presentation began—the question of “is this real,” that vague and unanswerable affair, still mattered to America: the spectacle that kept adding more screens, more lights, more drag to the party.
Is what real? Is her hair color real, is your hair color real, are you the same person at your 9-5 job that you are with your lover, the same person at the party and when alone, the you at 20 the same as the you at 30, on the internet, on a date? What is the drag you put on every morning in order to live in the world? It seems to me an American question. One anyone who makes things, poet or pop star, thinks about often. And as books we have read become extensions of us, become synonymous with certain memories, moods, feelings and people—is the becoming of self, the process of creation and consumption, the act, messy and indescribable—is that not what lives in the space that Rauschenberg opened when he said he paints in “the gap between art and life”? How uninteresting and impossible to live only on one side of that binary if you are an artist. That gap is more interesting than art or life. And Del Rey, I think she’s an artist, not merely a pop star. But this is a party, not an essay, and I have no interest in proving anything so I’ll just entertain you some more.
Del Rey strikes a cord with me as a poet and a queer because she is shameless in her obsessions—which, in their coming together, like collage, begin to shape what the image or person may be. A poet without obsessions is not a poet. Obsessions—both what you reject and take up, not what’s given to you—change. Like people. What’s underneath may soon be the surface. And the surface, as in a Rauschenberg combine, becomes a pointing to what’s underneath and often illegible.
So what about the music? Del Rey’s funereal, hazy, vaguely 60s ballads. They sound like a future soundtrack to Didion’s The White Album. Like her look, the music is interested in pleasure. Unfashionable and entirely aware of itself, it celebrates love and thinks about death because there may be no love after death, after the party. It’s music no one else seems to be making in 2013: throwback to the past, dagger into the future. Del Rey risks sentimentality with the songs and authenticity with the image, though surely there’s no way to separate the two. She seems to strive for the cult appeal of Morrison and Cobain without the self-destruction. And while participating in celebrity culture her lyrics poke fun at fame while simultaneously performing it. Though truly, her appeal is hardly that of a major pop star. She isn’t Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. She doesn’t seem interested in stardom of that echelon because there may be less freedom there, less to play with. With Del Rey it’s more about taste, about the references through which she can reveal and hide simultaneously. If most of America won’t understand her reimagining of Nabokov’s Lolita on Born to Die, who cares. Some of us will. But she isn’t going to sell like Justin Bieber if those are her references. Or if she’s interested in looking like a drag queen and the girl next door both. At least on the surface. And Del Rey loves the surface. A lot of us do. Because like metaphor, the surface is a place where one thing can be transformed into another. The surface is where you can experiment, where the party keeps going.
“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Someone at the party once said that. And so I’ll end here. I’ll end the party with the music and welcome Lana Del Rey to it. Like Andy and Walt, Marilyn and Frank, I know where to find her. You know where to find us.
Alex Dimitrov is the author of Begging for It, published by Four Way Books. He is also the founder of Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City. Dimitrov’s poems have been published in The Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Slate, Poetry Daily, Tin House, Boston Review, and the American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize in 2011. He is also the author of American Boys, an e-chapbook published by Floating Wolf Quarterly in 2012. Dimitrov is the Content Editor at the Academy of American Poets, teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, and frequently writes for Poets & Writers.
All The Boys I Want To Date Are Dead
I had a dream I had sex with Andy Warhol
who never liked sex just like me.
But in this dream we both liked having sex
because we didn’t really have sex really.
How do I explain this to you—
it’s like popping candy in your mouth
except you never have to talk to candy.
Andy said, I have a lot of dates
but I decided to stay in and dye my eyebrows.
I don’t have any dates, I said
because all the boys I want to date are dead.
All the boys I want to date are dead:
Rimbaud and Marcel Proust
and Elvis from the 50s.
I’m like a debutante without her credit card.
It’s awful! Life is awful.
All the boys I want to date are dead.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints?
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