I have not yet seen Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby, though even its trailer contains enough supercharged energy to bowl over the plodding jaundice of Jack Clayton’s 1974 take, which was convinced that a story of romantic obsession and desperate excess was best delivered through pale-faced stares and stiff mumbling. For whatever its ultimate faults, the new film hints at an acute awareness of what it’s doing when it has Jay-Z producing the soundtrack, and especially when that soundtrack headlines Lana Del Rey channeling Daisy Buchanan on “Young and Beautiful,” crooning about her man’s “pretty face and electric soul.”
Here I’m adding to the deluge of words on Lana Del Rey not to speak ill of the discrepancy between image and reality, or to pass judgment on her authenticity; after all, the author is long-dead, replaced by a flitting and fretting swarm of a discursive field of eyes and ears and texts. And in that field, we might see that Lana Del Rey, whoever or whatever she is, performs as an ironist would, tugging at the cloak of American exceptionalism; and in that, she is perhaps kindred spirits with the voluminously cited elder gadfly of American politics, Noam Chomsky.
I know what you’re thinking. Bear with me.
There are scintillating possibilities when we summon two art-objects from the aether and contemplate them in conjunction, in teasing out the strands that connect them—their affinities—however gossamer they might be. The distance between LDR and Chomsky is perhaps not so vast when we look at their reaction to that pernicious strain of American grand narrative that believes in a recoverable moment of lost national innocence, that something like Watergate represented a real fall from grace rather than one segment of the power elite conducting business as usual except making the mistake of targeting “the rich and respectable, spokesmen for official ideology,” and “men who are expected to share power.”
Those are Chomsky’s words, but LDR’s music and image and persona draw from the wellspring of Americana that props up that milquetoast yearning for a harmonious return to a past that never existed. She spins out the easy Manichean archetypes of potboiler romance (the ingénue and the harlot, the playboy and the bad boy) ensconced in lush swirling production values—and yet there’s a détournement, a making-strange, a not-quite-rightness to it all. Her work has this cohesive, illusory wholeness that disintegrates upon contact with reality (or live performance) that might be regarded as failure if it didn’t fail with such panache. Her strained paeans to the high life of unbridled consumerism (such that, as she reminds us on “Cola,” her body positively exudes it) can barely sustain the three minutes demanded of perfect pop. And yet, even as the songs die on the vine they continually regenerate; in the world of her music, death is not the end as long as it is sufficiently tragic and romantic.
In that vein, LDR is the elegist to Chomsky’s doomsayer. He critiques those elements of the “necessary illusions” that undermine American democratic society—lies, propaganda, and myth-making—and she appropriates and explodes them by revealing the raw machinery of power that lies beneath. That death-drive twisting of twentieth-century Americana is perfectly palpable in her cover of “Blue Velvet”: in its bouffant Betty-yearning for some other time and some other bygone way of seeing the world, it acknowledges that those things no longer exist—if they ever did—except through elaborately-constructed facades. But it is perhaps in her supposedly-bastardized appropriation of Nabokov running through Born to Die that the extent of her argument (and its affinity to Chomsky’s) becomes clear. Her invocation of the nymphet, something that should make absolutely no sense except through the nexus of a twisted consumerist sexuality (that is, through sheer force of pop), is a searing revelatory blast. It’s in those moments that her character feels most like a character, and she shows us the game she’s playing.
Speaking of supposedly bastardized Nabokov (and adaptations of canonical literature), there’s a scene in Kubrick’s 1962 version of Lolita that crystallizes this same facade of Americana: the Ramsdale High dance in which James Mason’s Humbert Humbert, a neurotically overdetermined intellectual stepping from the ashscapes of postwar Europe, gazes upon the mass of swaying boys and girls as a site of oblivious innocence, stalking grounds for his roving voyeurism. Sayyid Qutb, who would go on to craft the Islamist rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood, witnessed a similar scene in small-town Colorado; to him, the “tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests” was a kind of unbearable decadence and the sign of a fallen power without spirit or emotion.
They were both half-wrong, each in his own way, perhaps because as outsiders peering in, they could not see that the scene was both of those things and neither, and that projections of wholesome innocence like those paper over dark secrets and a raw power that has the capability to destroy anything it touches. And with that, we can tug on the string tying this array of Americana back to “Young and Beautiful” and LDR’s exclamations of a romantic anxiety nominally aligned with Daisy Buchanan’s. And yet that alignment is a pretense that shreds apart if you listen past LDR’s automatized anguish to whoever or whatever lies under the artifice. After all, what Daisy has is voice full of money and a power that she carelessly wields. Gatsby knows money but does not understand that power, and he is destroyed by it.
Perhaps that makes “Young and Beautiful” a perfect song for the adaptation of a Great American Novel about Wealth and Love and Death; in the song’s interstices we might dimly sense that the feelings of powerlessness and anguish are not contained within but point outward—point at us. And in that, we might find evidence of Chomsky’s rancorous declamation that “what remains of democracy is largely the right to choose among commodities,” and that a philosophy of consumerist futility pervades everything and everyone. Or, as per one of LDR’s other pithy couplets:
Money is the reason we exist /
Everybody knows it, it’s a fact, kiss kiss.
Oscar Moralde is a writer and critic whose work has been published by Slant Magazine and the Criterion Collection. He studies film at UCLA.