“So this is it?” my girlfriend, Madeline, asked me the other morning. “You listen to nothing but Lana anymore, all the time?”
“Yeah. I think so,” I said.
Maddie nodded and walked out to our back patio, where she could read at some distance from the cinematic ooze of Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life, an album that hadn’t disappeared from my Spotify in the week following its release. Even I was having trouble explaining this newfound obsession. (“I just want to feel like I’m drinking cough syrup on the beach,” I said, repeatedly.) Floored when I happened to hear LDR’s “National Anthem” a few months before, I had closely followed the drip of new tracks ever since. I was hooked in days.
While reviews of the record are positive, they don’t agree on its character: Lust for Life is at once a “throwback” to Lana’s early swagger, a push forward into “more self-aware” territory, and proof of her “remarkable, singular consistency.” More enticing are essays by women about such paradoxes: Lana’s submission as a form of power, or her self-regard turning male lust inside-out. Between thinkpieces and Twitter, and given LDR’s restless exploration of American femininity, you might assume that women (and gay men) form the vast majority of her audience — and you’d be right. But I soon discovered that I was no outlier in the fandom. A massive bloc of straight guys love Lana Del Rey, too, even if they’re conflicted about it.
“Are there many straight male fans of Lana?” a Reddit user called Crazybonbon asked the r/lanadelrey board. “Feel like we’re rare af, kinda living in secrecy about it.” The top reply clarified that straight men are the subreddit’s largest demographic, according to a survey. “This question is asked like every week,” another dude complained. “YES there are many straight male fans.” CerberusArcProjector was openly anxious on the matter: “Is it OK to be a straight guy who likes Lana?” he asked.
Fellow men reassured him, brushing off anyone who would dare to judge. One bro took it even further: “Her music, from what I’ve listened to, is made for the straightest of males (and whoever else, really).” A reductive, toxic view, in my opinion, and it serves as the illogical endpoint of the very assumption it means to demolish: Having discovered that I’m not the only straight man who “gets” Lana — and robbed of that potential cred — I can only conclude that this music is designed to ensnare us all.
How can it be? I’ve never been “The Other Woman,” nor have I been on the receiving end of an assault that “felt like a kiss,” as Lana sings in “Ultraviolence,” her homage to The Crystals’ brutal 1962 domestic abuse song with Phil Spector. Her songs are clearly for, and about, women. Yet my journey into Lana’s world began right after I’d quit my full-time job, as my marriage imploded, when I had a bedroom in the scummy heart of Hollywood, near the famous cemetery, police helicopters circling the house, palm trees leaning against gray skies and stray cats mewling in the overgrown yard as I got paralyzingly stoned, night after dreamlike night. Not only was I aesthetically primed for the lush, low-key apocalypse that Lana paints; I imagined myself a minor, throwaway character in her tales of Californian doom.
“I am often surprised by the fact that Lana is a pop star,” says Stuart Ross, a straight married man from Illinois. “To me she seems more marginal. I am shocked when I see the number of plays her songs have on Spotify. She herself has said something like this about ‘Video Games’ — it was a six-minute song with no drums, she wasn’t trying to be poppy.” I understand his take: As popular as Lana is (Lust For Life is her second album to hit number one, after 2014’s Ultraviolence), her widescreen music seems oddly private, crafted for an audience of one. It’s an impression borne out in comments from other male fans who mention “isolation,” or “loneliness” and, at least for Ross, by a marital division over LDR: “My wife hates her. I am never allowed to listen to LDR in the car with my wife, even when the mood is right for LDR.”
This polarization is typical in the Lanaverse, and it’s by no means limited to straight couples. A 29-year-old man asked the Lana Del Rey subreddit how to deal with a boyfriend who was constantly putting her down. A gay friend of mine lamented in a Facebook thread that “all the men in my life are [obsessed with her],” while he finds her “boring as fuck.” Yet an initial resistance to Lana — marked by complaints that all her songs sound the same, or that her persona exemplifies a cynical kind of artifice — can often give way to infatuation. Ross, for example, says he recently caught his wife humming the “take off, take off, take off all your clothes” melody from Lust for Life’s title track. And we saw this on a macro scale following the great Lana backlash of 2012; two years later, she was bigger than ever.
This kind of reversal has cemented LDR’s legend: Caught between misogynist dismissal of her art and feminist critiques of same, she appears coolly immune to both forms of attack, which boil down to a common shame over heterosexual cliché. Each camp argues that she presents a superficial, even damaging view of womanhood, minus the talent or veneer of commentary to carry it off. Where Taylor Swift and Katy Perry will belt a breakup anthem as a call to arms, Lana has the audacity to stew in her nihilism and laugh ruefully at the men who mistreat her. Gendered, negative responses just feed into her enveloping aura.
On the other hand, a dude’s appreciation of Lana is not necessarily innocent or simple, regardless of orientation. Colter Ruland, a bookseller in San Francisco, touches on that unease: He’s “reluctantly” obsessed with Lana, “mostly because I don’t want to be identified with her cult following of sappy gay boys who find her to be some kind of goddess and champion of sugar daddies,” he says, alluding to her love of affairs with older men. “But part of me admires how she actually seems to unsettle a lot of straight bros, who talk about her as though they are afraid of her.” They describe her almost like a “witch,” he adds, “because her whole vibe is about inverting or even embracing the male gaze, however uncomfortable or empowering that may be.”
So how many straight men are into Lana for her looks? Nicole, a friend of a friend, emailed to point out that some guys “focus more on her appearance than her music.” She recalls a male friend posting “I want Lana Del Rey to sit on my face” on Facebook. “The more I think about this, the more I realize that if a guy tells me he likes Lana, I think he has an agenda or is trying to impress me,” she says, wondering if they can feasibly relate to the feminine interiority of a song like “Black Beauty” — “I paint my nails black /
I dye my hair a darker shade of brown / Because you like your women Spanish, dark, strong and proud” — unless it is to cast themselves as the object of Lana’s infatuation.
Yet, as with knee-jerk detractors ultimately pulled into Lana’s orbit, the guys initially horny for her tend to undergo a dramatic change. Here’s a telling comment from one of the Reddit threads about straight male LDR fans:
That could be more of the faux wokeness that makes Nicole wary. Or straight men who love Lana are learning, however awkwardly, to step outside themselves. A few of the guys I interviewed mentioned breakups or a sense of melancholy in connection with Lana, but only the straight ones admitted that she makes them weep. “I feel like I can only access a certain ‘wavelength’ when I listen to her,” says writer and editor David Blumenshine. “Like, I actually cry when i listen to Ultraviolence or Born to Die. No other artist does that to me.”
Similarly, Ross says that Lana “is singing directly to me. When the time is right to go to a Lana show, I will go, stand as close as I can, cry a lot, and feel totally comfortable.” He says this enjoyment is complete — “I never wrestle with my feelings in public or private, the way I do publicly with emotional male singers, like Bright Eyes or The National.” Meanwhile, the character she presents is somewhat beside the point. “I’m not concerned with Lana’s identity. I think her identity would be ‘Lover’ — Lana actually likes men. She reminds me of my ex-girlfriends in this way.”
Here, again, we risk running aground on the shoals of sexism. The notion that Lana is our depressive pixie dream girl — defined in relation to the male, with no agency — is appalling. But I also see in Ross’ comment something of Lana’s generalizations about straight romance. In every album, her lovers do add up to a unified archetype, expressing a dynamic or pattern that any of us could identify in our own history of love. It’s not that everyone we fuck turns out to be the same, or devoid of individual traits — this is just how we simplify the archive of heartbreak.
Blumenshine spoke of romantic associations as well, and not abstractly. A date introduced him to Lana; a relationship was bookended by her music. “We took a lot of drugs and did a lot of really interesting things together while listening to Lana,” he says. “I now find it mostly difficult to separate Born to Die with being with that person, and Ultraviolence with having broken up with that person.” Getting sober, as Lana did many years ago, was another way to reinforce the link, and her mirage-like Americana keeps him coming back: “It’s more about the acknowledgement of the false that I am into.”
Vlado Nedkov discovered Lana through his millennial co-workers at a New York PR job, then watched her “insanely terrible” 2012 performance on Saturday Night Live. He remembers thinking, “God, this girl is atrocious and won’t be around by the fall.” But then “something clicked inside… and she just sucked me in completely.” For him, it has something to do with age: Lana is consciously selling an “impersonation/interpretation of a lifestyle that the majority of millennials or kids that grew up in the ‘80s/’90s have no firsthand experience in, but the abstract idea of it I guess is beguiling.”
The theory dovetails with Daily Beast senior editor Erin Gloria Ryan’s darker assertion that men are fascinated by Lana “because she is their dad’s college ex, the one who died in a car crash in 1979.” No doubt a death wish colors Lana’s artistic moods. For her, dying young and beautiful and indifferent to this outrageous fate is a form of glamor. This precept melds with her status as unreachable symbol, creating a mélange of soft menace and psychedelic nostalgia: She coos about Charles Manson and stages her own murder, blown away by a shotgun. As a result, listening to LDR comes to resemble chilling on the edge of oblivion, arguably an emotive state that only comes with white privilege, while considering one’s ability to inflict harm. That tension between self-destruction and victimhood troubles me even as it soothes.
Female vulnerability is one of Lana’s favorite subjects. There’s a resonance with Yoko Ono’s infamous Cut Piece, the performance in which she allowed an audience to take turns slicing her clothes until she was naked, the air heavy with imagined violence. It’s reasonable to suppose that straight men are responding to this helplessness.
Cody Stetzel, a poet introduced to Lana by his sister, says that not many people know he’s a fan, and that he rarely listens to LDR in public — but, whether or not he necessarily belongs there, she takes him “into her headspace.” Besides, he continues, “who hasn’t been sad and despondent about love and money?” She speaks for her generation, not just her gender. I zeroed in, though, on Stetzel’s other comments. Lana is “both off-putting and engaging,” he says, and his favorite song, “Off to the Races,” makes him “feel particularly creepy and thrilling.” It’s eye-opening that he volunteers this: “I don’t think Lana would like me very much.”
Without putting additional words in his mouth, I would suggest he’s articulated the core distress of enjoying music about a woman abused or killed as a straight man: It’s as if, when we listen to Lana, we are stalking her through the songs themselves, always at a cold remove and uncertain of what we’ll do next. I’ll admit it: My attraction carries a measure of guilt, the embarrassment of invasion. I ride my bike around town on a sunny afternoon, listening to Lana go full Walt Whitman on “Body Electric,” enthralled by “our” shared fantasia, and wonder if I’m imposing on her somehow.
That, I think, is why I find myself talking about Lana’s “atmospherics,” or the smoky texture of her contralto, the elements of her brand that conspire to a neo-noir, cat-and-mouse set of dangers. I’m supposed to want her, to chase her… right?
Wrapped up in a subterranean sound that strikes the ear as effortless, she makes this pursuit seem easy as well — too easy, like a trap. Actor and writer J.W. Harvey describes Lana’s music as “intensely poetic,” and yet “incredibly specific” in its narrative, “sometimes becoming so on-the-nose that her self-awareness was undeniable.” Whatever she does to appear defenseless, she is “completely in control.”
Connor Goldsmith, a literary agent, likewise locates authenticity in Lana’s curated, deceptively passive image: “I have gotten very defensive in the past when people have sneered to me that she’s a product, or whatever,” he tells me. “We’re all products. She’s a product that I think is coming from a very real place.” He says the honest way she plays with femininity, “taking joy in it, but also feeling some discomfort with it, with the vulnerability of it, with the way masculinity treats femininity — makes her really appealing for gay men who are navigating that space.” And, because heterosexual men are the seductive villains of Lana’s landscape, they are perhaps uniquely positioned to examine their complicity in female pain. “The work is autobiographical, but she uses that intensely personal experience to create something that connects with different kinds of people on broader levels,” he explains. (And there’s Whitman’s “I” again.)
The more I study Lana’s lyrics, the more I think about them, which must be the hallmark of any great art. In particular, I’m transfixed by a line that many have singled out from “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing,” a silky trip-hop number toward the end of Lust for Life: “Is it the end of America? / No, it’s only the beginning.” I’ve listened to her enough to recognize the accusation: The men destroying our country will forever get to say they are making it anew. To miss the horror of that declaration is to miss the shark swimming underneath the surfaces of all her songs, a mistake that in my view categorizes Lana’s dogged critics. When he got into Ultraviolence, Ross sent it to “all sorts of music people, and all of them were like, ‘I don’t get what the big deal is.’” That was telling a response. “To me this is often the thing with Lana,” he says. “People don’t get what the big deal is.”
I’m not sure I could put it into words myself.