Lana Del Rey built her career on a collection of scattered, kitschy Americana imagery, cooing in Marilyn Monroe pastiche about blue jeans and Pepsi Cola. It earned her an unworthy reputation as a character (and the bizarre fascination with her fake name and fudged backstory didn’t help either), just a shallow curator of vintage sounds and feelings. But she used her references, clinging to biker boys on the open road, interpolating the chorus of “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss,” sharply as a songwriter, recognizing the darkness of American pop culture. With every album, the white picket fence bordering her oeuvre got more and more battered. By the time she explicitly asked, “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” on Lust for Life’s “When the World Was At War We Kept Dancing,” she’d been asking the same in her music, in different ways, for her entire career.
Del Rey broke ground as a pop artist in a genre crowded by over-the-top, all-smiles pop stars, but her music has grown to reflect hopelessness as an everyday reality. “It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough/for the future or the things to come,” she sang on Lust For Life’s “Love,” arguably her best song, with a music video set in outer space, a reminder to kids that they might not change their crumbling world, but that’s okay. On her new album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, she ping-pongs between that grinning nihilism (“The culture is lit/and if this is it, I had a ball,” she sings on the incredible “The Greatest”) and optimism. “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it,” she admits on the song of the same name, like a whispered prayer to close out her album.
Since Trump’s election, critics have been searching for great, political music as a response to such hopelessness. “Will Trump’s America trigger a protest renaissance?” The Guardian asked. What followed was a collective critical obsession with popular political music from the past four years and how it did, or did not, reflect this moment. Can you hear the moment in Childish Gambino’s twisted, anxious party on “This Is America?” Is it A Tribe Called Quest’s explicit dig at Donald Trump on “We the People...?” Is it Taylor Swift telling the haters (or is it white supremacists?) to calm down?
Then there’s this year’s “Looking for America,” a song about gun violence, written by Del Rey. “Now I know I’m not a politician and I’m not trying to be, so excuse me for having an opinion,” she said of the song. “But in light of all of the mass shootings and the back to back shootings in the last couple of days which really affected me on a cellular level.” “I’m still looking for my own version of America,” she sings, over little more than acoustic guitar and Jack Antonoff’s successfully sparse production. “One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly.” And then, her voice layered like a girl group trio, she seems to sigh: “It’s just a dream I had in mind.”
The way Lana Del Rey sings that line, “It’s just a dream I had in mind,” as if it’s such a silly dream to suggest, a wish of Disney fairytale proportions, feels heartbreaking in itself. Across her career, Del Rey has established herself as a songwriter with a critical eye pointed toward America, but not the kind that sloganizes issues into hashtags fit for a t-shirt. She sings of her country’s demise, and the world’s at large, with the perspective of a woman who recognizes that the Apocalypse is a familiar, ambient threat. Fuck it all, she says, and in the same breath she wants desperately for a solution.
Del Rey’s music is not protest music. It doesn’t rally the masses or call out the President’s policies. You could argue that her “fuck it” approach, losing herself in the beaches of California while they still exist, exemplifies the exact opposite of what great political music is supposed to do. But listening to the ways in which the Apocalypse clouds her vision in her love songs, contemplating how Los Angeles just missed a fireball, thinking of Woodstock at Coachella, actually sounds like what this moment feels like. You dress in neon to feel a little better. You go to grab a coffee and wonder if you’ll still be here tomorrow. You dream that things will get better, and the next day take it back. “Can’t a girl just do the best she can?” she asks on “Mariners Apartment Complex.” In Del Rey’s music, people fall in love at the end of the world, because that’s where we are.
Sometimes political unrest, the trauma of living on a dying earth, can’t be embodied in a single song. I wouldn’t want anyone to try to. For Del Rey, it is a constant presence brooding in the margins of her lyrics, flickering in and out of her life enough to remind her she’s running out of time.