Lana Del Rey
Lust comes in many forms here in Hollywood, as well as out there beyond the Tinsel where it’s a tad more… normal? You’ve got your sexual lust, power lust, wanderlust, object lust, lust for intimacy, lust for that which dare not speak its name, follower lust, lost youth lust, future lust, pornographic lust, biblical lust, virtual lust. Anyway you skin it, though, lust is interestingly something wholly contained to our own psyche. It has no antecedent, no binary, only fractal likenesses spreading out over history, the now, and the speculative future. Sure, two lusters may collide between the sheets following a plastics convention in Islamabad, around a hearty bowl of moqueca de camarao in a Bahian resort, or a ’67 Porsche 911 in Pebble Beach. But what’s to say these individuals’ lust for the other’s body, the soup, the auto, is equivocal, let alone measurable? No, lust, in its rawest form, is something we must repress, exercise, weigh, or value entirely on our own.
Consider the new record from superstar, Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life. When considering, might we assume this particular “lust” to have some corrupted layer to it? Some sort of invasive, or melancholic, or alienating undertone? Something mysterious?* Why might we? Well, because those are the sort of insinuations we tend to foist upon the Lana Del Rey we’ve come to know, or presume we know, over the last near decade, be it through the multitudinous, oft-confounded media halo around her, or perhaps our own desire for her to personally fulfill on some of the themes bandied about her discography. Lana Del Rey is mentally unwell. Lana Del Rey is violence-obsessed. Lana Del Rey is lost in an abandoned era. Lana Del Rey is… happy? “I think I was feeling happy that I was present, and not afraid in a way that I couldn’t enjoy my everyday things,” the musician says of the new record’s title, sat in blue jeans, cross-legged on the floor of a Chateau Marmont hotel suite, enjoying French fries and a Diet Coke on a balmy, breezy Friday afternoon. “I’m the kind of person that really loves those things. Like when I drive, I love every road, and I can’t believe that I’m in L.A. I love the architecture, grabbing a coffee, striking up conversation with the people I encounter. And I hate when I can’t enjoy the little things because in the back of my head I have concerns or preoccupations. So for me, it was that sort of lust for life. It was kind of just about happiness.”
Are we ok with that? Can we appreciate a lust from Grammy-nominated Del Rey if it’s not tortured or muddied, glass eyed, drowning in itself? Can this fifth full-length follow previous efforts with titles like Born to Die (2012) or Ultraviolence (2014) with calm, with appreciation for the light and the trees and the way our foamy cappuccino looks so god damned beautiful? It doesn’t really matter, for we’ll never know this lust’s exactitude as I suggest above, and that’s ok. And anyway, nothing is more undefinable or elusive than happiness. What does matter is that the songs on the record possess an incredible richness in production, there’s some excellent and legendary guests on a few tracks, and from the artist’s point of view, a kind of carving down in scope, what I’ll venture to call a distinct maturation in her oeuvre. “The record has fewer dimensions,” she remarks. “But they’re more beautiful than in the past. I had no idea that would make it easier to talk about.” Has this ease with discussing the content perhaps coincided with a sort of softening, or openness toward her in the arenas of public or journalistic reception? “I feel that,” she says thoughtfully. “And it’s helped me be more open as well. Because it’s hard to talk about your innermost feelings if you feel the reception will be cold. And I hung back for a while. I did a handful of interviews, but not many in the last few years. But also I was writing and writing, and digging through stuff, and not writing things as easy to digest or discuss. It still comes from me, but as I’ve evened out as a person, I don’t have as much I don’t want to say. I feel comfortable.”
Comfortable could describe the carefree roost Del Rey and fellow pop success, The Weeknd, take atop the “H” of the iconic Hollywood sign in the title track music video for Lust for Life, which shares its name with a seminal record from another pop chameleon – Iggy Pop – and is released a few days before our sit down. The treatment is surreal and campy, almost goofy, in a manner that decadently rams home this happy sentiment, this appreciation for the minute to minute. The two sweetly croon about taking off one another’s clothes, but remain fully and stylishly swaddled, canonically perched up there above us all, as if a second set of lovers might be drifting on some paddle boat below through the “O,” only to be serenaded into an amorous spell before vanishing into the night. The video ends with Del Rey overtaking the frame, batting her signature lashes before a sort of cat-ate-the-canary-like smile spreads over her face and all succumbs to darkness.
An evening out as a person. Ironic then, and downright fun, that while this evening out of Del Rey’s personal temperament has found its sonic outlet – refined and leaner – the artist steps into the cosmically perverse, rehearsed, and beautiful universe of celebrated artist David LaChapelle. Here, instead of playing Lana Del Rey for her cover shoot, which we’ve chiefly only ever seen, she embodies everyone else. Their lust, their dreams, their encumbering. The singer enlivens her Instagram geotag “Hollyweird” with some proper role playing.
“Da-vid La-Chapelle. Whoa. Da-vid La-Chapelle,” Del Rey says breathily, demonstrably dropping her jaw, while recounting her 14 hour photo shoot with the art photographer. Yes, David LaChapelle: that scramble-slinging riot boy of the Wild West, whose pumped petrol from Pepsi cans, breast milk from dad bands, and inimitable flair from celebrity after celebrity, all of course while flooding museums and arming utopianistas, while whirling through fame and hurt and photo sets and inward plunges and friends and cities and applause. Da-vid La-Chapelle. And fittingly, one of the more influential molders of modern lust, and in particular Hollywood lust, all prismatic and decadent, of the last 50 years.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Del Rey says. “Because I always make things really hard to work, because I don’t want to talk that much. So I had defiantly said to someone, ‘Don’t ask me unless David LaChapelle is shooting it.’ And then I get a call from Stephen Huvane [a partner in Slate PR], and he’s like ‘David LaChapelle is shooting it and you’re going to do it.’ So when I got to his studio, which is like a few blocks from my house, I was blown away. He’s amazing. And he thinks big picture, and different picture, and textures, and he doesn’t want to do a simple portrait right now because that’s not where he is in his life. And I’m the same way. I don’t want to make a pop record if I’m feeling more acoustic, for instance. And so he’s very true to his own space. There’s not that many people that I would follow into the unknown, so to speak, but with him, I would probably do most of what he suggested.”
I speak to LaChapelle over the phone. He’s just had lunch with his staff at his Hollywood studio, and no, he “doesn’t want to” discuss the process behind Del Rey’s photos technically, or even creatively – save to say that he’s happy with the images. When questioned why he determined to create the cover story, given he so rarely creates editorial images for magazines anymore in light of global exhibitions and museum showings, he remarks, “I have had a relationship with Flaunt for a long time. Lana’s a down-to-earth person. I like her writing. I saw her show at the Hollywood Bowl, and really liked the music, and that inspired the concept and ideas for the photos. Lana was interested in the artistic angle, not a promotional angle, which I really liked. Much more interested in creating art than promoting something.”
A couple weeks back, on set at LaChapelle’s studio, upon Del Rey’s arrival, he points to a handful of easels containing perhaps 15 vintage photographs, blown up large, the pixels swelling. These nostalgic, quotidian moments are today’s creative template. The content? There’s your requisite, slightly tilted living room snap where subjects stare stonily at a television, taken from an adjacent La-Z-Boy. There’s vacations to national parks. There’s weddings. There’s piss ups. There’s youth and death and that gray, cumbersome in-between period where we mutate as far as we can from either end, only to return fundamentally unaltered. It’s all very American, very pastoral, archetypes piled atop clichés, atop Heartland mores. At the bottom of the centered easel is an August haze-soaked summer camp scene of your requisite teepees, oak trees, and some white guy in profile sporting an American Indian-style headdress. Having this particular morning all witnessed Pepsi’s whitewashed plunge into the hellfire of failed advertising with their now retracted Kendall Jenner spot [which pretty inarguably suggested the Black Lives Matter or Women’s March movements viable plot points for Pepsi as Great Equalizer], concern is raised over cultural appropriation and the risks run. LaChapelle considers the concern, but shakes his head and supplies, “It’s not appropriation. You’re just playing a character.”
True. Playing a character is borrowing or homage, whereas appropriation could be said to mean taking and using without permission. And in the case of Pepsi: bastardization, insensitivity, myopia. In her videos, it could be said that Del Rey has stepped into a variety of self-representations, or roles, and this adventure into the unknown with Mr. LaChapelle certainly demonstrates her chameleon-like aptitude for character making on photo sets. Still, she shares the unfamiliarity and challenges for her in extending this to song.
Notably, there is a track on Lust for Life, recorded with Sean Lennon, a layered and playful number that explores, among other things, John Lennon and Yoko Ono – a canonical deity of lust and artistry if ever there was – that sees Del Rey refreshingly step outside her own paradigm. “I felt like it belonged to someone else,” she says of the single, “Tomorrow Never Came.” “And I never feel that, because I like to keep everything for myself. I thought it might be strange for Sean to sing a song about John and Yoko as well. But I think the fact that I sing, ‘Isn’t life crazy now that I’m singing with Sean.’ It points to the fact that we’re both aware. I didn’t want it to come out exploitative in any fashion. Not that it would. Still, I wanted to be as careful as possible. I wanted it to come across layered with this sort of meta narrative mixed in. In a way it’s a song about a song.”
I speak over the phone to Lennon, currently in New York, who originally received a very simple version of the song from Del Rey with only her vocals, guitar, and an organ. “To me,” he shares, “Ninety-nine percent of what is magical about that song was already contained in her original vocal performance. I felt like it was my job to simply highlight and accentuate what was already there in her voice and melody, and in her lyrics. Everything I played was merely ornamental, like tailoring a ballroom gown on an already stunning woman: the only way to mess up is if you take away from or disguise the beauty that is already there.”
Considering the lineage in the song and their first collaboration together, I ask Lennon what he learned from the experience. “She has exceptional taste,” he remarks. “I told her that working on her song was a valuable lesson since I often modulate and take unintuitive chordal and melodic twists and turns, and she reminded me that you can be perhaps even more compelling if the melodies and chords feel natural and intuitive, not contrived or disorienting as in my music. Anyway I’ll never forget when she called me after I sent her what I did and her first words were ‘It’s perfect!’ I almost cried with joy because I honestly don’t think anyone has ever said that to me about anything I’ve ever done. It was a very good feeling.”
Beyond the meta-awareness of the lyrics and rich instrumentation [Lennon added “acoustic six- and 12-string guitar, electric guitar, lap steel, upright bass, vibraphone, harpsichord, orchestra bells, drums, and Mellotron strings, and shaker”], a particularly resonant lyric repeats itself a handful of times: You weren’t in the spot you said to wait. I ask Del Rey if there are running themes of stasis or waiting elsewhere on the record. “I think that’s why I felt that of anything on the record, that wasn’t my song,” she considers. “I didn’t feel like I was waiting for anything. It’s really not about anything personally, except that I love the sonics of it; the filters. I try to be as careful as I can that I’ll want to sing stuff on stage that I write. And that song will be an easy one to do because it doesn’t pull at any heartstrings or anything. And I know it’s special to Sean as well, because he’s his dad’s biggest fan. And so I like that, in a small way, they had a moment, in whatever surreal way that could happen.”
And so with maturity, and the cool calm that Del Rey has amassed, five albums later, she’s able to play someone else, it seems, in song. But like she mentioned, that was a step outside the norm. And I’m not sure the world is all too ready for that anyway. Earlier, as Del Rey arrived in the lobby of the Chateau, we shared a hug and swapped some chit chat while her surprisingly young and surprisingly English manager, Ben Mawson, secured a suite for our interview. Mawson, returning, mentioned his ambitions to visit a mystic in Santa Barbara, smoothly coaxed Del Rey’s cars keys to do so from her reluctant hands (like any accomplished manager ought), and left us and his tab in a stylish puff of smoke as the singer and I strolled toward the elevators. We’re welcomed by a member of the Chateau’s attractive staff, who shares some familiar sweetness with Del Rey, and enters the elevator with us. After some run of the mill small talk regards Del Rey’s new L.A. home of which the staffer has some knowledge, the singer in turn asks how things have been at the Chateau, the Hollywood fixture for celeby notables, bolognese bowls, and rabbit holes. “Oh you know,” the woman remarks. “Things change out there in the world, but here, they stay the same.”
The change out there in the world has indeed been pretty seismic. Accordingly, you have my personal favorite track on the record, “God Bless America,” an unbridled spanker of a song that’s title refrain is followed by, “And all the beautiful women in it”—that’s instantly echoing through your melon and one in which Del Rey remarks, “Yeah, I went there.” She describes the song, of which Mawson shared earlier his reluctance to release as a single, given the tendency of Del Rey to net the mentioned public polarization, “It has some strong messaging,” she says nodding. “Some iconography, with Lady Liberty, fire escapes and the streets, and I do get a little New York feel when I listen back to it.” I tell her the song feels grandiose in production, anthemic in verse… very New York in fact, a sparkling pile of empire and accomplishment. And while New York (and its banks) have churned out the free world leader and a boys club not so concerned about everyone therein being blessed, moreover the “beautiful women in it”—reminding us that grandiosity has its pitfalls—“God Bless America” could easily ascend the ladder as a 2017 rally cry.
I ask her if she feels the appropriative nature of the song title may stir any pots of sorts.”Well, it’s the God word,” she says measuredly. “But the phrase has wider meaning. It’s more of a sentiment. When I wrote it I didn’t feel like it was confined to a traditional portrait of the Lord, as some sects might see it. It was more like, ‘Fucking God bless us all and let’s hope we make it through this.’ She further explains the genesis, “When all the Women’s Marches were happening, I had already written this song, because I had been hearing a lot of things online. And I have a sister, and a lot of girlfriends, who had a lot of concerns about things that were being said in the media by some of our leaders. And I saw an instant reaction from women, and I was like, ‘Wow. There is no confusing how women are feeling about the state of the nation.’ And so without really trying to, I felt compelled to just write a song and say we are all concerned. And it really made me think about my relationship with women. And I felt proud of myself, because I do love the women in my life. And I take care of them, and I ask them what they think about music, and guys, and problems, and I thought it was so cool that I’m really right there in the same boat with them. And sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got my finger right on the pulse of what’s going on, and then some of my music comes out and it’s like, ‘Fuck, that was a miss. Fuck, that’s not what people feel, at all. But with this, I was right there with everyone.”
Considering the caution from management around the track, I ask Del Rey if the potentiality for rib kicks, or what have you, is particular to her, not just someone famous. Does she feel she’s been on the receiving end of a sort of media lust? A presumptive, dutiful debunking of myths? “Perhaps,” Del Rey considers. “Or the journalists don’t have enough going on personally andthey feel like their contribution to current culture is myth building. It’s either one. It’s a broad mix. And I’ll definitely take accountability for how my energy has informed a lot of not true stories. But 50% of that has just been someone’s personal agenda.” Still, despite the pricks and pokes over time, Del Rey does feel the media is incredibly important and worth fighting for at the moment. “That’s why I do love journalists,” she says, “when they’re not assholes, because writers are critical thinkers. They’re people who think it’s important to have conversation, and conversation can lead to change.”
I’d agree: the fundamental purpose of media is to present the facts and propel conversation. That, of course, has been tossed into the bullshit blender of late; a corrupted election, orchestrated intel leaks, and in turn media’s brandishing “the enemy of the people” by the venal and orange President Trump, has the press in a pretty gobsmacked, beleaguered position. So ass over heels that even the governing party’s own Fox News mascot, Bill O’Reilly, has finally been ousted for sexually pawing and verbally gnawing on women whom his employers have considerably paid off over the years to keep hush. It’s a mess out there, right or left or between. “I feel like this election jolted almost everyone who was floating around, feeling weird, whatever… right into the current moment,” Del Rey says. “I know several people that had a sort of drifter mentality that are now in the thick of it, considering things, and considering their own contributions, and what matters. I’ve known what matters to me for a long time, so I was already kind of there, but I didn’t really see it going this negatively. I feel like we’re in a bit of a Hitchcockian experience, and you’re in a scenario, and every day you wake up and you can’t believe the things being said and done are real. And I think some people are questioning if this shit is actually happening, like especially with the North Korea issues, which are really the scariest because you’re talking about nuclear annihilation.”
The world is in an extraordinarily tenuous place. And while it could be said, certainly for the sake of this piece, the earliest seedlings of civilization were wrought with lust for power, we are, it seems, at somewhat of a tipping point. On the topic of the Women’s March, I share a video of the protests in Caracas, Venezuela, where some two million people were marching that morning against President Nicolás Maduro, dozens of whom were reported killed by police or government backing loyalists. I remark that the collectivist, community-making nature of protest could perhaps only be likened to the power of song. Is there anything on the record that explores this swell of community-making here and around the world at present? She considers. “Well, I have a song that’s quite aware about the collective worry, about whether this is the end of an era. It’s called “When the world was at war we kept dancing.” But I actually went back and forth about keeping it on the record, because I didn’t want it there if it would make people feel worse instead of better. It’s not apathetic. The tone of the production is very dark, and doesn’t lead to a fucking happy feeling. And the question it poses: Is this the end of America, of an era? Are we running out of time with this person at the helm of a ship? Will it crash? In my mind, the lyrics were a reminder not to shut down or shut off, or just don’t talk about things. It was more like stay vigilant and keep dancing. Stay awake.”
Given the pace and intensity of the environment in our surrounds of which the artist speaks, I point out that there are still moments on the record that feel lonely, or lost in expectancy, far from active. I cite a lyric: “We get all dressed up to go nowhere in particular.” Del Rey shares that she’d had a phone call with a friend earlier that day, about their personal lives, their music, and she states that he too raised that when talking about artistic stall as a demonstration of stasis. She disagreed with him. “It wasn’t about stasis. I meant that you don’t need to have anything to do to get dressed up and feel special.”
We live in a culture where pressure and precedent abound, one in which women are constantly challenged with not feeling special based on their body, their skin color, their age, their social position, their follower count. Does she agree? “It’s more like we just don’t have as much cultural practice at taking the time to appreciate ourselves for who we really are,” she says. “We spend a lot of time when the nation was founding building government, money, and then getting the education system down, so it’s not like some cultures where you take time to mediate, et cetera, on your own dreams, wishes, self worth. I think it’s not enough practice. It’s not like they teach you that in school. But I think that that’s changing too. That’s actually a lot of what the record is about. Even in “God Bless America”… ‘Take me as I am, don’t see me for what I’m not… Only you can save me tonight.’ It’s about seeing people: what they’re actually doing. Who they actually are.”
In that sense, Del Rey is championing the same values as her influential predecessors, few and far as they may be, or as bamboozled by the power systems in which they thrived. Consider “Beautiful People,” where she trades verses and coalesces on the chorus with the one and only Stevie Nicks, of whom I refer to as a bonafide badass. “I didn’t know what to except or that I could even ask her, Del Rey remarks. “When I went through ideas of women that could really add something to the record, she was the one we kept coming back to. ‘Bonafide badass’ is a great phrase for her. She’s really real. And she’s still fucking touring, which baffles me. There are so few women doing that. You’ve got Courtney Love, who works, sings, tours… there’s not that many women who were making music in the ’70s or ’80s who still make music. It really is pretty crazy.”
We’ve been speaking for a little over an hour. I return to a conversation we’d briefly shared on the photo shoot regards this, Flaunt’s music issue, and its theme (“heartbreak”), determined before we’d secured Del Rey as our cover subject. She’d been briefed on this by her publicity team and was admittedly wary about aligning. Again, that embodiment dilemma. Appropriation? Role playing? “Everything I’ve done in the last two years,” she says with confidence, “I would never say anything that wasn’t true. Even in the music. That’s why I was nervous about me being on the cover, and in big font “The Heartbreak Issue” because the thing is, I don’t feel heartbroken. So I didn’t want to continue a narrative that didn’t apply to me. Because the only person who truly cares about whether I continue that narrative, or any, is me. So I have to do my due diligence. And it doesn’t always work, but I’ll be damned if I don’t fucking try.”
Del Rey is indeed expected to carry her narratives, whether they’re isolated in meaning to her or not. It comes with the territory I suppose. Perhaps the reason the public has not allowed her persona the room it allots to certain other celebrities to role play is because it conversely feels her not a role player, but an appropriator. Not of cultural identities, or pivotal historic movements, ethnic/religious/nationalistic identities, but of emotions. Did Lana Del Rey, for instance, scoop up the proliferate sentiment of feeling forlorn when she broke out in 2008 while the economy was breaking down? Why if she sings about manipulation are we assumed she’s manipulating or manipulated? Why if she sings about getting dressed up for no reason but to feel special does one imagine her at home, dressed up, going nowhere? Does someone who writes and sings so pointedly and consistently about love defy its fundamentally inarticulable nature? Is this love borrowed or stolen? From us? From whom? How can we tell? Why can some musicians sing about all sorts of shit, and everyone grants them the concession to do so. Why does Lana have to be her music? Some would argue it’s this collision of singer/songwriter—of whom we expect to sing from the experiences of the heart—with that of pop queen, whom we expect to sing about and for us. Others might speculate that Del Rey’s aim is true, that her heart is her guiding light, that this is more than music. And finally, others might suggest that’s the responsibility of art; to cull from emotions everywhere, permission or non, and distill into something accessible. “I know a couple of people who love to write,” she says as we’re collecting ourselves to leave the hotel room, “and love to rhyme, love melodies, and I do too. But to me it’s so much more than that. It feels like a life’s work and it feels like it’s really important just to me, so I put a lot of time into it.”
A lust for life, and whatever you make of it. And what Del Rey is making of it is music; earned and owned up to, as the world continues to take from us and we from it. We walk to the balcony and open the French windows. A web of canopies drape the Chateau’s garden courtyard restaurant, bustling with late lunches and tea service. We remark that beneath these canopies, it can feel so glamorous, so suspended. From up here, though, you see it’s just industrial plastic, mildly in need of a good dirt rinse, the patrons beneath it smudged out like those who didn’t sign the waiver in a reality TV dance, playing a role, all but recognizable.
* Some adjectives describing Del Rey in recent international journalism include:
a) “a confounding mystery” – Brian Hiatt. “18 Things You Learn After Two Long Days with Lana Del Rey,” Rolling Stone, June 24, 2014.
b) “mysterious and much-debated.” – Sean Hennessy. “Ice Breaker,” GQ, October 6t, 2011.
c) “Is this the mysterious Lana Del Rey? – Natasha Stagg. “Lana Del Rey: Wild at Heart,” Dazed, April 17, 2017.
d) “a paradox” – Barry Walters. “Darkness Comes Alive: The Paradox of Lana Del Rey,” NPR, June 20, 2014.
e) “married her music to a mysterious image.” – Paul Harris. “The Strange Story of the Star Who Rewrote Her Past,” The Guardian, January 21, 2012.
f) “weirdly shamanistic” – Bruce Wagner. “Lana Del Rey on Why Her Pop Stardom ‘Could Easily Not Have Happened’,” Billboard, October 22, 2015.
Written by Matthew Bedard
Photographer: David LaChapelle.
Stylist: Brett Alan Nelson for The Only Agency.
Hair: Anna Cofone for The Wall Group.
Makeup: Pamela Cochrane for Bridge Artists.
Styling Assistants: Tony Devoney and Richie Garcia.