Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I've Got a War in My Mind: The Endless Noir of Lana Del Rey: Narrative Music by Iain Ryan

I first knew Iain Ryan's work credited to another name. The Australian writer had a collection of stories that skated the lit/genre line admirably with an underlying dry humor and easy prose style that quietly let the reader know he knew what he was doing. A couple years later I had an email from J. David Osborne wanting to know if I'd take a look at this novel he was publishing soon and very excited about. I get many similar requests that I rarely make good on, but something about the way he talked about it piqued my interest and when he said it was short, I jumped.

Holy crap, am I glad I did. Four Days is a hell of a ride through some very familiar crime fiction territory - murdered sex workers, a fucked up and obsessed dirty cop, a culture of graft and corruption on every level-societal, familial, sexual, spiritual - that managed to make it all feel fresh and vital again. In short it was a crime-boner-seeking missile aimed squarely at my crotch and if your tastes generally line up with the stuff on this blog, it's absolutely for you.

I happen to know that the man behind the pseudonym has played some loud damn music in his life so imagine my surprise when I asked him for a Narrative Music piece and he delivered one on Lana Del Rey, whose penchant for whispered lethargy and a certain Saturday Night Live appearance that drew some attention a few years ago were the only associations I had with her name, but this piece has got me scrambling to investigate further...

I’ve Got A War In My Mind: The Endless Noir of Lana Del Rey
by Iain Ryan

The video for Lana Del Rey’s seventh single Ride came at the end of a long two years in the limelight. On release, the clip was frequently condemned for just about everything — glorification of prostitution, antifeminism, cultural appropriation, boorishness — and yet I was drawn to something about it. Over repeated viewings, it brought to mind Otto Penzler's classic line from The Best American Noir of the Century, “Like art, love, and pornography, noir is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.” That’s what Ride looked and sounded like in 2012. An immense and obvious act of provocation, yes, and trading a little on each of those things Penzler mentioned, but more than anything else: it was noir.

The video for Ride was written by Lana Del Rey. Pop stars of her caliber seldom write their own treatments, nor have they any need to — the music video is an archetypal postmodern product, seldom reliant on a linear narrative —  and yet Ride has a story of sorts. There’s voice-over narration, an opening and closing set piece (Lana rides a giant tire swing out into the red American desert) and a Lynch-esque set of character vignettes: Lana the burned out singer, Lana the prostitute, Lana the biker girl, Lana with a sugar daddy. There’s a sense that this is the story of someone’s life, told in fragments that seem to collide and overlap as the clip progresses.

The song, and Lana’s entire oeuvre, is an example of what literary scholar Susanna Lee has identified as the postmodern hardboiled noir narrative, an unsettling atmosphere where characters don’t so much confront “the sinister world, or an inescapably problematic atmosphere,” but become subsumed into it. Jim Thompson was a master of this. Of his work Lee writes, “What Thompson does, to more disturbing effect, is take the hardboiled maverick from a transcendent place and turn him into a source of disorder and danger.” This is a story structure where the central character is out of control. In this area of noir, the big bad world is a seamless part of the protagonist and the chaos that reigns supreme out there also runs havoc inside us all.

In Ride, Lana — all the Lanas — live in the same body and the only thing she can do is keep on moving. If Ride is about anything, it’s about a character who has taken a type of ownership over this chaos, much as Thompson’s Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford does in The Killer Inside Me. For example, in Ride’s voiceover, Lana says:

Are you in touch with all of your darkest fantasies?
Have you created a life for yourself where you can experience them?
I have. I am fucking crazy.
But I am free.

In the clip, she kills a man and nothing is made of it. This could be The Killer Inside Me. That’s what that novel is about, for my money. Both Ride and The Killer Inside Me play on that most dreaded of fears: that the bad and the crazy and the untidy and the extreme are more liberated than the good, and there are no consequence nor justice. We fear that the wild are more powerful than the good. That they are free while we are not. That our lives are small, while theirs are wide and open. We all tamper our chaos for a reason. We’re all a little scared of our own dark potential and we’re scared of signs of it in other people.

But what if we didn’t have to be? What if we could be Lana Del Rey? For a mainstream pop star building a career this century — a century of social media and TMI and daily updates — Lana is almost an anonymous stranger. What is known about her — the real her — points in a certain direction, but there isn’t much: she has the word Nabokov tattooed on her, she’s a recovering addict but hasn’t partaken since her teens, she’s interested in Old Hollywood, Raymond Chandler, The Godfather films and, of course, she’s playing a fictional character. Born Elizabeth Grant, she rebranded herself Lana Del Rey in 2008 in much the same way BeyoncĂ© tried on Sascha Fierce that same year. BeyoncĂ©, of course, quickly returned to her deeply aspirational brand of pop idol-making. Meanwhile Lana Del Rey seemed to swallow Elizabeth Grant.

Ever since, Grant has wandered further and further into her shtick, often appearing more and more interested in the creative and commercial freedom that Lana allows. At the start of Ride she says as much:

Because I was born to be the other woman.
Who belonged to no one, who belonged to everyone.
Who had nothing, who wanted everything, with a fire for every experience and an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn't even talk about it, and pushed me to a nomadic point of madness that both dazzled and dizzied me.

And in a Rolling Stone cover story from last year, she is asked — in person -- if she wants people to hear and understand her lyrics, to which she replies:

"I just don't want them to hear it at all…I’m very selfish. I make everything for me, kind of. I mean, every little thing, down to the guitar and the drums. It's just for me… I don't want them to hear it and think about it. It's none of their business!"

This theme arises time and again.

Elizabeth Grant doesn’t want to be one person. She wants to be anything she can think up, including a dozen different iterations of Lana Del Rey. The huge fuss made about Lana’s lack of transparent feminism seems to ignore this. But Grant is not interested, not as an artist. She isn’t interested in presenting her personal life, her history, her ethics, her politics or her fame as any sort of corroborative narrative. She has no — and I mean zero — interest in modelling behaviour for young people, despite her popularity with teens. She does not want to be operationally independent or free from corporate influence either. Lana has sold her music and her image all over. Instead, what she wants is to be free from are cultural imperatives. She doesn’t want to do the right thing. Why? Because in noir, that’s not what characters do. As James Ellroy puts it — and damn, there’s a guy happily living outside the culture — “The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.” The doomed don’t act with grace and nobility or favour progressive politics, as much as a generation of millennial music critics would like otherwise, not when they’re in character. And Lana always is. Lana is a character.

To me, Lana Del Rey is on her own trip, motivated entirely by her own demons and seeking out her own pleasures. “It's all I've got to keep myself sane, baby,” she sings during Ride’s colossal bridge. And as glossy as the video is and as pretty as the song sounds, it’s a massive fuck you to everyone who doesn’t get it, or doesn’t want to. That’s what I love about it. That’s the story I’m getting when I hear this song.

Iain Ryan grew up in the outer suburbs of Brisbane, Australia. He predominantly writes in the hardboiled/noir genre and his work has been previously published by Akashic Books Online (New York) and Crime Factory (Melbourne). Four Days, his first novel, was published in October 2015  by Broken River Books. He maintains a blog at www.iainryan.com.

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