Part of the intrigue of Lana Del Rey's breakout “Video Games” was its two-sided nature. It's ostensibly a love song in which the singer rhapsodizes devotion to her man (“Heaven is a place on Earth with you/Tell me all the things you want to do”), but there's a stinging quality to both the words and her blasé delivery: “Open up a beer/And you say get over here…It's you, it's you, it's all for you/Everything I do.” It's unclear who's being played: the guy, who might actually think he's worth her time, or Del Rey, deluded and desperate enough to stay with somebody who's so clearly no good for her.
This slippery question of identity and intention is also, of course, what's made Del Rey the center of a national conversation in recent months. Simply put, Del Rey isn't the singer the viral “Video Games” had led people to believe she was—the “authentic” singer-songwriter ingénue plucked out of obscurity based on the merits of a DIY music video. Her Lana Del Rey persona is the latest incarnation of several years spent putting in time in the industry. Nor is she the kind of pop artist we've come to expect these days—the primetime-savvy vessel of club-ready hits. She's awkward in interviews and on stage, with a high-pitched speaking voice and vampy mannerisms, expertly imitated by Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live last week. She seems to be both trying too hard and not trying hard enough, stoking questions about whether she even means any of what she's singing.
Del Rey isn't the pop star we've come to expect in at least one other sense: The songs on her new album, Born to Die, aren't only small—they're powerless. Which is to say, she writes about women who are unhinged and consumed by the love their men provide. “Off to the Races” may be the skeeviest track ever written about a horse race: Del Rey quotes Lolita (“Light of my life, fire of my loins”), pinches her voice into what seems like a parody of Betty-Boop femininity, demands gold coins from her “old man,” gets wasted on “Bacardi chasers,” risks time at Rikers Island, and finally asks that same old man to save her. It's a thrilling, twisted vision of love gone off the deep end.
Del Rey's references are a mix of contemporary and outmoded, conjuring '50s glamor and hard-knock hip-hop with phrases like “chasing paper.” She refreshes the hopeless starlet with a pose of confidence, as on “Radio,” in which she boasts, “Now my life is sweet like cinnamon/Like a fucking dream I'm living in.” But it's hard to believe her swagger for very long, as relationships and good times crumble all around her. By the time you get to the album's closer, the strangely poignant “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” on which she laments, “We don't stick together 'cause we put love first,” you might start to think Del Rey has internalized the same self-reproach of Erica Jong's “Alcestis on the Poetry Circuit”: “For who can hate her half so well as she hates herself?”
Even casual Top 40 listeners have become conditioned to the almost bludgeoning sense of self-empowerment in pop music today. Nicki Minaj is her own bionic sex doll, an ideal exaggerated to the point of masculine aggression. Katy Perry asks to see her man's “peacock,” and even when she's telling him to put his hands on her “skin-tight jeans,” it's pretty clearly who's in the driver's seat. Lady Gaga…well, you get the point. Nowhere else in mass culture have young people, especially women, been allowed to feel so unvexed about their desires, even if those desires are constrained to the relatively superficial, glitter-sprayed longings of a Ke$ha rager: “We're taking control/We get what we want/We do what you don't.”
Del Rey sings as a woman who doesn't know what she wants. She's compelled to a luxurious, romantic life, but conveys its inevitable sadness. Last year, the Weeknd was rightly criticized for its portrayal of women. What started as vague lasciviousness on “What You Need” became outright stalker confessions on Echoes of Silence, the Weeknd's third album. Abel Tesfaye had fully redirected his player's angst onto the object of his desire. Del Rey flips that dynamic, framing the story from the point of view of the girl who sticks around, trying to enjoy a fabulous party that ends up making her feel more empty and alone than anything else.
Del Rey's been called anti-feminist, though for what reason I still can't discern. She wears sexy clothes? She sings sad songs about wanting love so badly it might kill her? From this self-serious understanding of feminism, I wonder how Tori Amos's “Me and a Gun” would fare today. Yes, I just compared Lana Del Rey to Tori Amos, not only because I can imagine the former writing a song about being forced to off her rapist because she's hasn't “seen Barbados.” I still don't know exactly what kind of singer Del Rey wants to be, which pose of hers is the right one, but I do know that, like Amos, she shows us a version of female desire that we're not used to hearing, one that's genuinely felt on Born to Die. For a pop singer, that's rare enough.