The cinematic long-form music video has become as integral a part of an artist’s maturation as double live LPs and concept albums. Considering that Lana Del Rey has an unreleased song called “Axl Rose Husband,” it’s not too surprising that “Ride,” the latest of her increasingly ambitious music videos, tries to go full “November Rain,” firing every secret romantic Gothic synapse in the human brain into a Wuthering Heights frenzy on the rain-soaked moors of Nevada’s Valley of Fire.
You could take the casting of some very, uh, authentic bikers (all of whom are listed in the end credits; personal favorite: “Scott The Wall”) as Del Rey’s kiss-off to the neck-tatted male-model star from her first few videos who recently blasted her on Twitter by calling her a “speed fairy” and a “no-talent diva.” The bikers, although hulking and grizzled, are depicted as kittens in thrall to their old lady, an all-American vision in shorts and Chuck Taylors played by Del Rey. The leathery Hells Angels–type bikers pet world-weary prostitute Lana sweetly and take care of her when they’re not fondling her into a tilt or licking her neck. It plays out like Snow White and the Outlaw Motorcycle Club.
Director Anthony Mandler’s first credited video was 8Ball & MJG’s “Pimp Hard,” and since then he has worked with Rihanna, The Killers, and Beyoncé. He directed Del Rey’s audacious and well-received video for “National Anthem,” in which she played a Jackie O/Marilyn amalgam married to A$AP Rocky’s JFK enjoying an East Coast luxury lifestyle that ends abruptly in gore. Mandler assists Lana again as she pimps hard on the outer streets of Las Vegas, styling herself as a dreamy streetwalker-slash-singer who’s equal parts Lolita and Blanche DuBois.
Since Madonna, pop stars have become expected to define their careers’ different eras through major changes in styling and hair. Accordingly, Del Rey announces her evolution to a new phase for her Born to Die: Paradise Edition release in the “Ride” video with a switch from her trademark caramel waves to a dark chocolate biker-chick perm just at the precise moment that Lady Gaga has adopted Del Rey’s former style. I keep having this daydream about Lady Gaga playing Cristal Connors to Lana Del Rey’s Nomi Malone in a remake of Showgirls.
Older Lana Del Rey songs have been leaking, most of which aren’t slated for professional release. They vary in quality, from silly to excellent, adding to the map of Americana, daddy issues, and retro nostalgia that characterize the Del Rey persona. Her lyrics often repeat themes and phrases, but it is clearly the sound of an artist figuring out her shtick. Unreleased music videos depict the erstwhile Lizzy Grant mooning in a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig, intercut with footage of Elvis. “Jump” has film clips of Chet Baker and a biker gang while Del Rey sings dreamily about dying from the “right mixture of cocaine and heroin.”
Lana loves old Hollywood film tropes, and the sad but somehow glamorous hooker with a heart of gold is a fictional type much older than film. In a time when star access is designed to look unlimited (although that’s illusory), Del Rey purposely cultivates mystery. She drops lyrical clues that hint at a tragic backstory without explicitly revealing whether they’re about real human being Lizzy Grant or the fictional Lana. She tries out different vocal affectations and stock feminine personae on various songs; a baby-doll voice, a husky, jaded lilt, an earnest soprano that cracks vulnerably reaching for high notes.
The consummate unattainable Internet crush, Lana Del Rey’s allure lies in the valley between the highly controlled sensual images of herself that she distributes and her lyrical narratives about an archetypal bad girl driven out of control by badder men. She describes a life of dangerously self-destructive impulses and depressing bleakness without letting on how much of her femme fatale thing is a fictionalized act. There are fleeting moments of pleasure and happiness for Del Rey’s heroines, but overall their lives sound like a sexy drag.
I was all aboard for the blistering insanity of the “Ride” video until the last scene, in which Del Rey dons a traditional war bonnet, because squicky white hipster cultural appropriation is not a good look, particularly when it comes to sacred Native American items. It’s also incredibly widespread, a common sight in fashion editorials and at tony music festivals. Maybe it’s supposed to be a comment on the rampant fetishization of native imagery by bikers here, but I can’t support it. I would maybe stick to wearing the “Buttweiser: King of Rears” T-shirt.
Considering her Laura Palmer mystique, Del Rey perhaps overplays her hand here with the monologues. Her dead-eyed gaze is evocative enough and the song’s storytelling stands up on its own without alliterative poem scraps. Lady Gaga fell into a similar trap when she wrote embarrassingly pretentious and leaden Tarantino-esque dialogue for the “Telephone” video after a series of progressively longer and more extensively plotted videos. Del Rey’s “Ride” narration aspires toward Terrence Malick’s Badlands but suffers from the comparison.
At one point Del Rey’s character leans into a car to coax a john while describing in voice-over how her mother described her as having “no moral compass” and “no fixed personality.” Those are terrible qualities in a friend or a real human being, but they’re great for a pop star, and basic requirements in a sex object. The “Ride” video shows Lana peddling a fantasy of tender degradation and commercialized self-objectification as the road to freedom from personal demons. Like any fantasy, sometimes it can get really dark and strange.