Lana Del Rey Has a History of Pissing People Off. Will Her New Album Change That?

Like everything Del Rey does, "Chemtrails Over The Country Club" has arrived with a fair share of controversy preceding it

March 19, 2021 12:04 pm
Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is a controversial figure for a lot of reasons, but can we love her new album in spite of them?
InsideHook/Steve Granitz

Lana Del Rey has been a lightning rod for controversy for a full decade now, before she even put out her debut album Born to Die. As soon as she broke out in 2011 with her single “Video Games,” there was backlash and debate over “authenticity” from people who were upset that Lizzy Grant, a struggling singer-songwriter, had changed her name to the decidedly more Hollywood-sounding Lana Del Rey, given herself a glam makeover (that, to some people’s horror, may or may not have included lip fillers) and started churning out dreamy pop songs that leaned heavily on the iconography of 1950s and ’60s Americana.

She wasn’t a throwback act so much as she was some sort of David Lynch character, and the initial criticisms hurled at her — that her music was somehow less valid because she had changed her name and crafted a persona for herself — made little sense. Is Bob Dylan “inauthentic” because he didn’t want to record as Robert Zimmerman? Are we supposed to hate David Bowie for changing up his look and cultivating characters like Ziggy Stardust? Or is it only when a woman does it that she’s dismissed as fame-seeking and phony?

Still, in the years since Born to Die, there have been plenty of legitimate bones to pick. As recently as 2015, Del Rey rejected feminism writ large, saying it’s “just not an interesting concept.” (She eventually changed her tune, updating her views in the wake of the Me Too movement and identifying herself as a feminist.) Many took issue with the way her music glamorizes abuse, like on 2014’s “Ultraviolence,” where she paraphrases The Crystals, singing, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss, I can hear violins, violins.”

She eventually soured on that line as well. “I don’t like it,” she told Pitchfork in 2017. “I don’t. I don’t sing it. I sing ‘Ultraviolence’ but I don’t sing that line anymore. Having someone be aggressive in a relationship was the only relationship I knew. I’m not going to say that that [lyric] was 100 percent true, but I do feel comfortable saying what I was used to was a difficult, tumultuous relationship, and it wasn’t because of me. It didn’t come from my end.”

Then, last May, she took to Instagram to defend herself against notions that she romanticizes abuse with a clumsily worded post in which she mentioned artists like Doja Cat, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Kehlani and Camila Cabello. The optics of her singling out artists of color while claiming that “there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me” were not great to say the least, and she quickly had to follow it up with a second post insisting she’s not racist.

Since then, there have been other instances of her putting her foot in her mouth or not doing much to distance herself from the reputation she now has as pop music’s resident Karen. There was the siccing her army of fans — who will happily, systematically harass anyone with a negative opinion of her — onto NPR’s Ann Powers over a positive review of 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! that she didn’t think was positive enough. There was the flak she caught for wearing a mesh (read: not effective!) mask and refraining from social distancing at a poetry reading during the pandemic. (She later claimed the mesh mask had plastic underneath it and was therefore safe.)

When she released the music video for the title track to her new album Chemtrails Over The Country Club (out today via Interscope Records) in January, it seemed as though she was fully prepared to continue pissing people off. The video teeters on self-parody, with a glammed-up Del Rey driving around in a red vintage Mercedes-Benz sporting the same mesh mask that got her in trouble, donning some jewels and hanging out with her bored, rich friends under the chemtrails at a country club before it does a 180 and turns into something else entirely, full of gore and werewolves.

It’s a jarring shift, and in some ways the manner in which she upends her usual persona there serves as a notice that the rest of the album will be starkly different from her earlier material. Chemtrails Over The Country Club is far and away her “least Lana” work to date; the LA star’s vibe has always been more Calabasas than Laurel Canyon, but on this record she embraces a folkier, stripped-back sound that gives her music a more intimate feel. She closes the album with an excellent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” (featuring Weyes Blood and Zella Day) and she name-checks her influences on “Dance Till We Die,” singing, “I’m covering Joni and I’m dancing with Joan/Stevie’s calling on the telephone/Court almost burnt down my home, but god, it feels good not to be alone.”

She trades Hollywood imagery for the heartland on much of the album, traveling from Nebraska (“Not All Who Wander Are Lost”) to Tulsa (“Tulsa Jesus Freak”) to the Sierra Nevadas (“Yosemite”). On the lovely “White Dress,” she whisper-sings about a simpler time when she was just a waitress in Orlando, concluding that “It kinda makes me feel like maybe I was better off.”

Chemtrails follows her career-best Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and it’s further proof that for all the noise surrounding Lana Del Rey, she continues to make compelling music good enough to remind us why she became famous in the first place. Those who are sick of her schtick will still find a few reasons to get angry, but for the second time in a row, she’s managed to (temporarily, at least) refocus the attention on her musical chops by delivering a really great album. This one peels back the curtain on the polarizing Lana Del Rey character a bit; the bedazzled mesh mask that she metaphorically dons is still there, but Chemtrails is proof that there is, in fact, plastic underneath.

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