Once upon a time, a hitchhiking back-up singing Snow White named Lizzy Grant was put to sleep by endless touring and woke up with kisses from seven older bearded biker boyfriends--the dwarfs and princes and huntsmen combined--and was reborn as Lana Del Rey, a Twin Peaks Roadhouse chanteuse with tear-stained eye-liner singing through a vintage microphone in front of a tattered crushed velvet curtain. It's a story captured in her usual fragmented but deeply emotional way in her 11 minute video for "Ride."
I was kind of over Del Rey after soaking up the way too-Princess Superstar-influenced girly rap back stretches of Born to Die, but she's got a new EP out, Paradise, that redresses the balance. Now if you cull the more anguished American gun-in-hand flag cape anthems from Die and add them to Paradise, you've got some kind of awesome classic, the kind of album that might come tumbling full form from the ghost of a young girl who sledded past you while you were halfway up the bloody mountain of maturity, and invited you to hop on, marriage, career, SSRI regimen, and children be damned. So you did, and it was a great ride back down to the rocky base that nonetheless left you broken from impact (and she didn't even have to stop, she just kept on... going). That's the country Lana Del Rey believes in, "the country America used to be."
As an origin story for a semi-fictional second starter and ode to the open road expanses of the American southwest, Ride transcends its Sons of Anarmerica stock imagery with a deep sexy, druggy sadness current and molasses momentum. Haters and critics will sneer, of course. But when haven't they recoiled in knee-jerk loathing when a young, hot mess like Del Rey shows off her scars like merit badges instead of hiding them in tasty (to them) shame?
Context: Imagine you're waiting in line at the Levis Store, half-watching the video on the monitor behind the cashier. Is that Lana Del Rey, looking a little Lindsay Lohan-level fucked-up, hair now dyed black and long but curlier and rocking the short-shorts-Southwestern noir Lolita-in-search-of-a-gang-of-Humberts streetwalker riff as her barely audible whispered voiceover rants through a good four minutes of intro to the song? Sure it's very Americana, you think, but it's something else too. And then suddenly you stuff the jeans you were going to buy under your shirt and race out the door, jumping on the back of the first passing motorcycle you can find. Maybe they'll find you dead in a ditch, or the cops will pick you up for solicitation in the bad part of town. It hardly matters as long as you can, if only for a few hours, see the fireworks and feel the dirty chill of true momentum.
No, it's not art, or trash, "Ride" is just the best film made about the American endless highway since Two-Lane Blacktop. Lana Del Rey proves that even if its an act she's got the truest sense of operatic-sexy-sad-dangerous going in music, cinema, or anywhere. It's not Madonna playing dress-up dangerous, but the kind where self-cutting, anorexia, nymphomania, pill addiction, and nonstop traveling from nowhere town to nowhere town all swirl enough momentum together to finally keep a young girl one step ahead of her suicidal ideation. Del Rey goes boldly in where most coy lip biter pouter jailbait-poseur pop girls wouldn't, no what their douche boyfriends promised. She goes right over the cliff, into the arms of a bunch of guys at least twice her age, who give her a gun, a swig of Jack, a drag on a Camel, a Native American headdress, and fireworks.
It would definitely be the wrong thing to emulate, I guess, for little girls. I imagine the moms must get nervous watching the video: Where's her helmet? Is she smoking? Those guys are old enough to be her fathers!" But as Del Rey puts it in "Ride's" mystic monologue, "there's no use in talking to people who have a home. They have no idea what it's like to seek safety in other people." As Lou Reed said when introducing his song "Heroin," "this song's not for it or against it. It's just about it." He later noted, "Some people never a voice to talk with / that they can even call their own / so the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why, they follow it / you know, it's called bad luck." I listened to a lot of Lou when I was in high school. He was my patron saint. If Del Rey was around then, I would have been in even worse trouble.
As with all Lana Del's videos, "Ride" offers a heady stream of seemingly disconnected images -- found early 60s home movie footage from July 4th barbecues; old travelogue footage of L.A. and Las Vegas, suicide symbolism (for her great "Born to Die" video she and her boyfriend start making out while he's flooring it through the fog in his charger, both heedless of the inevitable crash, for much longer than any similar scene in other films, until its clear this is intentional, a reckless suicide pact and it's a beautiful, dangerous, delirious moment), druggy electric melancholy, Mad Men-era Americana, and Miss Grant herself, all decked out in an array of hot mess looks, eyeing herself in the tail fin reflection of the crystalline moment right before JFK got shot and splattered the American consciousness forever in blue jeans bloodstained and souls unquiet.
Other great lines: Del Rey intones that she grew up with "No moral compass pointing due north. No fixed personality. Just an inner undecidedness that was as wide and wavering as the ocean." At various times in the monologue she seems on the verge of tears, then laughs at some private memory a second later, just like a true bi-polar hottie; you can also hear the weariness when she whispers of having "a war in my mind." The point is, she's present in her whisper. Her madness feels real. It's contagious.
Of course anything that tries to be 'real' is going to draw critics anxious to rant on how fake it all is. But I'm not even going to quote them. There's no need. Naturally they are right. But fakes abound in art: Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepherd, Lou Reed -- they all get dressed up in America's fringes like kids at a costume store. Then again they're boys, and old enough to be Lana Del Rey's grandfathers. Whenever a hot young girl tries to say something profound and show herself living free and dangerous she's always going to draw faux-feminist fire from those critics who have, like so many, roped off that dangerous part of themselves and so get mad when someone else walks freely past the same barriers. It takes a near death, a Romeo and Juliet plunge sometimes, to get these haters to part their own ropes and ride free themselves, ala the amazing Moonrise Kingdom.
So you see, fake or real, cute and young oe old and grizzled, I've felt the things Lana's talking about here, the fathomless, glowing gratitude for those 'wild friends you met along the road' who for some perfect storm of a reason allowed you for the first time in your twisted-up life to feel that you belonged and that you'd found, finally "your people," your tribe, your gang, your home wherever you lay your head, if only for a weekend. And then, still high and free, you ride on ahead without them and years later you pause from your long run down endless highways, and realize hey, where'd my friends go? "Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat," Bob Dylan once sang, remembering his own old tribe, "and I'd give it all gladly / if our lives could be like that." See? He knew. The first pang of that feeling was well-captured in the 90s and though Lana Del's video might superficially recall Fiona Apple's infamous porn ring shag carpet basement "Criminal" video, it's really Blind Mellon's video with the girl in the bee costume that rings the truest by comparison. Somewhere that gang of bees waits for thee-- shall your bee costume lay forever entombed in attic mothballs, or shall it buzz once more?
Naturally there's a weird father figure issue draw for any older semi-grizzled American dream acid casualty like myself imagining one thing or another but cleansing the palette of any notions of mere titillation is a Josef Von Sternberg masochistic response-initiation, as Lana seems to be taunting us with these old bikers, like a cub luxuriating betwixt the paws of her giant lion fathers, treating the viewer in effect like Marlene Dietrich treats Lionel Atwill in The Devil is a Woman, or Adolphe Menjou in Morocco, or Emil Jannings in Der Blaue Engel. In other words if it makes you uncomfortable don't throw stones, soak in the masochistic response! That's cinema!
And it's one of the reasons I resonate so strongly with Del Rey. She reminds me of girls I've known and loved and just rode with and crashed with and lost in and around the rooms of AA and the rock and roll road. Del Rey captures the sadness at the core of all their self-destructive exhibitionist/anorexic/self-cutting/nymphomaniac/coked-up thrill-seeking junkie behavior. The transfiguration of private pain into hunger artist self-destructive performance art spectacle is nothing to sneeze at. "Ride" is an artist's attempts to stave off suicidal depression, trying anything to stop that crushing blue demon fist around her midnight heart, and finding it by hopping on the motorcycle of some old biker dude, like Cherie Curie does in Foxes. Lana Del antagonizes some and exhilarates others because she's unafraid to show how real freedom comes from being "fucking crazy." It's the same crazy by which the men find sanity in The Ninth Configuration!
As I wrote a few weeks back, sexycrazy is in - with Claire Forlani dragging us back into the closed bar for six AM nightcaps in those Dewar's ads; crazy Carrie in Homeland, and the Zulawski film, and so forth. I'm glad that the promise Angelina Jolie showed with her role in Girl Interrupted (but never followed up on) is at least finding its full flower elsewhere. I feel the sadness and the joy in self-destruction and the genuine crazy in this video, and even with all its somewhat moth-eaten truck stop Americana minutiae, I support it, like the soccer mom supports the troops, and like AA supports and even sometimes heals all the broken-down bikers and thrill-seeking Lolitas and squirrelly writers. We all end up there, if we're lucky, and find all the crazy freedom we'd been looking for all along.