Lana Del Rey Stole Half An Hour Of My Life And I Will Never Get It Back

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.

Image

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?

…right?

Advertisements

Why M.I.A. Doesn’t (Really) Care About World Politics

Let me start off by saying that M.I.A.’s new album Matangi is generally pretty enjoyable, and that “Bad Girls” was used to excellent effect in the trailer for “The Heat.”

Moving on…

M.I.A.’s sometimes frustratingly reductionist views on world politics can easily get in the way of simply enjoying her music; music that is often pretty good, and at its best, manages to pull off a tricky blend of catchy memorability, adventurous experimentation, and irreverent fun. Still, it’s hard to ignore her consistent need to obliquely detail the struggles of the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Which of course she does only as long as it all takes place over a hot beat featuring indigenous drummers recorded in various exotic locales around the world, ’cause that’s how she rolls.

Which highlights one of the more frustrating inconsistencies of M.I.A.’s music. It’s not about the annoying but forgivable contradictions between her lavish lifestyle and her political views – because really, what successful musician making a living from an anti-authoritarian image can really sustain that point of view once the checks start rolling in? For M.I.A., what’s more questionable is the way in which she portrays herself as the musical mouthpiece of the world’s poor and forgotten third-world citizens, while really using their plight to further her own self-aggrandizement with musical tropes that come straight out of the mainstream pop playbook.

M.I.A. is obviously pretty eager to place herself in contradistinction to meaningless, uncontested pop cliches in favor of more spiritual and alternative leanings, especially on Matangi. “Y.A.L.A.” is a song-length Eastern repudiation of Drake‘s unbearably ubiquitous exhortation to live life to the fullest, and ”Come Walk With Me” turns the tables on generic pop calls to action, with lyrics like:

You ain’t gotta shake it, just be with me
You ain’t gotta throw your hands in the air
Cause tonight we ain’t actin’ like we don’t care

OK, M.I.A., we get it. You’re an iconoclast! You’re different! But, honestly, even if M.I.A. isn’t commanding you to party until the sun rises like the Ke$has and Mileys of the world, most of her lyrics still manage to center around the pretty well-trod pop territory of how chest-thumpingly awesome she is. When she spits out half-baked lines like:

I’m ice cream
And you’re sorbet
They got guns but it points the wrong way
Yeah I’m on it they cirque de soleil

on the album’s title track, it almost doesn’t matter that she’s rapping over tribal beats and occasionally throwing out references to Buddhism, favelas, and vaguely revolutionary politics. She still sounds like just another blaring pop self-promoter, who may appropriate world music, yes, but who does so mostly just as a background pastiche over which she can brag about her own awesomeness.

Even M.I.A.’s political appearances seem less for the betterment of those people whose problems she supposedly brings to light and more for the advancement her own profile. See: Julian Assange‘s ten-minute long Skype call that took place during the opening of M.I.A.’s November 1 show at New York’s Terminal 5, in which he called her “the most courageous woman working in western music, without exception.” Sure, Assange was mostly praising M.I.A. for her political perspectives rather than her hot beats and passable rapping (because you can’t expect a man who looks like he was kicked out of a second-rate Krautrock band to have reliable taste), but his comments and his appearance do highlight the hypocrisy of M.I.A.’s public image as the musical martyr-savior of the politically persecuted. From calling in notorious friends to proselytize for her greatness, to engaging uncritically with hip-hop tropes of self-aggrandizement, M.I.A. comes off as less of a populist organizer and more of an authoritarian leader who co-opts the bandwagon of proletarian equality just so he can erect kick-ass bronze statues of himself in every public square.

Which leaves M.I.A.’s musical message in a pretty precarious place overall. Self-contradiction is a fact of life, and musicians are no more immune to it than anybody else. But there does seem to be something disingenuous about a musician who raps about the problems plaguing the impoverished majorities of the globe, while not-so-covertly pushing her own personal agenda by appropriating and re-selling the very music of the people she is supposedly benefiting. Still, though, it could be worse. She and Assange hopefully aren’t scheming to start a Kraftwerk cover band anytime soon.

Why “Royals” Isn’t The Song You Think It Is or: Lorde Is Lying to You

Everybody has heard Lorde’s ubiquitous tune “Royals” somewhere at this point. It was on heavy rotation throughout the summer and has ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for the last two weeks, beating out pop record-destroyer Katy Perry’s new song “Roar” (which, honestly, is a pretty weak effort in itself – I’m talking to you, Dr. Luke). This is, at the same time, both totally predictable and incredibly interesting.

Lorde-The-Love-Club

Lorde has a great voice, a solid stage presence, and she doesn’t write bad songs to boot (and yes, she does write at least part of her songs, though her strong co-writing team consists of a few seasoned vets from the pop-punk scene back in New Zealand, and we all know those dudes know how to write a hit). All of these factors notwithstanding, the song that’s getting the most play from her EP and album is objectively nowhere near the best tune on either of those releases, which arguably contain way better songs than the finger snappy harmony-laden hypnotism of “Royals.” And, weirdly, from a surface-level lyrical scan “Royals” reads like a straight-up denunciation of pop materialism, making it the complete opposite of what people have been clamoring to hear for the last decade or so. Check out this stanza:

But every song’s like:
Gold teeth
Grey Goose
Tripping in the bathroom
Bloodstains
Ball gowns
Trashing the hotel room

We don’t care

We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams

Even though Lorde makes a laundry list of the trappings of crass materialism as if she’s a giddy rapper who just got his first advance from UMG, she is quick to tell you: “We don’t care! This isn’t us! We don’t need to own these material things to be happy!” Not only that, but Lorde insinuates that she and her intended audience are even better off without those things.

Then why are you most likely to hear “Royals” bumping from the tricked-out speaker system of a luxury SUV? Are too many people with selective listening habits just misinterpreting the song? Well, that’s definitely part of it; and in the contemporary atmosphere of excessive brand call-outs, it’s hard for songs critical of those tendencies to be appreciated for what they “actually” mean (read: “Gucci Gucci”). BUT, I would argue in this case, “Royals,” the song itself, is the real culprit here more than its listeners are. And while it might be hard to understand the immense popularity of a song that broadcasts a truly sincere message of anti-materialism, it’s a lot easier to understand the immense popularity of a song that…well…actually does the very opposite.

Let’s go back to the lyrics:

But everybody’s like:
Crystal
Maybach
Diamonds on your timepiece
Jet planes
Islands
Tigers on a gold leash

We don’t care

We aren’t caught up in your love affair

Look, I’m not going to make the argument that just because Lorde is on a major label, she can’t offer up some sort of valid countercultural arguments about money and consumption. That’s a cheap shot, and is not (entirely) true. After all, one does have to have wide exposure in order to introduce a new way of thinking to others in order to eventually change their minds. Maybe in tackling the pernicious culture of American materialism, Lorde has chosen the perfect medium to influence the most people possible: a commercial pop song.

There’s just one problem: it’s a commercial pop song. By definition, a pop song decrying conspicuous consumption is like some rich oil tycoon telling the poor folks on the bad side of town that it’s OK for them to be poor – that in fact, it’s preferable, because it’s a more authentic existence than his own supposedly bloated and meaningless one. Of course, he tells them this to subjugate them into a further cycle of consumption of the very products that HE is creating so that he can perpetuate his own moneyed existence. Yes, it’s economic like that. Sorry for the old man rant. Two points:

  1. Lorde is making music to sell music to you. There is tremendous money in pop, and it is made to be consumed and purchased, otherwise it will not exist. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. BUT it reveals how hypocritical it is to craft a pop song (not just any song, but A POP SONG) that rails against consumption.
  2. Lorde’s press persona is that of a young upstart who came into the game totally by her own merit. And while Lorde was found to be exceptionally talented at a young age – which she obviously still is – she was then courted and incubated for future stardom by Universal, which carefully plotted out marketing plans and release schedules. (This is how pop music works.)

So while Lorde’s image, as bolstered by the anti-materialist sentiment of “Royals,” is presented as a contrast to people like Lana Del Rey (who she directly calls out in her “tigers on a gold leash” line), the team behind Lorde’s success – and it is a sizeable team – is subtly using that same iconography to market her. Look at this image of her with her dog:

Lorde og

OK, yes I know dog is adorable, but focus! Now, look at this photo of Lana Del Rey:

Lana Lion

Same vacant, open-mouthed, sexy stare. Virtually the same confident, seated stance with powerful animals by their sides. These are the poises of powerful women and there is no coincidence that they are similar. While the dog in Lorde’s photo establishes her as a more down-home personality than Lana’s overblown image of her own royalty, the intention and impact is still the same, and in that way, there is barely any difference.

So what’s the problem? Why can’t a pop musician write a song saying how ridiculous all of the materialism in pop is? Well, she can (obviously). The issue is simply that there is innate hypocrisy in how “Royals” has gone about it. By singing “We’ll never be royals,” Lorde lumps herself in with the sweaty, starving, overworked and underpaid masses. But, of course, she is speaking from the bully pulpit of pop music, which, ironically, makes her virtual international royalty in our entertainment-saturated age. What’s more, she’s spinning a yarn of material success as something really not that great and desirable when her song is engineered to produce the very material wealth that she’s criticizing.

For what it’s worth, I am not blaming Lorde entirely for this hypocrisy. We’re all implicated as listeners and consumers of pop music, and what we choose to consume makes a huge difference. To put it all into context, it’s not really a huge deal. After all, this kind of thing has happened many times over in pop history. I mean, just look at the mainstream appropriation of punk to sell counterculture to bored suburban teenagers who hang out at the mall (me at age 14). At least then you didn’t have to pose with a tiger.