Once upon a time, a back-up singer named Lizzy Grant was put to sleep by the witchy grind of endless touring and woke up with kisses from seven older bearded biker boyfriends--the dwarfs and princes and huntsmen combined--and was reborn as a Twin Peaks Roadhouse chanteuse with tear-stained eye-liner named Lana Del Rey. Singing lead now, alone under a single spotlight in front of a tattered crushed velvet curtain, clutching a vintage microphone like it's the ghost of her lover's neck, she was beyond witchy curses now, almost not human.
See video here.
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, then 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, sobriety and children be damned. So you did, and it was a great ride back down to the rocky base that nonetheless left you both dead and broken on impact ("and she didn't even have to stop..."). That's the country Lana Del Rey believes in, "the country America used to be," the rocks at the bottom of the bloody mountain. The bodies of those that sled before all still there, their ghosts giving you a thumbs up and an Elvis wink.
As an origin story for a semi-fictional second starter and ode to the open road expanses of the American southwest, Rey's 11-minute video for the song "Ride" transcends its Sons of Anarchy stock signifier list imagery (Budweiser shirt, big Julia Roberts hair, craggy faces, American flag, bikes, hand guns) 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 psychic battle scars like merit badges instead of hiding them in traumatized gentility?
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, rocking the short-shorts-Southwestern noir Lolita streetwalker with a handgun, Budweiser T-shirt and American Flag shawl riff as her barely audible whispered voiceover rants through a good four minutes of intro? Sure it's very Americana, you think, and precociously pretentious, but it's something else too-- it's bona fide fearless. It clicks something in your brain 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 a week later, or the cops will pick you up for solicitation in the bad part of town, or you'll get a book deal. It hardly matters. As long as you can, if only for a few hours, feel true momentum, ain't that America?
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 nymphette razor-walking since ever. This is miles beyond Madonna's surface-deep bad girl charades. Del Rey embodies instead the real deal in all its tragic suffering: the self-cutting, anorexia, nymphomania, pill addiction, and nonstop traveling from nowhere town to nowhere town of a real hot mess, grandly and proudly rather than all 'help me please,' cautionary tale. Her madness survives via a momentum that keeps her one step ahead suicidal ideation the way constant acceleration can keep you from exploding in deep space without a pressurized suit. Del Rey goes boldly in where most coy lip biter pouter jailbait-poseur pop girls wouldn't dare, for all their navel piercing and wolf tattoos. Not that they should! Del Rey's archetype would definitely be the wrong choice to emulate, I guess, for most girls. 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." Or as Lou Reed said, "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 be long dead by now.
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 splatters the American consciousness forever in the blood-stained denim of disillusion.
Other great lines: "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... 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. It doesn't matter if it's real. Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepherd, Lou Reed, Scorsese -- they all dress 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. They can be raw and real, but hose critics who have cordoned off their true northern courage get mad when a hot young mess walks freely past said cordon, barely heeding it or them, and they don't have enough self-awareness to question the jealous hostility they suddenly feel. It takes a near death, a Romeo and Juliet plunge sometimes, to get these haters to part their own velvet ropes and ride free themselves, ala the amazing Moonrise Kingdom.
So you see, fake or real, cute and young or 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? Would that song be bad if he made up the people he's singing about? That song and feeling haunted me through the 90s as my college friends all got married and moved Westchester, 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, even if it means your death?
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 we male viewers with these old bikers, like a cub luxuriating betwixt the paws of her giant lion fathers, treating us 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, 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 masochistically pined for, and crashed with but never got all the way with, and lost in and around AA and the road. At the core of all their self-destructive exhibitionist/anorexic/self-cutting/nymphomaniac/coked-up thrill-seeking junkie behavior, I do believe lurks the chance for artistic transfiguration, from private pain into hunger artist self-destructive performance art spectacle, and "Ride" is an artist's attempts to find peace by hopping on the motorcycle of some old biker dude. 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, moth-eaten truck stop Americana minutiae or no, I support it, like the soccer mom supports the troops in a war she doesn't even understand, 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. But we're still fucking crazy.