I first listened to Lana while I was on a gap year, back home in Belgrade, after my studies in the UK.
She was an obvious fit as I always liked over the top imagery and rich orchestration in pop (I am a die-hard Belle and Sebastian and Vampire Weekend fan), but what resonated was the honey dipped sense of gloom. „Born to die“ was what got me into her music, all the while I was trying to get a grip on both driving lessons I was taking at the time and life, which, already then seemed to be somewhat veering off the course that I expected to be on.
When I went to the UK, as a very ambitious and sufficiently naïve striver from an Eastern Europe with his eyes set on well-paid service sector staling jobs, I thought that I was set for a picture-perfect Norman Rockwell-esque life. I got into good schools, did good internships and, most importantly for me, became sufficiently conversant in “global” culture, reading Pitchfork and The Economist in equal measure.
And yet, having started Uni pretty much as the Economic crisis hit, my striver friends and I were increasingly imbued with the sense of existential dread as we see all the cool smart kids a few years older than us, being laid off from fancy jobs we all aspired to get. There was an ambient awareness of the fact that not only we needed to do anything to get a foothold on the greasy pole, but that we were short-changed, compared to those before us.
As some of us did second masters, and the others did gap years waiting to get sucked into what we still hoped will be a dream machine of good jobs, Lana’s moody, haunted nostalgia captured the feeling very well.
We were, on paper, young and free, and yet grieving an idea of life that we realised was an illusion. But rather than being able to move on to create new dreams, we were still trapped in and haunted (as Mark Fisher would say): although the Norman Rockwell-esque life of stable jobs, stable relationships and certainty we not on the menu, there was no obvious alternative that could be pursued.
We grew older: some of us managed to keep climbing the ever-greasier pole, but an increasing number of us were slipping, so much so that dysfunction – professional, social, emotional, sexual – became the defining feature of the Millennial experience. All the while, Lana was one of the few stars crooning about being down, dysfunctional relationships and loneliness, in way that gave a glamorous patina to the painful pedestrian sense of alienation and fucked-upness, but still acknowledging the pain they brought.
However, at some point our haunted, failing ,dysfunctional culture changed. Rather than acknowledging that things are fucked up, and trying to pretend to create better alternatives, it started normalising dysfunction.
First, it became normal to do gig work after expensive degrees at allegedly best institutions in the world, and then, last spring, it became normal and expected not to see your friends and family for months on end, because the people with, allegedly, best education and skills in history were unable to solve a social problem. You were the crazy and irresponsible one for expecting things to be different. It was not only insane to expect to have a Norman Rockwellesque life, but that sort of expectations became pathologised in ever more byzantine ways, with an over-inflation of dismissive catch-phrases.
It is no wonder that, the culture journalism turned on Lana. Although she was dismissed from the start as a try-hard and a fake, her every remark started to be scrutinised for scandal, or rather, wrong-think. She made some of the best and most distinctive music of the past decade, but the problem was precisely because she, in her fake, try-hard – or, in other words, glamorous – way showed how unambitious and soul-destroying all the faux-sincerity and faux-activism of the current stars was.
She reminded us that there is more to be expected and hoped for, even if the reality of love and life constantly disappoints, and also, that things like desire and love are complicated and not easily expressed in black and white, Manichean ways that the current cultural and media narratives impose (oppressed/oppressor, victim/perpetrator, innocent/guilty).
Thus, unsurprisingly, she became a sort of hero of the dispossessed elite aspirants, who both share her sense of gloom over something lost and whose dysfunctions, in many ways caused by the increasingly failing society, are blamed on them and are not allowed to express them.
Del Rey became the hero, not only of the Red Scare “post-left” crowd but also of the “reject modernity, embrace tradition” post-right: basically she attracted the increasingly growing fringes of the Western (online) culture, which are swelling with overly-verbal educated Millennials who feel increasingly out of place in the system.
The latest, amazing, “Chemtrails of the Country Club” only entrenches Lana del Rey as the voice of this quirky demographic.
Crooning about chemtrails is probably her smallest transgression against the mores bounds set by the current cultural gate keepers. There is singing about feeling “like a God” at a Men in Music conference and I immediately imagined a barrage of angry Vox/Guardian/Pitchfork articles as soon as I heard “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” and the lyrics “’Cause every time I said no / It wasn’t quite what I meaned / If you know what I mean”.
However, it is probably the folky, country feel of the record that is itself the most obvious affront against the current dominant culture which spent most of the past year vilifying this aspect of US identity, and which explicitly attacked Del Ray for not wanting to join in on the free for all. This move towards embracing the Great Other of the current sanctioned culture is a mischievous provocation on her part, very much in line with the prickly style of her fans, who are increasingly lumped in the proverbial “basket of deplorables” along with the country music listeners and chemtrails-investigators.
In a way, Del Ray’s path towards country and old-fashioned sensibility (for example, her delicate and chaste description of intimacy on “Yosemite” sounds strange coming a few months after WAP), reminds me of the recently deceased Serbian singer-songwriter, Đorđe Balašević. His nostalgic songs attracted parts of the (post-)Yugoslav elite who felt alienated in the post-socialist transition and wars. Like the Millennial dispossessed elite aspirants, they turned to the sentimental past to escape the maddening disintegration of not only their society, but more importantly, of the reality of the world that was promised to them.
When, as a highly socialised, highly educated person, you feel you have been gaslit for the better part of your life about what is possible and what is expected, you do find yourself wondering, that maybe if they lied about the possibility of joining Country Clubs, maybe they also lied about the chemtrails.