The queen of mise-en-scène has at this point been compared to an overwhelming array of divas and their alternates. There are the obvious archetypes: iconic crooners from whom she has borrowed a tragicomic mood (e.g. Liza Minelli), hopeless romantics of a bygone era (Marilyn Monroe), this generation’s pop princesses quickly losing innocence (Taylor Swift) and savvy hipsters analyzing their place in the public’s eye (Grimes).
She’s been accused of anti-feminism for perpetuating dangerous social constructs and for (allegedly) reconstructing her own body. She’s been lifted to new heights by way of a further remove, cited as an ambassador of the cult of pastiche, mentioned by camp enthusiasts and queer theorists in academic research. And she’s been described as a classic horror-show character, reprising a certain dynamic seen in the characters created by director David Lynch: part virginal heroine, part seductive villain, part, as she says in her song “Ride,” “fucking crazy.”
What is for the most part missing from the tear-down of del Rey’s buildup are her actual inspirations. These, she cites in interviews and in her own songs, as men—Elvis, James Dean, Bruce Springsteen, the Zombies, the Eagles and Nirvana, to name a few. And how could we have missed the intrinsic connection she shares with folk-rock underdog Leonard Cohen? His 1963 novel The Favourite Game chronicles a life much like those of which del Rey sings: saccharine sweet and heroin blue, at once worshipping and smirkingly dismissing the winding road to celebrity (all while pursuing it).
In her latest music video, a cover of Cohen’s gossipy classic, “Chelsea Hotel”—rumored to be about Janis Joplin—she changes no gendering lyrics. “Giving me head in an unmade bed” becomes feminized easily, but does “you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception”? Once again, the seemingly straight forward singer/songwriter has stumped us. Is it anti-feminist to place one’s self in a male role, and to only name male role models, if the music industry is truly still a man’s world?
Is it poetic justice to implicate cinema’s supposed “male gaze”—during which a camera’s lens looks a woman’s body up and down, suggesting the viewer, by default, must desire her? What if that imbalanced desire is at the heart of all idolatry—of all romance? One thing’s for sure: del Rey has done something very right, because until her next move, we’ll be waiting on the edge of our seats, like we were last night before this premiere.