Friday, August 16, 2013

The Real Deal

Melancholy beauty queen staring into space and feeling the distance between the things we want and the things we get. Lana Del Rey can conjure an image. We see her dancing in her red dress, her hair done up, longing, longing, longing. In both the lyrical and musical themes of this song she transmits vividly the public image that she has created. She brings to mind the detritus of some heroic age when women lost their virtue tragically while nonetheless retaining all of the qualities—tarnished in a way that makes them more desirable—that endangered that virtue in the first place. The haze of smoke before a beautiful face, lipstick on a highball glass, laughing conspiratorially in darkened corners, and late, broken mornings are all signs of the image of womanhood that Del Rey produces in her work and embodies in her public persona.

But this image is of something that has never really existed. It is a cinematic image, a composed image drawn from mass culture. It is an image of an image, a simulacrum whose relationship to reality is mediated through many levels of representation. Its reality is of an artificial sort. Not because Del Rey is inauthentic in portraying her vision of womanhood but because that vision was of something already manufactured. As much shit as people have given Del Rey for daring to curate an image of herself out of earlier forms of popular melodrama, what she did is perfectly consistent with the role of the image in contemporary culture. In our late version of capitalist modernity not only has the line that separates reality from the representation of reality become completely obscured for many people but images themselves have been invested with their own reality. How else to explain why someone would buy a shirt with an image of a corporate logo on it? Simulacra have become everyday things. Television shows can be based on films that were based on novels. A singer’s persona can be based on tragic women that never existed.

But we can see it a different way. Del Rey is one instant of our society’s relentless ideological assault on the historicity of the past. Modern capitalist society’s image of itself as both the product of “human nature” and as “the end of history” depends on the dehistoricizing of the past. Thus rather than understand the past as the scene of conflicts, struggles, and dilemmas that relate to who we are in uneven and complicated ways, we have been taught to see the past as a series of images that are either colorful in nature or simply dioramas that stage in costume and design earlier versions of ourselves as we are now. Depicted this way the past loses its historical connection to the cultures that it generated in order to understand itself. The art and styles that the past produced as an attempt to represent its own social contradictions are reduced to surfaces, to a compendium of images divorced from the social contexts that gave them meaning. This is another way of saying that for Del Rey the past provides the wardrobe and props that go into building her persona and nothing more.

But there is yet another way of seeing it. We can also say that knowing that Del Rey’s persona is a construction does not necessarily diminish the enjoyment that we might take from her work. Moreover, knowing that it is all manufactured and artificial does not have to complicate our relationship to her or her music. The “truth” of authenticity is, in fact, a convenient explanation that we only draw out when we want to disqualify something that we don’t like. What actually matters is the way we perceive the world, and we make “history” and “the truth” conform to our view of reality. There is, indeed, no such thing as ideology because ideology presupposes “distortions” that prevent us from comprehending things as “they actually are,” when there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that we act as if we believe things even when we doubt their validity. For example, even when we are keenly aware of how much we are alike other people in our society, we nonetheless act as if we believed in pure individualism. To rephrase it one more time: Lana Del Rey is an authentic reproduction of something that never was and no one but ding dongs understands it any differently.

I bring up all of these possible ways of thinking about Del Rey not to present to you choices as to which is the best manner of considering her work. I bring them up because they are all equally valid explanations. The social is never explained easily because every simple social artifact encapsulates the multiple and heterogeneous vectors and contingencies that make up our reality.

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