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Lana Del Rey: Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America

Del Rey is pushing the envelope, and here’s the message: America is a rotting corpse.

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In case you have been under a rock, Lana Del Rey is pop music’s It Girl right now, sauntering past Queen Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus with her languid sex appeal and self-professed death wish. With a sound described as “narco-swing,” Del Rey floats through ghostly videos in various poses of drowning and despair, blowing a pouty kiss to the Grim Reaper in the guise of a Gothic pinup.

The kids can’t get enough. Her album “Ultraviolence” has just topped her hit debut “Born to Die” to land at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

“I wish I was dead already,” she confides to the  Guardian in a kittenish voice ( interview clip here). Asked if she thinks an early demise a la Kurt Cobain is glamorous, she murmurs, “Um, yeah,” setting off a twitterstorm in which Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of the singer who shot himself at 27, slammed her for romanticizing youthful death. “People like you think it’s ‘cool,’” blasted Cobain. “Well, it’s f–king not.”

But ask a Goth kid or a vampire fan, or for that matter a Pre-Raphaelite or an aficionado of European Romanticism, and you will quickly find that the pose of eroticized death has been a perennial favorite of youth culture — and it tends to crop up in seasons where young people see an epic fail in society.

Enter Lana Del Rey.

Love Story for the New Age

Del Rey has more than her share of detractors.  Some feminists are irked by what they perceive to be the singer’s victim stance (not to mention her  professed boredom with feminism), comparing her style unfavorably to Beyoncé’s brand of bootylicious empowerment. Indie music writers complain of her gimmicky transformation from under-the-radar Brooklyn songstress Lizzy Grant to pop phenom Lana Del Rey.  (Do they feel similarly peeved with Bob Dylan, once known as Bob Zimmerman?)

On Del Rey’s much-panned  2012 Saturday Night Live performance, where she stood looking like she’d just popped a Xanax in pale gown, news anchor Brian Williams dubbed it “ one of the worst outings in SNL history.” True, it was weird: Del Rey seemed, if anything, painfully bored with the SNL proceedings. No hopping around the stage shaking her bon-bon. No painfully earnest emotional appeals. What was this blasé siren up to?

Becoming the hottest ticket in town, is what. While the critics panned her, fans swooned. Angelina Jolie, remembered for her own youthful Goth phase, handpicked Del Rey to record the theme song for the summer’s hit Disney film “Maleficent.” Kanye and Kim asked her to sing at their A-list wedding. Del Rey is en fuego.

Too awkward for the medium of live television, too ethereal for the stage, Lana Del Rey seems to know her bread is buttered on the Internet (she is actually a child of that medium, the daughter of a web entrepreneur who made his dough hawking Internet domains). There, fans embrace her eclectic video mashups and twisted takes on pop culture clichés. There, she can be as detached, noncommittal and as rapturously bored with it all as her audience.

With her well-honed weltschmerz and mesmerizing monotony, Del Rey expresses the winter of America’s discontent through the eyes of the youthful bourgeoisie.

In “ Shades of Cool,” Del Rey transforms the sunny myth of California dreamin’ into a nihilistic ride to oblivion in a Chevy Malibu. Her most recent insta-contraversial hit “ Ultraviolence” throws a stink bomb into '60s dreams of peace and harmony with a fantasy of being roughed up by a cult leader/lover. “We could go back to Woodstock,” she sings. “But they don’t know who we are.” In “ National Anthem” she gives a ghoulish rendition of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy birthday address to President Kennedy, followed by assassination clips that segue to a cynical anthem about America real obsession, money, which kills every other youthful aspiration.