When I was young, and even to this day, my favourite book was Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. After nicking it off my older brother, I found myself devouring it over the course of a month. I would have finished it sooner, had I not been enjoying it so much and wanting to stretch it out for as long as possible. There was something about the bitter, self-contradictory narrative that resonated with me to a level no other novel had before. The desire for closeness to another human being without sexual activity, yet desire for sexual closeness without wanting to be sexual at all was my entire teenage existence. I had never come across anyone in real life who felt this way; but even though Holden Caulfield was fictional, I saw him as a real person who I could relate to when my peers didn’t measure up. To this day, every other novel has paled in comparison.
But as a girl growing up with these emotions, it often irked me that there were rarely any stories were girls were this complicated. There were few coming-of-age stories for girls that I could relate to. Most of them were concerned with teenage pregnancies and mean girls, and were written in a soapy, flimsy fashion. These girls usually had a crowd of friends they talked to endlessly about the boys they liked. I was unmoved; the boys I was surrounded by didn’t compel me-they were immature and sex-obsessed. There were no stories of disillusionment with adults and society, at least to my knowledge.
Of course, it was only in my twenties that I discovered The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which was almost the female equivalent of Catcher. But even then, it seems to me that the stories we are told about men are complex and ask existentialist questions that are difficult for most of us to answer-whereas stories we are told about women are usually answered in 30-minute intervals in some tawdry sitcom or unrealistic drama.
So it is that we start to look for a complex female narrative; someone who speaks to us in a way we can relate to. Where not everything is always sunshine and roses and cupcakes with vanilla frosting.
Enter Lana Del Rey. With an aesthetic that drums up images of 90s rap legends and 60s pinup girls simutaneously, she evokes a brazen sexuality with a glow of deep sadness. Her image may suggest sexuality and conformity, but look longer and you’ll see that she doesn’t intend her image for the male gaze; and if it does capture them, she’s not interested. Famous for her refusal to pander to the media, she eschews the peppy demeanour of your Perrys and Swifts in favour of a darkness that we rarely see in our female pop musicians. She sings that you’re her daddy, but she also hates your guts. She sings about feeling deeply depressed and not knowing why; rebelling without a cause and kissing men who’ll never truly know her. Hers is a story we rarely hear-she’s destructive and wild and drives down the highway with abandon. But while critics applauded Kerouac for his run-on sentences and nonsensical acid-fuelled narrative, they revile Del Rey’s own Beatnik beats, insisting her lyrics are foamy, substance-less fluff. Because while men have complex souls of which we may never know the true depth, apparently women exist as shallow pools to be carelessly walked through for the convenience of men.
Many may criticize Del Rey’s lyrics as being mostly concerned with men as the basis for her existence. One can see why-it’s true that most of her lyrics plead for men to love her, to notice her, to be both kind and cruel-but it’s this tragic narrative that makes her all the more compelling. I’m all for female independence and girl-power anthems, but I’m also for exposure of the darker depths of women’s psyche. If that happens to be a longing for her man to love her, so be it. It’s delivered with a thoughtfulness and moroseness that is lacking in most female musicians’ discography. She writes rhythmic poetry in place of catchy hooks. Her self-aware sonnet “Fucked My Way Up To The Top” is a nod to press speculation about her. She refuses to censor.
There are more female singers out there are doing something different in music-Lorde, Ladyhawke and Robyn to name a few-but there is something cathartic about Del Rey’s mournful musings on love and life. She creates her own story of tragedy, all without being a big old phony.
The boys, the girls, they all like Carmen
She gives them butterflies, bats her cartoon eyes
She laughs like God, her mind’s like a diamond
Audio tune lies, she’s still shining
Like lightning, ohh, white lightning
-Lana Del Rey, Carmen