I really tried to give Lana Del Rey the benefit of the doubt on this one. I swear. I was hoping that her half-hour long short film Tropico, “an epic tale based on the biblical story of sin and redemption,” wasn’t going to be another poorly–conceived attempt at grand symbolism and “deep” meaning that would inevitably force me to question why I ever derived any satisfaction from her music in the first place and would once again make me come face to face with the full scope of her guileless superficiality and lack of insight. But you know what Mick Jagger says.
So, just for convenience’s sake, even though the biblical triptych of innocence, sin, and redemption is the central conceit of the video, I’m going to ignore the overwrought and overused religious parallels that Lana cuts and pastes with bowling ball-level subtlety and focus more on her decision to include voiceovers of her reading excerpts from Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg poems, which is exactly as pretentious as it sounds.
A brief primer for those of you who skipped high school English class to smoke weed and drink your Dad’s leftover Canadian Club (apparently, like Lana): Whitman was a dude who loved the body. His body, in particular, but people’s bodies in general. His hope was to promulgate a mode of relation to others that was sexual, but was not bound up in the narrow cultural trappings of sex; a relation that was carnal, but not necessarily reproductive; outwardly focused, but not necessarily directed towards a single person; intimate, yet expansive. This sensual project had an associated political goal as well: the constitution of a more interconnected American community through the deep and authentic tenderness of complete strangers for one another. He saw his poetry as a conduit to accomplishing this.
Keeping Whitman’s intentions in mind, Lana’s overdubbed recitation of certain sections from his poem “I Sing The Body Electric” (a title that she cribs for her own song) comes off as darkly ironic in the context of Tropico. Where Whitman’s words are meant as statements of affinity to build a national community through affection, in Lana’s treatment and placement, they read like the exact opposite. Case in point: in the video, she sultrily reads the line “The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,” over slow-motion shots of mens’ hands slapping strippers’ asses in a dimly lit strip club. So poetic, bro.
I’m going to go out on a not-so-big limb here and venture that Lana isn’t using the poem in an intentionally ironic way. Though it would be great if she were deliberately juxtaposing these depraved images with Whitman’s words as an ironic reflection to demonstrate exactly how far America has veered from the poet’s idealistic vision of a community of strangers bound by sensuous ties that include, but aren’t limited to sex, I’m pretty sure that she’s just reading the poem because she thinks that lines like, “The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk” are fitting accompaniments for shots of naked bodies because of the very words they use, regardless of their original meaning. But still, even if she doesn’t mean it ironically, Lana’s misguided use of Whitman’s words actually does reflect just how far America has strayed from Whitman’s vision – simply because somebody like Lana, reading Whitman in 2013, sees language that is meant to describe a type of community-constructing erotic closeness that extends towards perfect strangers as a fitting complement to hyper-stylized shots of grubby dudes makin’ it rain on dejected strippers.
To its credit, Tropico really does try hard to reach for grand themes, but its effort just comes off more like a baby groping for the cookie jar than a deep meditation on the particularly American conflation of religious fervor, capitalism, and pop culture excess that it’s clearly trying to dissect. Like a true postmodern hipster, Lana devours centuries of American culture and regurgitates them without reflection or deliberation. It’s the Urban Outfitters model of cultural appropriation: the same type of thinking that rips keffiyehs and moccasins from their original cultural context and sterilizes them for style-hungry American consumers. But it’s OK, though. Lana’s next album is supposedly going to be called Ultraviolence, so we can hope for some great Clockwork Orange references. There’s no way she can screw those up, right?