Facing Reality Under the Chemtrails

Bruce Springsteen called Lana Del Rey “simply one of the best songwriters” and one reviewer referred to her as an iconic “21st-century pop poet.” She’s among the most notable musicians of her generation and is no stranger to controversy. Yet if you aren’t familiar with her music but got casually acquainted with it you might be surprised to learn that she has developed a small but devoted fanbase amongst what you could call “young reactionaries.” Peruse her discography and you’ll find that her lyrics are frequently about love, sex, and drugs. And she’s often not subtle about it either. She sings about “being a mistress on the side” (Sad Girl). She has a weak spot for older men and James Deanesque bad boys. She’s been accused of glamourizing domestic and abusive relationships (Ultraviolence, Video Games). Provocative lyrics abound.

Dig a little deeper and what you’ll find in Del Rey’s music a sensibility that endears her to her young reactionary fans. If you pay close attention to the common themes and overtures of her music, what Del Rey so frequently comes back to is a longing for normality. Many artists and musicians today are searching for authenticity in their art, but what makes Del Rey stand out is where this search for meaning and purpose takes her. Del Rey’s quest for authenticity doesn’t lead her to a Justice Kennedy-approved attempt to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”—her searching instead points towards a craving for normality.

These are recurring motifs throughout her music. Del Rey’s most recent album, Chemtrails over the Country Club, drives this home in poetic and at times deeply personal ways. Del Rey captures something important about not just the quest for meaning and happiness, she also inadvertently tells us something interesting about the current political moment we are in. The young reactionaries so attracted to Del Rey’s music can relate deeply with the alienation and angst her music portrays. But more fundamentally, what Del Rey and these young fans crave, and what they grasp that seems increasingly out of reach is the nostalgized normality to which Del Rey frequently alludes. This is not an alienation driven by a thumotic drive for fame and glory. Quite the opposite, it’s an alienation that rejects failed promises of hollow and licentious liberation and instead seeks beauty in the mundane and the goodness of ordinary life.

Authenticity isn’t just a motif of Del Rey’s music, the question of what authenticity means has been at the heart of Del Rey’s career and the debates around her persona. These are questions that often consume the music industry as it grapples with its commercialization and the ways that modern stars are manufactured by big corporate record labels. Back when Del Rey, whose real name is Elizabeth Grant, really emerged onto the scene in 2012, she was dismissed and snubbed as a fraud. She became infamous after a supposedly botched SNL performance. Del Rey’s music is melancholic and dark, and she is sometimes lumped in with what is teasingly referred to as “sad girl” music (also the name of a song on her third studio album Ultraviolence). But early critics questioned how much of this sad girl aesthetic Del Rey channeled in her music was actually real? Was she actually a sad girl or was this just a character?

A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of Del Rey’s authenticity and whether it matters, but what’s more interesting is the deeper motifs in Del Rey’s music that hint towards answers to the alienation and angst she professes. Her lyrics are complicated and at times point in different directions. Del Rey doesn’t live anything that could be described as a conservative lifestyle. She consistently talks about her need and desire to be free. In “Ride,” a ballad from her first major album Born to Die, Del Rey sings about the struggle and desire to be free while also fearing being alone. She wants to be untethered from constraints, but is afraid of what being untethered actually entails. She worries that in removing the shackles she will find herself adrift and unmoored. The dark side of emancipation and its alienating effects, from sex to drugs to relationships in general, permeate her music.

There are other “sad girls” out there, and lots of other artists with melancholic motifs that resonates with angst ridden fans. But where Del Rey departs is the glimmers of redemption that burst through in her music. This was particularly apparent in Chemtrails Over the Country Club. In the lead track of the album, “White Dress,” Del Rey sings about her life as a nineteen-year-old waitress in Orlando. She describes working the night shift at a “Men in Music Business Conference.” Del Rey reminisces fondly on it, singing “I would still go back if I could do it all again,” because she “felt seen.” She’s describing a creepy business conference and men presumably treating her in creepy ways, but she isn’t glamourizing this treatment, instead she’s reminiscing on the normality of it before she became famous. The song repeatedly turns to Del Rey talking about the normality of her life before fame “I wasn’t famous, just listening to Kings of Leon to the beat.” Del Rey then ponders if “It kinda makes me feel, like maybe I was better off… ’Cause it made me feel, made me feel like a god.”

Del Rey’s confidence in her own femininity, her apathy towards contemporary feminist expectations of what she should aspire to, and her complaints about what has happened to expectations of men and masculinity in general may make her persona non grata to cultural and social elites, but it is precisely what endears her to a subset of her fans.

“White Dress” also captures a classic Del Rey motif, one that often gets her in trouble with the intellectually homogenous journalists and critics—her supposed heretical feminism, or lack thereof. As one writer puts it, Del Rey’s “persona shamelessly adopts the trappings of traditional feminine beauty:  red lipstick, high heels, diamonds, beehive hair etc., which rankle her progressive and feminist critics for supposedly glamorising the falsehood that is the American Dream and the myth of beauty.” Del Rey longs for the kind of solid and stable emotional and physical relationships that popular culture frequently portrays as constraining and restrictive. It is in her depiction of love and relationships where Del Rey’s “reactionary fandom” and the predictable mainstream backlash against her is most obvious. She consistently wants men who behave like men and bemoans contemporary masculinity precisely because men don’t behave like men. She opens NFR with a complaint about a “Goddam man child” who is fun and wild but “you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through… Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news.”

In “Let Me Love You Like a Woman” Del Rey sings about how she “comes from a small town and “is ready to leave LA.” And just like in “Ride” Del Rey is singing to an unnamed man asking him to come with her because “I guess I could manage if you stay, It’s just if you do I can’t see myself having any fun.” This again perhaps helps explain Del Rey’s appeal to young, alienated reactionaries. The supposed freedom that modern sexual liberation and the erosion of traditional gender roles and standards have a dark side—one contemporary music is often unwilling or unable to recognize. Del Rey’s confidence in her own femininity, her apathy towards contemporary feminist expectations of what she should aspire to, and her complaints about what has happened to expectations of men and masculinity in general may make her persona non grata to cultural and social elites, but it is precisely what endears her to a subset of her fans.

“White Dress” is an intimate song, and Del Rey’s delicate vocals give off exactly the vibe one would expect of a long reminiscence like this one. But it touches on a core Del Rey motif: Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The good things in life, the things that bring us meaning and real joy are real and simple moments. She finds herself wishing she could go back and experience these authentic moments. Del Rey’s fame means she is now treated as and seen by others as the character she undoubtedly plays in her music, but for someone who craves authenticity this can be crippling precisely because the way she is seen by others, the gaze of the public eye. But the authenticity she craves and the way she wants to be “seen” isn’t as a superstar, but as a normal person, as a nineteen-year-old waitress in Orlando. In “God Knows I Tried,” a genuinely somber and melancholic song on the album Honeymoon, Del Rey sings about how she’s “got nothing much to live for…Ever since I found my fame” and how “I feels free when I see no one… And nobody knows my name.” What she really wants is an authentic normality, where she isn’t a character and isn’t an icon.

The pointlessness and emptiness of fame are themes throughout the album. In “Dark But Just a Game” she alludes to the dark “price of fame” and how “the best ones lost their minds” but “I’m not gonna change.” The song has a kind of nonchalant existentialist vibe, with Del Rey singing about the absurdity of fame, but vowing to carry on anyways.

The core of Del Rey’s unique answer to the alienation so many of her young reactionary fans feel is in the title song where she sings about how “There’s nothing wrong contemplating God under the chemtrails over the country club.” While sad girl music and popular music in general might sell you the leaky vase message that the problem with liberation is just that we aren’t liberated enough yet, Del Rey’s message really is that normality and the mundane really might be where happiness and authentic meaning is found. The entire song is a kind of subtle defense of ordinariness. “It’s beautiful how this deep normality settles down over me” she sings, “I’m not bored or unhappy, I’m still so strange and wild.” Far from stifling her and turning her into a soulless automaton it’s in this kind of normality where she’s actually free to be herself, to be authentic.

Del Rey’s music captures the anxiety and alienation so many people, especially young people, feel today. But her music points towards what might essentially be a “conservative” explanation and solution to this crisis of meaning. Freedom understood as complete emancipation from any conventional or traditional restraints, and a world in which you are free to indulge any kind of hedonistic and libertine impulse without judgment has a dark side. It leaves us feeling hollow and empty, it might satisfy us in the moment, but it doesn’t offer the deeper and more basic and stable happiness that we really crave. Del Rey, intentionally or not, seems to grasp this. Chemtrails Over The Country Club picks up and builds on the broader motifs in Del Rey’s discography.

It’s wrong to describe Del Rey as a “conservative,” and doing so imposes something on Del Rey that she is not. But she does grasp what might be a fundamentally conservative insight about the world. Our search for meaning and authenticity in the world that truly satisfies us leads us to normality. It leads us to meaningful and stable relationships, it leads us to seek simplicity, it shows us the beauty of the mundane. Contemplating God under the chemtrails over the country club might be exactly where we figure out what really matters.