Lana Del Rey, Idolizing Death, and the Fantasy of the 27 Club

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First a brief recap of what has transpired in Lana Del Rey’s world over the past few days: her album Ultraviolence came out on Friday the 13th of June. The day before that, The Guardian published a profile where she told writer Tim Jonze “I wish I was dead already” in response to a question about Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain and the glamour of early death. On Friday she lashed out on Twitter against The Guardian, calling them “calculated” and “sinister,” and Jonze posted audio from the interview in response. This morning, Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s daughter, admonished Del Rey on Twitter for her comments, writing “I’ll never know my father because he died young, and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s ‘cool.’ Well, it’s fucking not.” Del Rey responded to Cobain by writing, “It’s all good. He was asking me a lot a out your dad I said I liked him because he was talented not because he died young.”

Either way, dying young seems to remain on Del Rey’s mind, even as she enjoys the almost unprecedented Billboard-topping success of a once-YouTube star. But she won’t meet her youthful death wish. On June 21st, she turned 28, aging her out of ever joining the 27 Club.

In the clip of her Guardian interview, she opines that Winehouse and Cobain’s influence on her is “more about their personalities” than the fact that they died young. She also mentions Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as personally influential artists who died young. The common denominator of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix is that they died of drugs and alcohol at the age of 27. Their early deaths solidified the iconic statuses they intentionally or unintentionally cultivated while they were alive. Lana Del Rey understands this. The fact that she mentioned these four names together with her death-obsessed, tortured-artist persona (she has a tattoo that says “die young” on her finger) proves that she is well aware that she’s invoking the 27 Club.

But it’s bullshit, because she’s 28. The Lana Del Rey persona is partway singer and partway paper mache mask. It’s a character that has remained a consistent hodgepodge of icons from bygone eras: Vladimir Nabokov, Walt Whitman, Nancy Sinatra. Though she told NPR this week, “I’m not like a persona. I’m not a caricature of myself,” it’s hard to believe she doesn’t perceive her public image as something to be looked at with the same backward glance as her pop heroes. This is not a moral or artistic judgement, just a classification of the artificial and stylized character played by Lizzy Grant. It’s bullshit the same way a magic trick is bullshit: it’s fiction that doesn’t acknowledge itself. It’s a simulation and we know it, but we play along because that’s our role as the audience. We indulge the fantasy. Some of us indulge the fantasy because it’s fun to pick apart the trick, to try to catch the magician pretending. Taking Lana Del Rey’s comments seriously is to be horrified that the magician sawed his assistant in half.

Del Rey says, “Everything I do, I do it for somebody I’ve never met before, something in the great beyond. That’s my primary relationship, really, is with something divine,” in the same turn that she claims she writes with nothing in mind but herself. Surely the members of her idolized 27 Club shared the same compulsion to write that Del Rey no doubt feels, but Del Rey seems fixated on a unique strand of fame her predecessors weren’t: being remembered instead of being known. One of the major components of her persona is nostalgia, and she seems to want people to be nostalgic for her. But nostalgia is false, as is actually wanting to be dead. Ask anyone who jumped off a bridge and survived

And her statement that Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse are influential despite their deaths is bullshit in the sense that it’s also a lie. They were talented and outsized personalities, sure, but their early deaths are what make them mythical. Chuck Klosterman wrote a book about rock stars dying that Lana Del Rey has probably read. Lana Del Rey knows about mythmaking and media provocation (see her “Tropico” short film and the response to it). Also, once again, Lana Del Rey has a tattoo that says “die young.” But there’s a trap in the 27 Club fantasy — you shouldn’t want to ever become a member, and if you do, you probably won’t become one.

I am making no statements about Lana Del Rey’s actual mental health. If she’s as depressed as she says she is, help is available. I wouldn’t speculate about her sobriety now, but she’s been candid about her issues with alcohol in the past. If the statements about depression and substance abuse are true, then I hope she gets the help she needs to avoid an early death. But when dealing with Lana Del Rey, the persona must be embraced before the person herself. If it’s bullshit, it’s slightly irresponsible, but mostly it’s just bullshit.