Illustration by Spencer Olson

Why Nostalgia for the Recent Past Is Rarely Cool

Lana Del Rey’s awkward, leaked lyrics about BlackBerry messenger prove it’s safer to glamorize the old days (or at least the ‘90s)

By releasing a track about sexting on BBM messenger last month, Lana Del Rey has unwittingly redrawn the lines of her own retromania. Never mind that the release was an accident, a leak, or that the song was recorded six years ago: impact, as they say, has greater value than intent, which is why it’s never really mattered whether “Lana Del Rey” (née Lizzie Grant) was “real,” so long as she kept on singing about an America too old for her to remember and too segregated for us to take seriously.

Theoretically it takes 20 years for a decade to become cool; in Lana’s universe, it’s superficially 40 or 50 years, with the caveat that the decade in question be set in Los Angeles, and that its players be rich, white, attractive and bored. Perhaps one of the reasons why “BBM Baby” remained unreleased: Its era is the mid-aughts, and the player is plain ol’ Lizzie, pining over some bad-news stud on her contacts list.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfZ3KRgM60o

“I be BBM-in’ you,” she sings. “Your typing is poetical /Red roses in your message, oh.” It’s embarrassing in the same way that your high school journal’s embarrassing; like Nelly using Excel to text Kelly in the video for “Dilemma” or Britney Spears’ goofy-even-then “Email My Heart,” it feels instantly ancient. Mobile phones are prized as status objects, but fleetingly so, meaning that our technological fetish devices can somehow end up being as embarrassing as our actual fetishes.

Liking an older model — unless it’s so old that it’s retro set-dressing — is deviant, and no matter how technophobic you are, preferring your phone un-smart is unpopular. An incredulous piece by Business Insider lists 12 Wildly Successful People Who Still Use Flip-Phones, as if to prove that the two things should not go together: “At a time when everything from confidential corporate emails to iCloud accounts are getting hacked,” it offers, “these successful people might have the right idea by returning to flip phones.”

They’re wrong, of course: a teenager would almost rather commit hara-kiri than be seen using a Motorola Razr. Meanwhile, “Sent from my Android” is, sometimes, as good as announcing you aren’t quite the A-class, which to a young millennial means the same kind of thing as social suicide.

This isn’t Lana’s first ride at the recently retro rodeo, even if it’s the most amusing. Her 2006 debut album shared a producer with The Strokes’ Is This It, a record that could’ve been the sound of 2001 personified (if it weren’t for the fact that the same year birthed Daft Punk’s Discovery). “Among the six or seven members of her entourage, there’s her bodyguard, formerly employed by Brad Pitt,” says a FADER cover shoot from 2014 (Brad Pitt being, until the last week or so’s news, so very 2007), “and her British stylist, Johnny Blueeyes, who during the shoot was prone to bursting into the room and crying, ‘You’re a staaaar!’” Enthusiasm is so — I don’t know, ‘80s? — and a pseudonym like “Johnny Blueeyes” is so sweetly circa-Myspace.

Also sweetly circa-Myspace is calling yourself “the gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” which Lana did, at least at first. What was once cool, in six years can start to skew corny. When it came out, Pitchfork likened Born to Die to “a faked orgasm” which, if you’re lucky or sensible, should be retro in and of itself. Is being hit and then treating it like a kiss retrograde? I can’t keep up with fourth-wave feminism, though as far as I can tell the general ethos is “our BDSM, our choice.”

Lana also chain-smokes, which is hedonistic in a way that does feel old-school in the age of the vape, and she doesn’t seem to diet, which is the wildest and most hedonistic pop star trait imaginable post-Britney Spears. Most outmoded of all is the idea that any girl alive is able to reinvent herself in secret. People existed, I’m sure, who didn’t know that Marilyn was brunette, but there’s nobody out there now who doesn’t know that Lana was born Lizzie, or that her father’s a millionaire.

She is forced to be self-aware, in other words, because there’s nobody more aware of her self than her audience, which was rabid in digging out just who she was before “Lana.” Recent history is embarrassing, yes, but it’s also less played-out than classic Hollywood iconography. Make yourself into enough of a fetish object, and it follows that, like a human flip-phone, you eventually run the risk of being embarrassing, too. Which is fine! It’s fine and good and interesting and clever to be embarrassing, if you own it. Lana often does, which is why her accidental-or-otherwise foray into the unhip recent past is perfect — it does the work of making her human. A BuzzFeed article calls her “aloof and unknowable,” but then what’s more knowable than an out-of-date phone being brought to the party?

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In an interview with Birth. Movies Death., David Robert Mitchell, the director of 2013’s It Follows — a horror movie made to look like the ’80s, stocked with cars from the ’70s, set in a time that feels either like now, or the very late ’90s — talks about a very specific device that appears in the film: a pink, clamshell-shaped e-reader made by a prop artist. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, in any era, and so everybody was desperate to know what it meant. As it turned out — nothing, except the very fact that it signified nothing: “You put that in a close-up and everyone goes, ‘Oh, it’s the iPhone whatever production model, I know when [this takes place].’ It pulls you out of the dreamspace.” In another interview, he added: “if you show a specific smartphone now, it dates it. It’s too real for the movie.”

Previously, all that Lana had tried to occupy — even when she’d accidentally landed in the retro-present — was the movie, or the dream-space (from an early interview with The Huffington Post: “all the good stuff is real but isn’t, myself included”). She’s exacting, if exhausting. In the FADER profile, she explains that: “it has been [her] lifelong ambition and desire… to have a defined life and a defined world to live in.” The same is true of her young fans, for whom a personal brand is tantamount to a bonafide identity — being signified by a shorthand is the latest American (read: Western) dream, so that having people call you by your Twitter handle in lieu of your name is a positive. Using BBM to reach your baby is not, which is why Lana’s leak is so interesting: Superficially, it’s at odds with her right-kind-of-wrong-year aesthetic.

Consider a woman who might be the anti-Del-Rey, Kim Kardashian — one who is, by all accounts, just as personable as she is attainable. Shopping this year for a new phone, she took to her Twitter account to bemoan the untimely and heart-breaking death of her BlackBerry:

Looking cool, for some people, is never the biggest concern. Nor is having a perfect, hip image. Britney was always going to remain the kind of sweet Louisiana doofus who would email a guy’s heart, whatever that means. Lana, by contrast, always seemed as if she’d only ever communicate with a rotary telephone, or by sending smoke signals via her Parliament cigarettes. Her BlackBerry is news, in other words, even if it’s not new or deliberate — adding a little outdated technology to her iconography, she has finally begun to seem a little more real.