Pet Sounds: A series in which teaching staff and students from the English Department reflect on a piece of music or song. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Headspace” series.] [Revisit the “Ongoing” series.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]
From the music video, “Born to Die”
Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die
One manoeuvres through life along two extremes: self-preservation and self-annihilation. The first option is decidedly conservative, afraid of change, of things unfamiliar. The second is an unreservedly liberal imagination. On Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die album, that imagination is one of sexual liberation. Her songs are filled with references to sex, drug use and abuse, and alcohol. To open oneself up to all experiential possibilities necessitates the willingness to accept pain, and possibly death, as a consequence. To shy away from pain means the inability to experience the rawest pleasures. We pity the girl who never lets her hair down; we are repulsed by the girl that goes to parties every night. If one is forced to make a choice between the two, in the case of “Born to Die”, the persona chooses the latter. To use the metaphor of a candle, one that burns twice as brightly burns up twice as fast. Given that every candle will eventually burn out (’cause you and I, we were born to die’), why not go down in a blaze of glory?
The appeal of Lana Del Rey lies beyond her quotable lyrics, her catchy tunes, or the glamour of Lana herself. It is a certain temperament that she exudes. Hers is a temperament wholly given over to melancholy, a sentiment exemplified by loneliness. Sharing unhappiness with another lightens the burden, yet physical closeness with another does not guarantee that that burden becomes lighter: ‘Sometimes love is not enough / And the road gets tough/ I don’t know why’ (“Born to Die”). Most songs on her album point to a desire for connection, and subsequently, the failure of finding that connection. The price she is willing to pay becomes morbid and fatal even: ‘I can be your china doll / If you like to see me fall’ (“Without You”). Even summer, a time always thought of as bearing and giving life, is subsumed by the death drive. The lyrics, coupled with the video for “Summertime Sadness”, narrate a story of two lesbian lovers. One dies by committing suicide; the other lives on, constantly reminiscing: ‘Even if you’re gone I’m gonna drive.’ More haunting is the line ‘Think I’ll miss you forever / Like the stars miss the sun in the morning sky.’ The stars never see (nor can they survive) the sun in the morning sky. When one appears, the other ceases to be.
The desire to get high, through sex/alcohol/drugs, is but a craving for physical lightness, as consciousness grows heavy. Still, a childlike innocence seeps through, amidst these abusive and risky activities the persona engages in: ‘I was so confused as a little child / Tried to take what I could get / Scared that I couldn’t find / All the answers honey’ (“Born to die”), ‘We were two kids, just tryin’ to get out… When we grew up, nothing was what it seemed’ (“Without You”). Rather than a refusal to grow up, the persona demonstrates that the accumulation of experience does not necessarily lead to wisdom. Some experiences, rather than expanding us, take things away from us instead, leaving us smaller, more numb, wounded. If art is a form of catharsis or therapy, then Born to Die shows the human incapacity of triumphing over wounds that have cut too deep. Victory is admirable, yet there are battles that cannot be won. It is not giving up, Born to Die gives in—to sadness.
Kwun Kiem Foeng is an MALCS (MA in Literary and Comparative Studies) graduate (Class of 2017) at the Department of English.