Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Lana Del Rey’s outdated image of America

Singer’s new album “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” exposes Del Rey’s ignorance

If Phoebe Bridgers is the Twitter music star — outwardly moody and unsatisfied; “ghosting” friends and effusively crying; favoring words over decoration — Lana Del Rey is the alternative darling of Instagram. In her newest album “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” released March 19, Del Rey trades in Bridger’s sharp analysis of our millennial present for a shiftier alternative: the nostalgic image.

Lana Del Rey, whose stage name alone evokes a strange feeling of oldness and California, has always been obsessed with the past. Her 2012 breakout album, “Born to Die,” was remarkable in its unabashed American patriotism. At the time, the young singer’s preference for “blue jeans / white shirt(s)” and the “National Anthem” seemed retrograde in comparison to Lady Gaga’s “Judas” and Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” of the year prior. 

Del Rey represented a return to an effusive something — something that she’s sketched out in her five albums since. “Beat poetry,” “you’re so art deco,” “God Bless America - And All the Beautiful Women in It,” “Cause you’re just a man / It’s just what you do,” are just some of the ephemera that constructed Del Rey’s image as the hot grandma of the pop divas, the only one with her head turned over her shoulder, looking back to the last century.

In her newest album, Del Rey is no longer merely looking backward: She’s sprinting away from 2021. Combining her typical pop synthesizers with Americana and folk, “Chemtrails” is a mosaic of 70s buzzwords. From “my little red sports car” to Allen Ginsberg references to many mentions of Joan Baez to the last track’s cover of Joni Mitchell, Del Rey’s “Chemtrails” is a portal to the era of “Flower Children” and “Bohemians.” 

Rather than choosing to concretize these allusions with lyrical stories, Del Rey instead turns to her old friend: atmosphere. Layering her voice, whispering into a mic, clumsily strumming a guitar and moaning in various keys, she creates a soundscape that distracts from the randomness of her lyricism. This roundabout approach has always proved successful for Del Rey. 

She starts with a scenario and then uses sound to manufacture an atmosphere which distracts from the original premise. Her promises then never have to be fulfilled. The infantile rhyming scheme in “High by the Beach” off of her 2015 album “Honeymoon” — “All I wanted to do was get high by the beach / Get high, baby, baby, bye-bye” — is lost amidst her crooning, a numbing bass, and a drum kit that manufactures the image of, indeed, getting high “baby, baby, bye-bye.” 

“Chemtrails” only compounds this characteristic false promise of the nostalgic image. The album cover itself introduces the listener into Del Rey’s world immediately, without any argument or evidence. Del Rey sits at a table covered in a gingham cloth surrounded by several girlfriends, all clothed in dresses from various eras. The photo is, of course, in black and white, with the album’s title emblazoned on the bottom third of the photo in a fairground font. 

The first song, “White Dress,” is a whined ballad about being a “waitress wearing a white dress,” dreaming of a “simpler time / like Sun Ra, feel small.” The basic theme in the song is the internal guilt that accompanies the singer’s worship of the male gaze — a conflict Del Rey has always stressed and has yet to solve in the decade since her singing career began. These wisps of an idea form an incomplete story, but the moody horns and slow snares create a longing for, well, being the waitress Del Rey was. Like a seasoned Instagrammer, she presents her image and, through the talent of producer Jack Antonoff, manufactures the listener’s desire for it.

An especially confusing aspect of "Chemtrails,” one that seems to crack open Del Rey’s imagery scheme, is the plethora of allusions that don’t really have anything to do with the 70s, beat poetry or the dated “my old man” trope. 

Take “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” the album’s third track. In it, she asks an imaginary person (a man, we can assume) to “Sing me like a Bible hymn.” “We should go back to Arkansas,” she tells him. This romanticization of American Christianity, of the midwest — “Lincoln, Nebraska’s got me in a haze,” she croons on “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” — doesn’t fit with her established flower child, Californian, summer-obsessed image. But posited next to the allusions to the previous century, Del Rey conflates current day Lincoln with the bohemian West of the past. In fetishizing the latter, by association, she romanticizes the former. 

Most of America, then — the country clubs and “Yosemite” and Tulsa and the “small towns far away” and Los Angeles — all become one desirous thing. She sells this America to the listener over and over again on “Chemtrails.” The problem with her proposal, of course, is that Del Rey’s America has never existed. 

This past June, Del Rey came under fire for an Instagram post where she compared herself to singers like Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Camilla Cabello and Cardi B who make songs about “being sexy” and “wearing no clothes” among other things. “Can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love … without being crucified or saying I’m glamorizing abuse?” she asked her millions of followers. Many critics pointed out that of the several female artists Del Rey derided, all but one were women of color. This, and her remark later on in the post that there has to be a place in feminism for “women who look and act like me,” cast an unsavory light on the singer, whose niche is romanticizing mid-century America. 

Even more recently, her response to those who criticized her cover for "Chemtrails" — many of the women appear to be white in the photo — was that the women were all “a mix of everything, some more than others.” In a top comment on the same post, Del Rey responded to critics, making sure to highlight that her “best friends are rappers, my boyfriends have been rappers.” She closed the post by reminding her haters that “I’m not the one storming the capitol, I’m literally changing the world by putting my life and thoughts and love out there on the table 24 seven. Respect it.”

In these Instagram posts and in “Chemtrails,” the internal architecture of Del Rey’s omnipresent image is laid bare. The atmosphere so intrinsic to her work is, at its core, an invisible whiteness; the image she upholds is one of a white America. She sings of a country only accessible to few, and she romanticizes an America only livable for the privileged. Ironically, she reduces Beyoncé to an artist who sings about “wearing no clothes,” for her discography could be reduced, in the same manner, to a woman who sings about cars. The falsity of her America is as manufactured, commercialized and whitewashed as the “White Mustangs” she lusts after. 

“Chemtrails Over the Country Club" is a desperate scaffold for Lana Del Rey’s crumbling social image. The catchy hooks are hard to stop humming and the instrumentals are hard to forget, but the whimsical lyrics are hard to reconcile. That is what Del Rey wants listeners to picture with her music — all the atmospherics: the beach, Lincoln, NE, James Dean, blue jeans, Sun Ra. If you think too hard or question what she’s projecting, you might find yourself in the comments of one of her Instagram posts, chastising her for tearing down women of color to protect her image. Instead, she asks you to dumb yourself down a bit, turn on “Tulsa Jesus Freak” and tune everything out. It’s just white noise. 


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.