RETRO ACTIVE / Shabby Chic / Lana Del Rey
director's cut of lead essay for Spin's relaunch issue NOW, March/April 2012
by Simon Reynolds
“Watch out Adele! There’s another soul lady coming up behind you and her name is Lana Del Rey.” So said a Top 40 radio deejay last month, transitioning between “Rolling In the Deep” and “Video Games”.
The patter wasn’t just a canny way to introduce an unfamiliar song to mainstream listeners, it was an astute bit of music criticism. Adele and Lana Del Rey are both young women who’ve had their hearts broken, singing about it via overtly non-contemporary musical idioms: Etta James-style Sixties soul, in Adele’s case, and, with Del Rey, something less tightly anchored to specific sources but equally old-timey in its evocations of the Fifties and Sixties. The question these two singers raise is: why do these otherwise thoroughly modern women express first-hand feelings in such second-hand imagery? Why coat something raw and real in this vintage veneer?
Lana Del Rey arrived on the scene too recently for inclusion in my book Retromania, but—just like Adele—she’s an absolute gift when it comes to talking it up: “look, see, that’s what I’m on about!” Yet they each represent different kinds of retro-pop. Adele’s is unselfconscious, an artist adopting an old-fashioned style as if it was the most natural thing in the world, neither adding much to it nor drawing attention to its out-of-time quality. Escort, the New York disco troupe featured in this special issue of Spin, belong in this category. One hallmark of unselfconscious retro is not dressing the part, not looking like you’ve time-travelled from the period in question.
Lana Del Rey is closer to the hyper-conscious retro that’s endemic in indie/underground music, where clothes and artwork evoke a bygone era, and lyrics often teem with allusions and references. Frankie Rose & the Outs, also featured in this issue, are a prime example, from their Sixties girl group sound to songs like “Thee Only One” (the “thee” nods to various bands led by Sixties-revivalism-pioneer Billy Childish, but can be traced further back to Sixties garage bands like Thee Midnighters) to the cover of the 7-inch single version of that song, which Rose wanted to “look like a cross between a Blue Note album and an old French pop 45.”
Retro of this kind, where a band’s sound-and-visuals incorporate citations and spotting them is integral to the fan’s enjoyment, is not a new thing, of course. It’s been part of indie almost from the start (The Smiths’s iconographic record-sleeves, Jesus and Mary Chain or Butthole Surfers “sampling” riffs or backing vocal refrains from Sixties and Seventies legends). You can trace it back further still, through glam’s Fifties rock’n’roll echoes all the way to The Beatles’s 1968 Chuck Berry pastiche “Back In the U.S.S.R.”. Yet there’s no doubt that this kind of conscious retro-activity has intensified in the 21st Century. Partly that’s a result of just how extensive the archive of pop history is at this point (five decades and growing!). And partly it’s because the broadband era made accessing all that history so easy. YouTube, especially, is a vast, ever-expanding repository of videos and music-on-TV clips. It’s also an audio library that holds virtually every instance of pop (and unpop) music extant. You can school yourself there, free of charge.
Which brings us back to Lana Del Rey. Her rocket-like ascent through the buzzosphere was propelled by videos she put on YouTube made out of footage she’d found on Youtube. “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” put History in shuffle mode: a miasma of Americana that drifts back and forth across the decades but is unified by its sustained elegiac mood of not-now-ness. Amid the appropriated home-movie-footage of swimming pools and skateboarders and kids on mopeds, specific allusions pop up: Chateau Marmont, Lana in Lolita sunglasses from Kubrick’s movie, Lana in a racing driver jacket that suggests Evil Knievel or 1970s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Lana in a white leather fringe jacket that echoes Easy Rider or Elvis-in-Vegas.
According to Del Rey, though, the invocations of places like Las Vegas and LA in her videos (and also her lyrics) aren’t really references so much as mood-tints. “The thing that fascinates me about all of them is the colors of the places,” she says on the phone, in transit to another mythic-Americana landscape she adores, Coney Island. “The muted blues and greens in California, the bright lights of Vegas... People ask me about what the Fifties imagery from California represents to me, but actually I’m mainly just a visual person. Sometimes when my producer and I talk about songs, we talk about them in terms of colors. In a way the album was visually driven. “
Part of the nostalgia effect of the found footage in Del Rey’s videos derives from the properties of the different kinds of film stock, including the specific way that it ages and decays. The bleached and blotchy textures trigger a poignant sense of time’s passage, an inkling that even your most halcyon memories will fade to nothingness. “Blue Jeans” explicitly forefronts the idea of “dead media” and antiquated formats with its opening footage of a hand grabbing a pack of Eastman Ektrachrome Super 8 film.
Lana Del Rey may be about to become the first Hipstamatic pop star. (If she can get past the negative bump of her stilted Saturday Night Live performance, widely and somewhat unfairly deemed disastrous). Photo apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, or Fuuvi’s new faux-Super8 device the Bee, offer a digital simulation of an analogue past. Something similar is going on with Del Rey’s music : old-timey instruments like mandolins, strings, harps and twangy surf guitar make up much of its texture, but there’s also unidentifiable sounds that are clearly sampled and processed, while the beats on Born To Die ‘s more uptempo tunes are boombastic, hip hop in impact if not feel. The result: the RZA meets Lee Hazelwood. Factor in Del Rey’s choices in clothes, hair, and make-up, and it’s clear she’s the perfect pop singer for the era of vintage chic.
Not that she’s the only artist around offering a pre-faded sound-and-vision. Perfume Genius, also featured in Spin this month, has a similar “warm”, softened-by-age sound, and a video, for “Lookout, Lookout”, set in a quaint motel, complete with rotary phone.
It’s not just the stylized form of Lana Del Ray’s songs that harks back to olden days, it’s the emotional content too: a language of romantic excess redolent of Roy Orbison’s most over-the-top ballads or Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World”. Love as malady and madness, delirium, delusion... and death. From its title on down, Born To Die is full of it: “I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him,” “I wish I was dead”...
“I don’t really condone relying on another person to the point where you’re going to die without them,” says Del Rey. “Something I never really expected was to have gotten into a relationship that ended up being very tumultuous. But I had met someone who was so magnetic and made me feel differently from the way that I felt for so long, which was sort of confused and bored... and because in the end we couldn’t be together, it ended up having a do-or-die element to it. I kept on falling back to that place in terms of inspiration for the songs.”
Born To Die goes beyond retro-romance, though, to retro-sexuality, retro-gender. All those yielding, doe-eyed ballads of abject devotion look back in languor to a time when men were men and women were thankful. A pre-feminist world, or more precisely, America before Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique was published (1963). “This Is What Makes Us Girls” seems to define femininity as being a fool for love: “We all look for heaven and we put love first/Don’t you know we’d die for it?/It’s a curse.” At the other extreme, there are songs about women who uses wiles to get what they want. “Off to The Races” recalls Ginger, the Casino character played by Sharon Stone, except if she was as docile and adoring as DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein hoped. She’s a moll, wasting a rich man’s money (“give me them coins”), breaking into a Betty Boo squeak for the lines “I’m your little harlot, starlet” and purring “Tell me you own me”.
“I’m an interesting mix of person,” says Del Rey defensively, with just a hint of annoyance. “I am a modern day woman. I’m self-supporting. I went to college. I studied philosophy. I write my own music. But I also very appreciate being in the arms of a man and finding support that way. That feeling influences the kind of melodies I choose and how romantic I make the song. Maybe it ends up giving it a slightly unbalanced feeling.” Asked about the references in other songs to good-girls-gone-bad (“degenerate beauty queens” is one memorable lyric), she points to David Lynch’s movie Wild At Heart as not so much an inspiration as a parallel with phases in her life. “The way I ended up having relationships and living life, it sometimes mimics those more wild relationships.”
The Lynch connection highlights a curious quality of Del Rey’s whole shtick: not only does it hark back to the Fifties and Sixties, it also recalls the Eighties’s own invocations of that time. Movies like Blue Velvet, Jim Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, the S.E. Hinton adaptations Rumblefish and The Outsiders. Musicians as various as Tom Waits, Alan Vega, Chris Isaak, Mazzy Star. This syndrome isn’t unique to Del Rey, though. The scene that Frankie Rose belongs to—Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls—reaches Spector’s wall of sound and the Sixties girl group’s via Eighties British indiepop, specifically Jesus and Mary Chain and the “C86” movement of bands like The Shop Assistants. Then there’s The Men, also in this issue, who draw from the harder side of Eighties U.K. psych-revivalism. On their song “( )” they filch not just the riff from Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” but a chunk of its lyric (“And I suggest to you/That it takes/Just five seconds”) along with lines from “Take Me To the Other Side”.
If retro culture has reached the point where we’re seeing revivals of revivals, citations of citations (Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” was itself an already-somewhat-hokey homage to MC5), what are the implication for music going forward? As time goes by, signs become steadily more detached from their historical referents, hollowed out. All these sounds, gestures, time-honored phrases, are entering into a freefloating half-life, or afterlife, where all they represent is pure style: a dated-yet-timeless beauty.
This appears to be the ghosty place where Lana Del Rey comes from. In “Without You”, she sings “but burned into my brain/all these stolen images” and I can’t help thinking of Blade Runner and the androids who are given transplanted memories. Her lyrics teem with sampled clichés (“walk on the wild side”, “white lightning”) and iconic brand-names (“white Pontiac heaven”). But she says that the Pontiac allusion isn’t for its pop-cultural associations (Two Lane Blacktop and other 70s movies, songs by Tom Waits and Jan & Dean) so much as “just the sound” of the word. “Lana Del Rey” itself was chosen for its lilting loveliness rather than its rippling resonances (a platinum-blonde Hollywood idol with a turbulent and tragic private life, a 1950s Chevrolet, a California beach-town). “My music was always beautiful and I wanted a name that was beautiful too.”
“Beautiful” crops up repeatedly in Del Rey’s conversation, as it does in her lyrics. She seems to be intensely susceptible to the splendor of appearances, to the point of vulnerability. “You look like a million dollar man/so why is my heart broke?” she beseeches plaintively in “Million Dollar Man”. The gap between image and reality, between “real and the fake”, is an obsession. So is fame, portrayed as the dangerous desire to lose oneself by merging into a glamorous facade. “I even think I found god in the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras,” she sings in “Without You”, while the words “Movie Star Without a Cause” flash up in the video for “Blue Jeans”.
Then there’s “Carmen”, seemingly a song about a 17-year-old starlet who’s dying inside and only comes alive when “the camera’s on”, but actually a perturbing self-portrait. “‘Carmen’ is probably the song closest to my heart,” says Del Rey. “’Famous and dumb in an early age’—that’s fame in a different way, in different circles, for different reasons. Not really for being a pop star. It’s sort of like, my life”. Born To Die is at once the result of—yet also somehow about--an imagination so colonized by old movies and old songs that real life can only be expressed, or maybe even experienced, through this “cinematic” prism. Is this an artist’s distancing mechanism, a buffer to manage the emotion? Or was the actual love affair itself contaminated by fantasy and role-play?
What we have with Lana Del Rey is the problem of the undeniable talent who is also a throwback, and thus sets back the cause of musical modernism. (See also: The White Stripes). She’s not a straightforward revivalist: the music and the presentation are diversely sourced and the end result is a sophisticated and often seductive concoction. But it still falls, ultimately, within the domain of pastiche, memorably defined as “speech in a dead language”. Given her passive persona, it’s tempting to say that the ghosts of pop culture’s collective unconscious are speaking through her.
Born To Die, haunted by lost lovers (“there’s no remedy for memory”), the spectre of Spector stalking indie-land... it’s all somewhat gloomy and morbidly retrospective. Are there upsides to the contemporary condition that some call “atemporality”, where past, present and future blur indistinguishably and the entire history of music is at your clicking fingertips? Definitely. You can travel to time-zones that no one else has, as Destroyer did with Kaputt, a tour through regions of 1980s pop that neither synthpoppers like La Roux nor chillwavers like Neon Indian cared to visit. You can create “superhybrids” that draw on disparate sources from far-flung eras and locations, as artists as wildly dissimilar and energetically inventive as Vampire Weekend, Grimes, and Rustie have done. You can become mesmerized by “lost futures” of 70s synth music and attempt to start again where they left off, as with Emeralds and its members’s solo careers (such as Steve Hauchildt’s recent, brilliant Tragedy & Geometry), not forgetting all the Emeralds proteges who record for the label Spectrum Spools. Similar neo-futurist moves are made off the back of 80s electro-funk and electronic space music by Oneohtrix Point Never, Ford & Lopatin, and their protégés Napolian and The Renaissance. The archive can be a radical resource, if its immense array of musical precedents are used as launching pads into the unknown, rather than touchstones to recreate. The challenge is daunting but far from impossible: to make music that doesn’t remind you of X or Y, but prominds you of something yet to come.