How Lana Del Rey’s Dark American Dream Can Help Us Cope With Trump’s American Nightmare
Last week, Lana Del Rey registered a new track called “Young & In Love,” which is allegedly produced by the same collaborators who worked with her on Born To Die, Emile Haynie and Rick Nowels. The prospect of a new Lana album was just the good news we needed to distract from Donald Trump’s inauguration. However, distraction is not all she offers to help cope with life in Trump’s America. Del Rey’s debut album, along with the Paradise follow-up, were both centered on the dark side of the American dream and confronted the country’s violent, racist, patriarchal legacy years before it was all personified by the orange king.
On those releases, the Lana Del Rey character traverses an arc of disenchantment as the America of her dreams gives way to a dystopia. In the exquisite and aptly-named “National Anthem,” she channels Marilyn Monroe in a black-and-white clip, cooing a sycophantic song of thanks to “Mr. President.” A national anthem is supposed to be an ode to a fatherland, but she tells us it’s an ode to a father figure, thus conflating America itself with its patriarchal oligarchs.
The video rolls on and First Lady Lana emerges. She has wedded herself, not merely to this man, but to this nation, her one true love. Throughout her work, Del Rey glorifies the country, whether rolling around in its flag or celebrating the sumptuous, tropical decadence of Los Angeles: “I fall asleep in an American flag, I wear my diamonds on Skid Row.” She is obsessed with its ideals of wealth and beauty and freedom and indulgence, and is sure these things will bring joy.
However, the violent history soon begins to poison her: “Look what you’ve done to me, king of Chevron.” By naming the American energy titan, she evokes the blackness of crude oil and compares her presidential lover to its avaricious merchants, spotlighting the dark side of capitalism. Suddenly the things that once felt thrilling and exciting reveal themselves as exploitative — like giving blowjobs to her presidential beau in a Bugati on the way to the Hamptons: “Wind in my hair, hand on the back of my neck.”
Suddenly it seems like America is not free after all, but governed by male gatekeepers who must invite you to the party before you’re allowed in: “I said, can we party later on? He said yes, yes, yes.” With delicious subtlety, she channels the experience of being a woman who’s used and ignored by the patriarchy. Even when it feels like she’s finally getting her way, we can’t be sure if he’s even listening or responding to her request — maybe he’s just cumming? “Yes, yes, YES!”
Lana becomes angry and vengeful, deciding that since she cannot subvert the ancient power structures, she will simply exploit them: “Don’t you know who you’re dealin’ with? Um, do you think you’ll buy me lots of diamonds?” Now she’s dangerous, like a wounded animal: “Boy you have landed, babe in the land of, sweetness and danger, queen of Saigon.” She declares herself queen of something long-lost, razed by the America she once worshipped.
Del Rey has long been criticized for her flirtation with brutal masculinity, and for glamorizing male violence and making it aspirational: “Jim raised me up, he hurt me but it felt like true love.” But this reading seems unfair. She identifies America with the male, and with aggression — to her, this is not a wistful fiction she is weaving, simply a reality she is recognizing and lamenting, peering at it through a haze of marijuana fumes, contemplating how to escape it. She describes a woman’s struggle against the patriarchal foundations of the country — a struggle that will intensify under Trump. Lana Del Rey is not creating this reality, she is just reflecting it. Her treatise on disillusionment and the American Dream is darkly relevant now, as the dream of a more equitable future was upended by toxic masculinity, xenophobic nationalism and belligerent policy promises. Her fantasy dystopia is no fantasy.
But her vision may help us cut through the nuclear permafrost and let a little L.A. sun kiss our skin once again. When the prospect of eternal nuclear winter is dependent on a the temper of a manic tweeter, there’s very little to do other than “get high by the beach,” to be honest. Lana preaches escapism, whether it’s through jewels or drugs. She would “put on that party dress,” “get her crystal method on” and “just ride.” Perhaps the era of Trump will be the era of redemption for the “road-dogs” Lana idolizes — the people who detach, who give and take nothing from society, who refuse to participate in the exchange at all. When society turns toxic and the foundations of morality seem to be crumbling away, one solution is to unmoor yourself and drift off to the invisible, unspoken America — the underground, urban party scenes and the endless, open plains beyond the GOP’s Sauron eye.
Escapism is not cowardly. It allows us to confront hurt while still practicing self-preservation: “I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy… it’s all I’ve got to keep myself sane baby, so I just ride.” To live in this moment of “alternative facts” feels agonizing; it’s okay to take a brief respite, whether physical or mental. It doesn’t mean you’re running away forever.
Lana constructs an image of America all her own — a tropical, blisteringly bright landscape; a ride on an infinitely long tire swing in the hot desert; a bustling and neon L.A. street — and she lives exclusively within this dream pocket. We must find our own pockets of the ideal America. And if they’re just a dream, we must work to manifest them in reality: “Drive fast, I can almost taste it now. L.A., I don’t even have to fake it now.”
Despite her baptism of fire in “National Anthem” and her rude awakening to the violent reality of America, the Lana Del Rey character stays hopeful. She rides infinitely into the sunset, always looking to the horizon, to the next party, to the next lover. She stays true to the America she knows is possible and that she knows exists within herself and her fellow millennial road dogs: “Be young, be dope, be proud; like an American.” She and Trump are both nostalgic for that American Dream. But Trump wants to “Make America Great Again” without accounting for past and present realities, amounting to an ideology of regression. Lana’s nostalgia exposes the truths of the past to forge a vision that’s forward-looking and inclusive. She grasps darkness with two hands and twirls it in a mad dance, eking joy out of pain: “Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain, you like your girls insane.”
Trump is president, but there is still goodness around us. We have to listen out for “the birds on the summer breeze.” We must keep driving fast, on, on, on to the beautiful future.