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Gender Euphoria

Gender Euphoria

 There are two pictures of Lana Del Rey in my mind. In one, she stands before an American flag, winking over her shoulder, colors nearly washed out except the red of her lipstick and the stripes of Old Glory. It hung as a poster above a broken couch in my living room senior year of college; it seemed to ask me to pledge allegiance, so I did. The other picture is a perfect moment of grace amidst fans and paparazzi. A boy — his age is ambiguous; he is so abject and frail — cries in Lana's arms, seemingly overwhelmed by meeting her. It's the sort of pathetic idolatry common in the entertainment industry, but it's transformed in this camera shot. There is something luminous and so serene about Lana, as she holds this weeping young man, that it composes the whole thing into a secular piece of a long tradition in Western art, a Pieta. We are not a country that could or would build a Notre Dame, but in Lana's Americana there remains a kind of Marian echo, even beyond this particular photograph; she prays with us, sinners, now and in the hour of our death.

Against the pantheon of American pop, Lana is the anti-Madonna, subverting nothing, sincere in her parody. The girl who became Lana Del Rey, a royal starlet, Lizzy Grant got her start like so many musicians in church, singing in the choir and as a cantor and, one assumes, ave maris stella. Much music is confessional, but there's an incense smell to Lana's, and the outlines of a crucifix; "Kill Kill" on her self-titled 2010 debut coos, "I'm in love with a dying man." "Diet Mountain Dew" on 2012's "Born to Die" takes icon "Jesus off the dashboard/Got enough on His mind" as Lana establishes her persona in that second, but first confidently Del Rey, album: as Eve condemning us all to be indeed born to die; as patient Monica in "Blue Jeans" (I will love you till the end of time/I would wait a million years/Promise you'll remember that you're mine/Baby, can you see through the tears?); and in all the self-reflection in the midst of drugs, sex, and rock'n'roll, Augustine; she's all three and more, sinner and saint and theologian. But most of all, Lana is and sings as a woman, unapologetically, with all the allure and glamor and mystery that are today most conspicuous in absence.

Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns

"Chemtrails Over the Country Club" is an episode of gender euphoria, a stronger album than 2019's "Norman F—ing Rockwell" (which felt over reliant on its features to the detriment of its coherence), and Lana's best since 2015's "Honeymoon." It opens with a surprise in "White Dress," a lullaby that sounds not quite like anything else in her oeuvre. The white dress is a waitress's uniform, not a wedding dress, but there's a wedding of sorts in this young love "outside 'til dawn" and "working the night shift" — in the end, though, we've moved on and the dress is only a tight one, no longer white. The titular track, from astrology to laundry, is an Americana romp through stereotyped 1950s suburbia, a woman-run world while the men are at work, but there doesn't need to be a dark underbelly to the picket fences, "It's beautiful how this deep normality settles down over me/I'm not bored or unhappy, I'm still so strange and wild." The feminine, even the domestic, is not a trap.

The standout song of the album is "Let Me Love You Like a Woman" — to my ears, Lana at her most distilled lyrically, yet still experimenting musically. It sounds like L.A.'s Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1960s, a soft folk rock backing to set the stage for a planned escape. "Eighty miles north or south will do." L.A. is over; it's time to get out of the city, out of careerism. Don't you miss your small town, too? But more importantly, "I don't care where as long as you're with me." "Let Me Love You Like a Woman" is a rejection of the crushing sameness and androgyny of the city, even the city of beautiful people. It is a celebration of difference, between a woman and her man, and of maternal care. And I would suggest it's the perfect pairing to that second photograph I mentioned, Lana after Raphael's "Sistine Madonna," Lana after Michelangelo's "Pieta." "Let me love you like a woman/Let me hold you like a baby/Let me shine like a diamond," she sings, reminding us that in our drab and weary secular age, love, even normal human love, is common grace, a glimpse of heaven.

This folk sound continues, vocally reminiscent of Overcoats or First Aid Kit, two songs later with the "Lord of the Rings" reference, "Not All Who Wander Are Lost." The man in this one is from Lincoln, Nebraska, and has "got a lot to say." He talks "to God like I do, I think you know/The same secrets that I do, I'm talkin' 'bout" the Tolkien reference from the title, and wanderlust (leading to the lovely acoustic throwback "Yosemite"). I'm forced to conclude I probably went to college with this guy. But it wouldn't be a Lana album if there wasn't a song to identify myself in, too, less for biographical accuracy reasons than for a feeling, and that's "Breaking Up Slowly," which hurts really nice. Country singer Nikki Lane is terrific, her choked voice an ideal counterpoint to Lana's, and their duet is a musical highlight on the record.

Lana can't cut a record, though, without an explicit reflection on mortality. Death is her muse as much as love, if not more so, as the thing that sets all else in relief. "Dance Till We Die" pays homage to inspirations like Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell. It begins meditavely enough, considering the topic, but promises for a moment a whole world of Lana-led blues rock dance parties — maybe someday. The album closes by channelling more Nicks and especially Mitchell. "For Free" features Zella Day, who sounds strikingly like Joni, with a first verse, with Lana following, and Weyes Blood finishing with an astounding voice, also like Mitchell, but perhaps even better; the harmonies of the three are sublime, as is the melancholy suggestion in the lyrics of a street busker, enjoyed but passed by, to end our time at the country club.

Photo by Simone Cecchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

The Lizzy Grant behind Lana Del Rey is diminutive for Elizabeth Woolridge Grant. Her name sounds like a Jane Austen character, like a first draft of "Pride and Prejudice." There's something like Jane to Lana's songs; her characters are both perfectly composed and perfectly real, everything is exactly as messy as it ought to be, the insanity of love on full display yet gently restrained by archetype, trope, and manner. I have golden college memories of lying on the floor with sea-dark wine, friends in heaps around "Honeymoon" on the record table; or the year before, the apartment upstairs, swaying, eyes closed, pensive smiles, sitting in the sounds of "Ultraviolence." Speaking for me, we were religious kids in soft rebellion, a little too assured of our cleverness but unsure we knew what love was and right about that, grateful for the lines from T.S. Eliot and the voice that read them. Here in Lana was cultured pop, allusive and philosophical, baroque in both senses, overdone and done right, and in songs like "The Other Woman" was everything our parents or Jane Austen hoped we'd understand, somehow affirmed and reconciled in the apparent perfect violations. In the often strangely sexless, unromantic world of co-ed spaces and oversocialization, of friend-group drama and hapless little loves, here was sex and romance and beauty.

I pair "Chemtrails" now with Campari on ice. Iridescent red, it's fit for picnics at the country club. My college friends still love Lana but so too do my lifting buddies. There's a sexual dimorphism there, one Lana played with in her campy bodybuilder trailer for "Norman F—ing Rockwell": this performed yet real femininity paired with this performed yet real masculine endeavor. It sounds silly, to say things like strength and softness with a straight face these days, but Lana lets you. In her kingdom you're allowed. When Lizzy Grant made "Lana Del Rey" it was still sort of a joke; you can hear she's not sure this singing thing is going to work out and is just happy to mess around with talented friends. But even then, in "Oh Say Can You See" and others, you can also hear the white-tablecloth lounge singer, and in "Mermaid Motel" she showed she had range and could keep an experiment under control, the kind that showed up a lot in "Norman and Lust For Life." But "Chemtrails" is back to basics, if experimentally stripped down musically, back reminding you of facts like you are Born to Die and "This is What Makes Us Girls."

Because at the heart of it all, she's singing as a woman, singing about sisters, friends, fathers, brothers, and lovers. Of course it's self-conscious — it's art — but it feels consciously unselfconscious, abandoned in a way that's refreshing, a refuge from the irony and hyperawareness of contemporary life. The many women she is in her songs, the many women she sings about — they aren't victims; they know the power they wield. She sings from a position of strength, because she can make a man's world, create a sanctuary in her arms, and live without him if need be. Can he live without her? The men of Lana's music aren't perfect, nor are they oppressors, dogs, pigs, or trash. They behave like brutes, dogs, pigs, and trash at times; some of them are losers, or bad men, or heroin skinny, with cocaine hearts. But they're also tigers, heaven, old man, honey, gun owners, bible thumpers, party animals, and most of all, baby. There are so many ways to call a man baby, and Lana can say them all. And maybe that's why I and so many men I know love Lana; she sounds like one woman who is also many women, a girlfriend, a wife, a mistress, a mother — all of those things. Sometimes Lana takes the fantasy of a midcentury Americana and gives it a voice. But more often, she reminds us that our wasteland of respectability and power dynamics and critique and consumption is subject to death, and that there is re-enchantment and maybe even life to be found in the romance and comfort of a woman holding a man in her arms.

Micah Meadowcroft is the managing editor of The American Conservative. His essays and criticism have appeared in publications such as The New Atlantis, Wall Street Journal, and American Affairs.

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