In the middle of the summer of 2017, Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life entered the musical atmosphere like a whirlwind, a mixture of vulnerability, politics, and pop hooks that pulled in many different directions while simultaneously keeping its course on the mantra of the personal is political. For those of us who both have been on board since Born to Die and have leftist politics, Lust For Life was the album that we had been waiting for Lana Del Rey to make for a long time. As a dear friend from New Orleans wrote over text when we first discussed the album, “So proud of her, so grateful to bear witness to her talent, so impressed with all that she is capable of.” And we weren’t the only ones who felt this way. Lust For Life is Lana Del Rey’s most critically acclaimed album to date, with many writers applauding her mixture of pop bangers on side A with more politically—and self—aware songs on side B. On tracks such as “When The World Was At War We Kept On Dancing,” Del Rey proved that she and her songwriting team were masters at illustrating how not so far apart those pop bangers and political anthems were from one another after all.
Although I’ve been thinking a lot about Lust For Life since its release in July (as it’s one of my favorite albums to be released in this decade), I wanted to wait until I saw and heard what Del Rey did with the songs in a live context before writing about it. And so on a very cold February night in Austin, my sister and I got in line fifteen minutes before doors for Del Rey’s show at the Erwin Center on the southeastern tip of UT’s campus, walking by clusters of Latinx and white teenagers and youths (many of them rocking non-conventional gender presentations) standing at the front of the general admission line. This would be the third time that we would do this together—and the sixth time that my sister would experience her in concert. With opener Kali Uchis having dropped off the bill for the night, the show would be all Lana. And so for the first song of the night, we got “13 Beaches”—just as they did in Houston one night before.
Against a backdrop of flowing water and flowing keyboard parts, Lana Del Rey floats onto the stage from its right side, her voice audible before body becomes visible. As the band keeps playing the first verse, Del Rey breaks from the song to say, in her New Jersey accent, “Thank you so much for being with us tonight. We’re so excited to be here.” As she switches back to her singing voice to finish the verse, I have to appreciate how much of a real person she seems to be, even given her meteoritic fame. In her fake eyelashes, hoop earrings, and v-neck sweater, Del Rey is an incredible mixture of ordinary and extraordinary. While she certainly is conventionally pretty, there’s also a casualness to how she presents herself on stage—which renders the force of her soaring vocals all the more incredible. Like the best LDR songs, the strength of “13 Beaches” is Del Rey’s ability to create an atmosphere—which in the live context is grounded in the keyboard and synth magic of Bryon Thomas, who’s toured with her since 2011. The keyboard parts become the benchmark against which Del Rey sings above or below, affecting a fluctuation of feelings.
For the first time ever, Del Rey is joined on stage by other women, dancers and backup singers Alexandria Kaye and Ashley Rodríguez. The flowy movements and vocals of Kaye and Rodríguez help smooth out some of Del Rey’s (endearingly) awkward stage presence. After being in the background during “13 Beaches,” Kaye and Rodríguez move up to share the center stage with Del Rey for the next song, “Pretty When You Cry.” For this song, all three lay down on the floor and perform choreography (that looks like it could have come out of a Solange or a Kelela show) that’s projected onto the screen behind them. Although it’s not immediately obvious from the lighting (and their light skin), both Kaye and Rodríguez are women of color. That the two women Del Rey brings along with her are a mixture of Japanese, Spanish, Black and American Indian (Kaye) and Puerto Rican (Rodrígeuz) is not insignificant given all the shit Del Rey got for portraying (appropriating?) Cholo identity in her music video for “Tropico.” Although Kaye and Rodríguez are literally and figuratively in the background for a large portion of the show, there are times when they move to the front of the stage, such as during the next song, “Cherry.”
Like “13 Beaches,” “Cherry” is another atmospheric song, a LDR track that works just as much for the feeling it circulates as the message it conveys about the push and pull of a romantic relationship. What does it mean to put women of color front and center stage three songs into this set? As all three women slither into a squat during the song’s chorus, there is a lot going on here. On the most immediate level, it posits Kay and Rodríguez as desirable people in themselves—and in a more immediately sexy way than Del Rey, who is considerably more clothed up than either of them. In another sense, this setup echoes recent moves by Torres and St. Vincent to combat the trope of, to use Sasha Geffen’s words, the “naked, anonymous, sexualized woman” so prominent in pop/rock music. The least smooth dancer of all three, Del Rey shines in this moment because of her singing voice, and not because of her dance moves or what her body looks like. And as the image of Rodríguez rises over Del Rey’s frame, there is even a blink of homoeroticism—and if not homoeroticism, then at least a moment of homosocialism—between all three as Del Rey’s body appears to brush up against Rodríguez’s projection.
This moment of female solidarity and homosocialism continues song after song, setting up LDR and company for the trio of politicized songs that will close out the first half of the set: “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It,” “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing,” and “National Anthem.” As alluded to in this blog’s opening paragraph, I want to zone in on “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” here. During the concert, I am struck by the chorus line, “Is it the end of an era/ Is is the end of America?” repeated twice. Sitting atop a piano as she sings, Del Rey finally answers, “No, it’s only the beginning/ If we hold onto hope/ We’ll have a happy endin’.” While I think that last line is a little too easy, I’m once again drawn to the affects behind these vocal deliveries, to Del Rey’s voice as reaching for hope in a plodding and truly gloomy sounding song. As Del Rey sings the bridge, she glides to the upper left corner of the stage, where Raye and Rodríguez are waiting for her. “We’ll do it again/ In a world at war,” she sings as dances and transitions to the chorus, during which she makes frequent eye contact with them.
As the band move onto fan favorite “National Anthem,” Del Rey once again takes center stage as Raye and Rodríguez move behind her. Even as she delivers lines such as “But you can’t keep your hands off/ Me or your pants on” (admittedly some of my favorite lyrics in any Lana Del Rey song), this song on this day already seems to be about more than getting laid—or the controversial brilliance of casting A$AP Rocky as JFK in the music video as a commentary on the omnipresence of blackness in the American national imaginary, which plays in the background as she performs it. Is this the end of America? No, it’s not. But perhaps it’s the end of “Money is the anthem for success,” the infamous opening line of “National Anthem.” As Del Rey discusses in a recent interview with NPR, she’s become more reflective of her work over time, going back and repositioning things (or scrapping them all together) in her live sets. After the seriousness of “When We Were At War We Kept Dancing,” “National Anthem” sounds like a different song. Its being positioned immediately after quite possibly the most political song that she’s ever written shines a dark realness onto what was previously a campy, tongue-in-cheek sarcastic celebration of “America.”
“National Anthem” ends up being a bridge between the politicized content portion of the set and the hits parade portion of night. After the intentionality of the first half of the show, I’m a bit let down by the second half, especially as Del Rey comes across as tired of performing these songs. I want to tell her that after an album like Lust For Life, she doesn’t have to perform half of Born To Die anymore, that more people than she think might be willing to take that jump into the land of synchronized choreography and political commentary with her. But maybe that’s the point that she’s trying to make, that love and sex and relationality occur within the political landscapes that she paints in the first half of the show. As we sing along to “Born To Die” early on in the show, I hear 10,000+ voices crying out, “Feet don’t fail me now/ Take me to the finish line.” Are we singing about love or America? Life or death? In the beautiful confusion of it all, Lana Del Rey has written the anthem(s) for millenials, holding onto hope when history and statistics and our parents might be telling us to do otherwise. And through the racial inclusivity and homoeroticism of this last tour, the invitation that she extends feels more open than ever before. Are there things she could still do differently to decenter her whiteness? Of course there are. But I have to give her credit for how much she’s (we’ve) grown and grown up in six years’ time.