“I think I am smart unless I am really, really in love, and then I am ridiculously stupid.” — Taylor Swift in Vogue, February 2012
“Gangster Nancy Sinatra” Lana Del Rey served herself well by making her reference point Nancy and not, say, Nico. While Nancy Sinatra didn’t have the same kind of vocal talent as father Frank, she had Jersey Girl charm and a try-hard, striving, posing cool, infused with kicky go-go dancerisms. Wedding Nancy’s aesthetic (always considered fairly jokey) to a ’90s sullen-girl trip-hop sound IS a smart idea, so smart, in fact, that Del Rey’s detractors seem convinced it was not hers. But one good gimmick is no longer enough to sustain a career once launched. You’re now expected to have billions. If Lady Gaga’s refusal to light on any one specific trick for too long is infuriating, it is also oddly sensible. If you never stop changing, nobody can pinpoint the end of your “moment.” Just as quickly as everyone was delighted by Lana’s glam, white-trash, David Lynch aesthetic they decided that it was now played.
Lana Del Rey’s debut Born to Die is a slipstream of Americana references, U.S. culture babelfished through a speculatively foreign point of view. The more hip-hop-influenced tracks sound like Deborah Harry’s goofy B-Girl stance in Blondie’s “Rapture” and sometimes like the silly English lyrics* in Italo Disco. It is rife with references toNabokov’s Lolita, and aims for that doomed feeling of hectic lovers on the run mixed with evil morning-afters, a death trip through youth and beyond.
*”Off to the Races,” the hardest song to listen to on Born to Die, makes me feel the exact same way as the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood duet “Some Velvet Morning,” whose Nashville strings and cantering tempo changes are the audio equivalent of floating thrift-store dust.
The album, with all its languid production and ad-lib flourishes, avoids pitch-shifted perfection in favor of awkwardness and discomfort. Del Rey’s voice wavers and fails. It reaches and breaks. The SNL performances were compelling like a car crash, leaving the basic memorable-ness of the songs’ melodies intact. (“Blue Jeans” sounds like Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” knocked up the Portishead live album and made a troubled teenage girl who skips class to smoke cloves.) More than anything else, Del Rey’s SNL episode reminded me of Susan Alexander’s opera stage debut in Citizen Kane, the live reminder that courage can’t be bought.
Del Rey constructed her initial persona perfectly, from the found-footage videos on her YouTube channel, a Technicolor cocktail of the Kennedy assassination, skaters, florals, and neon, to her brazenly nutty self-seriousness on Twitter, which made her seem like a good potential pen pal for either Courtney Stodden or the fake Joan Didion account. Can a bad live show kill a performer? It depends on the performer. It almost certainly won’t kill Lana Del Rey. She’s bound to attract a cult of moony, depressed girls who will share her obsessive love for tall tattooed men, tiny denim cutoffs, and pink flower crowns.
She brings up memories of Britney Spears’ cosplay coquette routine, whose real-fake line blurs included lying about being a virgin, denying getting breast implants (remember when Brit passed off her suddenly huge D cups from the “Sometimes” video as a late spurt of puberty?), and constant lyrical mentions of how “crazy” she is, something Del Rey does, plus the fondness of both for breathy baby voices. Lana Del Rey’s “persona” is mentally unstable, while the real Del Rey orchestrates everything down to the last OCD detail, but then seems deeply uncomfortable and out of control performing on SNL. If a bucket of blood had been dumped on her head during “Blue Jeans” it would have felt right.
Taylor Swift also shares a fascination with martyrs, including the Kennedy family. A recent (staged) London paparazzi shoot showed her visiting Princess Diana’s grave in a hilariously somber mode, flanked by two virginal white swans, much like Lana Del Rey poses between two tigers in the “Born to Die” video. The piece on Swift in this month’s Vogue is called “The Single Life” and the accompanying fashion editorial presents Taylor as a hybrid of Stevie Nicks and Penny Lane, globe-trotting on tour as the ultimate bohemian carefree white girl. How much weirder is it that Taylor Swift is obsessed with the Kennedys? Whereas Del Rey is purposely vague about how much of her gothic persona is a put-on, Swift wants to seem totally, genuinely light and carefree, charming and girlie, but accidentally (OR IS IT?) demonstrates her deep pockets of anger, aggression, and competitive drive.
“Middle school … awkward!” Swift says as she embarks on a Mean Girls rant: “If you know how to be cool in middle school, maybe you have skills you shouldn’t. Maybe you know how to be conniving, like, naturally.” (She then names names). “There’s always that one seventh-grade girl who looks like she’s 25. And you’re like, How do you do it? How do you do it Sarah Jaxheimer? Why is your hair always so shiny?” Swift says she is so much happier now, living her dreams at 22 and presumably crushing the shiny-haired bullies of the world. She cops to acting “bratty,” but says she spends “the next four days apologizing.” It’s unclear whether she considers that “conniving.”
She is talkative and openly neurotic in a way you’d never see from a blonde country princess like Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood. She is more like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall: overly gracious and eager to please but full of a nonstop, nervous, fluttering energy. “I fret about the future. What my next move should be. What the move after that should be. How I am going to sustain this. How do I evolve. I get so ahead of myself. I’m like, ‘What am I going to be doing at 30?’ But there’s no way to know that! So it’s this endless mind-boggling equation that you’ll never figure out. I overanalyze myself into a big bag of worries.”
What is missing from Swift’s ’70s-styled rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in Vogue is (besides drugs, of course) sex. Like Frank Zappa asserting that you didn’t have to take drugs to be weird, Taylor wants to prove that you can substitute drinking vanilla tea lattes* for scoring heroin in Tangier and banging groupies in Las Vegas hotels and still be a classically humongous rock star. The numbers don’t lie. She is one of the few artists who sell out stadiums, and the youngest by far. If the Vogue article marks anything, it’s the end of the Taylor Swift “surprise face” era. (JK, she will never stop doing that.) She seems comfortable having a big ego now, something she obviously always had (how else does one become a famous rock star?) but seemed afraid of openly admitting to before, for not wanting to seem full of herself.
*Stevie Nicks herself has said that even when she had a drug problem and was the height of her Fleetwood Mac fame, she and Christine McVie were more likely to drink tea and play Gin Rummy to wind down from shows than to stay out all night partying.
Conservative columnist Caitlin Flanagan’s book Girl Land argues that little girls need time and space to be nonsexualized people before being thrust into the hormone-addled Internet porn-prom of modern culture, lest they end up jaded Lolitas like the fictional Lana Del Rey. Flanagan thinks girls want to be pink princesses, just because she did. Swift touts the Girl Land-style wholesomeness of her (sometimes flat, occasionally off-key) live shows; folk-rock concerts where the air never smells like pot smoke and girls can be sure they will never be ogled or mocked. Her biggest heroes and musical influences are James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson (do you think she’s read Girls Like Us?) for their gentle songs, not darkness and drug problems. Taylor Swift’s aesthetic of balconies, gowns, castles, and ponies is oppressive in its own way, but it is fully hers. She intends to take her sweet time moving on from it.
Swift chafes against the public insistence that she grow up, since it seems to her to be equated with doing a lingerie shoot for a men’s magazine (she is not wrong, and there’s an odd prudishness about her that is semicharming, much like Liz Lemon’s). Michelle Williams talks in GQ about doing a Maxim shoot in her early 20s and feeling cheap and used afterward, like she’d let herself get talked into something she wasn’t fully comfortable with for fear of seeming like a bad sport, and it reads all the more uncomfortably against the pictures of her in Marilyn drag wearing bits of lace and satin.
Giving executive realness in the video for “Ours,” Swift speaks directly to her demo, girls her age (22) working shitty office jobs, waiting all day for their boyfriends’ texts. Swifts resents the idea that she does anything cynically, insisting she’s as much of a naïf as she seems, clinging to earnestness and innocence even in the face of the world as it actually is. She has become more guarded, and has dating “red flags”* now, but remains as bubbly and perky as ever. She wants to protect little girls from life’s inevitable disappointments and you get the sense she is just as much trying to protect herself.
*(A) Guys who think they know all about her without having met her IRL; (B) guys who are threatened by her security detail; (C) guys who are threatened by her career and put her down “to level the playing field”; (D) guys who don’t want anyone to know they are together.
I can’t tell whether Taylor is honest or being defensive when she says, “I just don’t really feel like dating. I have this really great life right now, and I’m not sad.” Swift, whose country twang was picked up off the radio, is no fool. She navigates interviews deftly, avoiding all landmines. She wants to appear beautiful, poised, and sharp. Charmingly, she comes off extremely dorky at times. While she won’t cop to any crushes on real live adult men, she does admit to a desire to bake cookies with Karlie Kloss. Whether her immaturity is genuine or forced, it speaks to current trends. After winter’s Rooney Mara cover and androgynous black-leather spread, the entire spring issue of Vogue is focused around a pretty retro “no pants allowed” femininity. There is a think piece on fake eyelashes and a fashion editorial where famously buxom model Lara Stone’s breasts are covered and buttoned up, her blonde hair stuffed into an unflattering short brunette wig as she wears long pencil skirts and has an affair with a cowpoke. (Repression is what’s really sexy! Vogue seems to say. And maybe they have a point. Nothing is hotter than an icy-manic Hitchcock heroine.)
The great Michelle Williams cover story profile in GQ provides real insight into the actress, a public person who seems uncomfortable having her public personage fully exposed but can’t help exposing herself, who hides her life of personal tragedies behind sunniness and seems all the sadder for it. That this makes her a perfect fit to play Marilyn Monroe is presumably the point. She says, “When you play sexy you’re kind of playing just to men. That is something you have to police and turn on its head.” She sounds just like Lana Del Rey’s fragile celluloid heroines when talking about her teen years, of pinning up pictures of James Dean and feeling “very, very lonely” living in a Hollywood apartment by herself at 15 just before booking Dawson’s Creek.
“Those ones where she is backed into a corner with a dress falling off, those ones feel like they’re for men,” she says of photographs of Monroe, although she could just as easily be talking about the pictures accompanying her own profile, or any cheesecake photos. Williams is interested in filling out the gaps between perfected perceived images and the underlying reality, paralleling the idealized selves that women in the entertainment industry and beyond try to present for men, often with their explicit encouragement, and the way it feels to be subsequently backed into that dark corner.
In their vastly different ways, so are Del Rey and Swift, suggesting that what happens when you follow instructions explicitly can still be completely out of your control, you might be punished whether you’re good or bad. They share a fondness for flipping men on their backs and exorcising old relationships by writing songs about them. They have a similar, fatalistic emotional bent, where all love is forever and all betrayals are life-ending. They write love songs that in their deep hurting want for connection, a nameless other to muzzle loneliness, and end up describing the incidental romance of being alone.