Of a Melancholy-Apocalyptic Tone Newly Adopted in American Culture

by Daniel Hartley

The thesis of this blog post is fairly simple: Lana del Rey’s “Video Games” is a cultural symptom of the demise of the American Empire. Her very name is an amalgam of the golden-age Hollywood actress, Lana Turner, and of the 1980s Latin American cult automobile, the Ford Del Rey. The video for her song “Video Games” is awash with postmodern retro nostalgia and a painful yearning for that black and white iPhone-style ‘authentic’ past. But it is not your average postmodern nostalgia. Usually that entails the unself-conscious, historically amnesiac appropriation of a bygone fashion for the purposes of celebrating a present which has forgotten what went before it. The point is that usually po-mo celebrates; it doesn’t know where it came from, but it loves to party nonetheless. The difference here is that del Rey doesn’t seem too chirpy. Paz de la Huerta is seen staggering drunkenly and despairingly to her knees, the very allegory of a nation whose best days are somehow behind it. It’s as if since the fall of the Soviet Union – aided by a few years of patriotic fundamentalism post-9/11 – the US has been running on air, refusing to look at where it came from and where it’s headed, but now, in the midst of a global financial meltdown and gradually weakening hegemony, it is undergoing the return of the repressed.

Lana del Rey captures the moment when nostalgia mutates from a painless symptom into a full-blown disease. Even commodities themselves are beginning to wonder how they got here. Their surface sheen used to deflect prying eyes, but now the glow is slowly becoming a self-questioning opacity. “Video Games” is sickly, almost post-human; when faced with a historical situation which delves to the very core of things, its attempt to keep on singing the romantic lovers’ 50s pop-song becomes a parody of helplessness. Melancholy and apocalypse vibrate at the heart of all that once was gold. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” she sings; but who is this you? The video never shows the mockery of a postwar macho male whom she superficially addresses. The you becomes rather the Lacanian Other: “Che vuoi?”, we ask it, “what do you want from me?” God is on his knees, Money and Fame have zombiefied, Success is beyond cosmetic repair: “what do you want from me?” is now historically unanswerable. The corpses of soldiers and natives mount in Afghanistan, oppressed peoples are throwing off their shackles the world over, America is sinking to its knees, desperately preparing one last handful of murderous forays – so many imperial death throes. Lana del Rey looks out across the wasteland, singing the first of decades of swan songs.

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