These are recurring motifs throughout her music. Del Rey’s most recent album, Chemtrails over the Country Club, drives this home in poetic and at times deeply personal ways. Del Rey captures something important about not just the quest for meaning and happiness, she also inadvertently tells us something interesting about the current political moment we are in. The young reactionaries so attracted to Del Rey’s music can relate deeply with the alienation and angst her music portrays. But more fundamentally, what Del Rey and these young fans crave, and what they grasp that seems increasingly out of reach is the nostalgized normality to which Del Rey frequently alludes. This is not an alienation driven by a thumotic drive for fame and glory. Quite the opposite, it’s an alienation that rejects failed promises of hollow and licentious liberation and instead seeks beauty in the mundane and the goodness of ordinary life.
Authenticity isn’t just a motif of Del Rey’s music, the question of what authenticity means has been at the heart of Del Rey’s career and the debates around her persona. These are questions that often consume the music industry as it grapples with its commercialization and the ways that modern stars are manufactured by big corporate record labels. Back when Del Rey, whose real name is Elizabeth Grant, really emerged onto the scene in 2012, she was dismissed and snubbed as a fraud. She became infamous after a supposedly botched SNL performance. Del Rey’s music is melancholic and dark, and she is sometimes lumped in with what is teasingly referred to as “sad girl” music (also the name of a song on her third studio album Ultraviolence). But early critics questioned how much of this sad girl aesthetic Del Rey channeled in her music was actually real? Was she actually a sad girl or was this just a character?
A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of Del Rey’s authenticity and whether it matters, but what’s more interesting is the deeper motifs in Del Rey’s music that hint towards answers to the alienation and angst she professes. Her lyrics are complicated and at times point in different directions. Del Rey doesn’t live anything that could be described as a conservative lifestyle. She consistently talks about her need and desire to be free. In “Ride,” a ballad from her first major album Born to Die, Del Rey sings about the struggle and desire to be free while also fearing being alone. She wants to be untethered from constraints, but is afraid of what being untethered actually entails. She worries that in removing the shackles she will fine herself adrift and unmoored. The dark side of emancipation and its alienating effects, from sex to drugs to relationships in general, permeate her music.
There are other “sad girls” out there, and lots of other artists with melancholic motifs that resonates with angst ridden fans. But where Del Rey departs is the glimmers of redemption that burst through in her music. This was particularly apparent in Chemtrails Over the Country Club. In the lead track of the album, “White Dress,” Del Rey sings about her life as a nineteen-year-old waitress in Orlando. She describes working the night shift at a “Men in Music Business Conference.” Del Rey reminisces fondly on it, singing “I would still go back if I could do it all again,” because she “felt seen.” She’s describing a creepy business conference and men presumably treating her in creepy ways, but she isn’t glamourizing this treatment, instead she’s reminiscing on the normality of it before she became famous. The song repeatedly turns to Del Rey talking about the normality of her life before fame “I wasn’t famous, just listening to Kings of Leon to the beat.” Del Rey then ponders if “It kinda makes me feel, like maybe I was better off… ’Cause it made me feel, made me feel like a god.”
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