Celebrity Gods, Strippers and Guns, and the Poems of Walt Whitman
For some reason I didn’t care at first, but I’ve become a late, song-on-repeat-for-an-hour Lana Del Rey fan. “Young and Beautiful” is my favorite track from this year, and Kanye’s incorporating it during his wedding proposal his wisest 2013 decision, in my eyes. But watching “Tropico” yesterday—its three featured songs out now on iTunes—I felt unmoved, and kind of bad. The half-hour short film is comprised of three acts: Lana in the Garden of Eden, then falling to contemporary Los Angeles and finally returning to heaven via a detour through rural America. From on high down to the rough city, to the smooth country, to paradise again—a cycle not unlike what I expect for my own life, working in New York till it grinds me to a nub, then retreating to the country to put myself out to pasture. But something here, despite some interesting symbols and techniques, left me initially nonplussed, not quite pumped up the way I'd expected. I started this essay to explain why, but, by the end of writing, I was back on her team. Lana got me thinking, and that's all you can ask for.
It begins with Lana as Eve, born with makeup on in a bikini of roses. God himself, in this origin story, has a stand-in in John Wayne, according to her opening monologue: “John said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light, and John saw that it was good.” Likewise, per the opening lyric of “Body Electric,” the first of three songs in the film, Lana is surrounded in Eden by a heavenly host of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Jesus, her “bestest friend.” But if Christ is simply one among the chorus, and nothing more, merely Lana’s peer after the Nietzschean death of god (a turn referenced on her “Gods & Monsters,” which plays later in the film), then her savior must lie elsewhere. She’ll find redemption in this story, but first, the fall—a dance with Satan’s serpent, itself electrified cold blue. In the Bible story, Adam and Eve were said to have eaten the apple to obtain the knowledge of good and evil; they were banished from the garden for seeking that knowledge, seeking to be like god. For Lana Del Rey, that god is John Wayne, or even more, since power and influence seems to spring equally from the other stars of her Eden, god is celebrity itself. That is what she seeks; what do these celebrities know?
After Lana bites the apple, she becomes a stripper. Act two. She recites “I Sing the Body Electric” by Walt Whitman. Like Elvis, Whitman’s another “daddy” of hers, and seeing as he’s the first speaker of her song’s name, presumably a daddy preeminent. “Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,” she quotes, contradicting the woman-from-man’s-rib story evoked by the Eden opening. “The womb, the tits, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter… love-perturbations and risings… these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul. O I say now these are the soul!” In other words, the body is the way we discover the soul, and the body is itself the soul, and the soul is art. A few key lyrics, as Lana’s next song starts: Me and god, we don't get along, so now I sing/ No one's gonna take my soul away and, of course, What I truly want is innocence lost. This is Lana at her most modern, her most relatable. As the olden-times god is gone, we're alone, but we hold the power of art within ourselves. We just have to figure out how to use it: after we abandon religion’s comforting narrative—of fate, a conscience, a protector, punishment—we're set adrift into a hedonistic chaos akin to Ginsberg's “Howl,” which Lana also recites, “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol…"
While last night never hit the point of depravity, it was certainly the old guard's ecstatic celebration of its vast capabilities.
Here comes the climax, here comes the lesson: a robbery during a striptease, the opposite of Eden, the nadir of Lana’s fall. It's a transformative moment after which she and her fallen Adam—a burglar, always pointing a gun, or a finger like a gun, or a plunger like a gun—flee to the country. It’s as if a stickup during a lap dance (pun presumably intended by LDR) prompts a new discovery, just like eating the apple. In “Tropico,” sex and violence lay a bridge to the divine, a new truth borne out of pure pleasure—pleasure not in being assaulted or danced on, but to point the gun and do the dancing. After sex and violence merge in this scene, god reappears, as John Wayne begins to narrate John Mitchum’s poem "Why I Love America” (“You ask me why I love her? Well, give me time. I'll explain. Have you seen a Kansas sunset, or an Arizona rain?”). After this speech, Lana, spiritually reunited with her god, leaves the city, tossing a wallet out of the car as she goes, en route to a tree-of-life, baptismal, slow-dancing scene hued gold. In the country, we hear one last song—Didn’t anyone tell you it's okay to shine?—and Lana rises into the sky, redeemed and headed to heaven.
So… What did we learn here? Desire to be a celebrity—to know what Marilyn, Elvis, John Wayne, and in a clever knocking-down-to-size, Jesus, know—forces Lana Del Rey from paradise into a world of flesh, power, etc. She partakes in that world, which seems the opposite of Eden, but at the fleshiest and most powerful point, she is redeemed and finds a way back to heaven. Certainly, by the metrics of "Tropico," Lana Del Rey the singer is already a celebrity-god—that has been her role from the start. I don't really have a problem with it. I guess my feeling is: yeah, I know. What’s most interesting is how her new work might shift the discussion surrounding her. Through a lot of what-does-her-plastic-surgery-mean talk that surrounded her debut, she already inspired critical thought about the female body and music/music celebrity. Born to Die is an awfully fleshy title, come to think of it. Now, with the climactic assault of “Tropico," as well as her forthcoming second album, the plainly stated Ultraviolence, she seems to be provoking conversation about that other form of power (or contesting power): the fist, the gun. If that shift is really happening, that's pretty cool. I wonder what questions about violence her forthcoming work may raise: violence on the body inherent to making it beautiful? Family violence, sexual violence, some critique of capitalism embedded within, issues of poverty, race (the guns in "Tropico" are aimed at white men by men of color; her Adam is an albino black man)? One can only wonder where she'll go.
Until then, what's more interesting now, with Lana Del Rey incorporating such heavyweight precedents as Marilyn Monroe and Walt Whitman into her art—them being subjects of countless academic inquiries and commonly accepted pioneers—is asking, what does she add? I’m hardly an expert on Whitman, for example, but I know he was something of a Quaker pacifist; more than what I think about it, I’m interested in what he would think. "Tropico" is provocative, raising questions without, in my opinion, the burden of answering them. I started looking, and found a 1984 essay about a Whitman poem that deals with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: “Only as poetry, the poet of “Lilacs” realizes, can that violence be represented as creative. Outside of the poem, outside of metaphors, there is simply no way to redeem or to justify the carnage.”) Damn… that's pretty good. I watched “Tropico,” and it made me download the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. Boost.