Something private enough to feel like a hard-won prize

For ten years, love her or hate her, Lana Del Rey has been an aesthetically perfect Lana Del Rey

Something private enough to feel like a hard-won prize
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

Hello. Today we have two great guests returning to Hell World. Karen Geier, who previously wrote about the mass graves found in Canada’s residential school system and the country’s continued allegiance to Nazi monuments, as well as its response to Covid, gets us up to speed on what is going on with the Canadian “truck convoy” protests.

Before that Rax King writes on the ten year anniversary of an amazing, beloved, and misunderstood album, Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die. You may remember this excerpt from her recent book Tacky on the band Creed which I shared in here a while back.

No neither of those things have anything to do with one another, and sure perhaps it would have made more sense to have sent these out as two separate newsletters, but from day one the Hell World promise has always been this: I will never follow editorial best practices.

Real quick from me on Lana though, which I got into on Twitter the other day, and inspired me to ask Rax to write this. The bag on Lana when she emerged with Blue Jeans and Video Games, which were rightfully received as captivating and brain-breaking for a lot of us at the time, was that she was an industry plant, whatever that means, and therefore bullshit and inauthentic. Maybe so! But goddamn did the marketing guys just absolutely knock it out of the park with that one. Coke and McDonalds or whoever could never. Hers was an almost immediately and entirely realized world-build that rewrote culture in a similar way that Tarantino did I think. Pastiche and allusion to old Hollywood in a completely unique feeling way, but, and I feel dopey saying it like this, from a feminine perspective. Agency for the noir moll! Such an obvious concept they had to invent it. Either way, her music, her “whole thing” wouldn’t have landed as hard, or lasted as long as it has, if the songs and performance weren’t just really, really good, which they were then and remain today. If you haven’t listened in a long time, maybe ten years, go back and see how you feel. We’ve all changed a lot since then. Most things have.

Did you miss this Hell World from the other day by any chance? Check it out if so. I liked it a lot.

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

Something private enough to feel like a hard-won prize

by Rax King

It’s a weirdo move to open my thoughts on Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, turning 10 this year, with an unrelated joke from 30 Rock. Indulge me: network executive Jack is talking to TV writer Liz about Deborah, the breakout star contestant from his successful reality show MILF Island. “That Deborah is amazing. Have you heard her story?” he asks, enraptured by his star. “Before she was cast on MILF Island, she was just a struggling actress living in L.A.”

We laugh at the banality of this “amazing” story, really the most obvious one. Of course she was just a struggling actress living in L.A. Scratch most reality stars and that’s all you’ll find. The joke isn’t the pointlessness of the story, but that audiences demand a story at all. It’s not enough for an entertainer to be famous because they’re entertaining. We crave a juicy biography, a struggle more significant than that of paying for voice coaches and head shots. Authenticity.

I don’t plan to call back to this reference at the end like a good essayist would, by the way. Unlike Lana Del Rey, I’m not skilled enough at maintaining a consistent performance for that.

Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die is both commercially and critically beloved — now. Around the time of its release, though, critics weren’t so sure. Many critics certainly praised the singer’s warm, lush vocals and distinctive melodies, but many others were repulsed by Del Rey’s remote affect, moony lyrics, and inauthenticity. Their word, not mine. Questioning a musician’s authenticity is crank shit, the culturally educated version of that guy on your Twitter feed who thinks the CIA invented everything he doesn’t like. (I’m also not going to prove my point by linking to the many 2012 reviews, blogs, and think pieces that made this tiresome argument. You can find them if you want, along with the retroactive rejections of the argument, and rejections of the rejections, and God bless you if you benefit from the whole shitstorm in any way, because I certainly haven’t.)

I don’t listen to Born to Die in a thoughtful, mea-culpa, feminism-is-more-complicated-than-journalists-said-it-was-in-2012, 2022 way. I listen to it in the 2012 way, and in 2012 we whorish girls were bewitched. Even the ones who didn’t like it couldn’t shut up about it. The question among boring jerkoffs was still whether Lana Del Rey was, in any way, real — a question whose load-bearing argument was one interview where Del Rey attributed her stage name to the machinations of “managers and lawyers” and the fact that the music she’d released under her legal name had been pulled from shelves mere months after its release. To a certain conspiratorial type of brain, this was an unacceptable level of corporate interference. Critics weren’t quite so tedious in their analysis as to call her a sell-out, but the implication was there.

That wasn’t my Lana Del Rey. For my burnout coevals and me, her music and aesthetic slotted right into our own. We wore four-knuckle rings at the same time that she did, bounced on men’s laps with ones stuffed into our panties while she did the same in her short film Tropico. Her false eyelashes were our false eyelashes, her nail art our nail art. I mean that literally — I wasn’t the only stripper in the dressing room hooting with recognition at the Chevron French tips on Del Rey’s hands in the “Born to Die” video.

This is not to assign any sort of stripper consensus to this album, as I was friends with just as many strippers who felt ripped off when they saw this much more famous woman aping their style in her videos. One of Lana Del Rey’s chief skills seems to be inspiring equal and opposite passions. But me, I slutted around with rich older men as she did, and because we were doing it at the same time I never felt ripped off myself. Her version may have been more elegant, less mercenary, more sugar baby Tumblr and less Backpage ad, but the gestures were all there and they were more convincing than not. If Del Rey’s sudden stardom really was all marketing kayfabe, I would posit that her marketers knew us cold.

It wasn’t quite that deep, of course. The pop machine operated as much as it does in the presentation of any star, but Del Rey was the music equivalent of Deborah the struggling actress from L.A. Her “story,” inasmuch as we the general public can really know it, is all Lower East Side open mics and unsuccessful meetings with label execs — the same story of breakout pop stars everywhere. Before that, it’s the story of a kid who sang in choir and wrote songs with the six guitar chords she knew. The Mariah Carey story, the Shakira story, the Lady Gaga story. The story of a struggling actress living in L.A. who works and gets lucky and pours money into herself and eventually, improbably, succeeds.

There are people who don't like this story. Such skeptics have heard it too many times before, and in this age when our entertainers are expected to perform a shocking degree of psychological transparency, it’s missing an emotional hook. It’s no fun to believe that Del Rey is fundamentally a person who did well at her job and got a promotion. It wasn’t enough to simply believe that Del Rey’s songs were very, very good or that Del Rey herself was very, very beautiful. Doubters smelled something inside of her and, wolves baying at the moon, they chased every trace scent they could find. If the music was interesting, they argued that it had been manipulated by experts at every stage, wasn’t rightly hers. If her lips were full and pouty, they demanded to know whether a medspa had designed them. Her confessional lyrics alone couldn’t slake the bloodlust. These people wanted the story behind the story, something private enough to feel like a hard-won prize.

I was a stripper then, more than familiar with the hostility of a public that wanted to see only the parts that I was hiding. On the street or at the grocery store, it would be exciting for a woman to be naked. At the strip club, where nudity was humdrum, many men went fracking for a more-naked nudity than was available. The law required me to wear pasties and a G-string, and so certain customers needed to see beneath them. I used a stage name for my own safety, and those same men demanded my real one. Look: how often are you, non-famous and probably not that interesting, your barest and most authentic self? What if your job was to sing in front of a camera or on a stage, with hordes of people scrutinizing your every move, hoping to jam their fingers into a crack in your armor? Could you be that more-naked-than-naked self then?

I have said little about Del Rey’s actual music, ostensibly the thing I love about her. (That thing is certainly not her public self, Jesus Christ. At the very least she’s guilty of putting her foot repeatedly and churlishly in her mouth, at worst of racism and mid-pandemic thoughtlessness.) What is there to say that scores of critics haven’t said better? Well, I’ll try: her voice sounds the way a cup of Valrhona drinking chocolate tastes. Listen to “Video Games” now; it will literally warm you. The arrangements on Born to Die can lack in dynamism, but in standout songs like “Born to Die” and “Radio,” they’re the ideal wall of sound for the Spring Breakers generation. Del Rey made both woozy romanticism and its subsequent nihilism so fun. She dies a lot in those early music videos. She’s abject in them, begging, mewling, crawling, or else so deadpan as to unsettle. The effect is as if the video in The Ring was made by your high school’s most stylish D student.

One word that keeps appearing in reviews of Del Rey’s music all the way back to 2008 is “cinematic,” and when a number of music reviews use the same non-musical word to describe a sound, it’s worth asking why. If music is cinematic and that’s good, what does it mean? If it’s cinematic and that’s bad, what does that mean? “Cinematic” seemed to mean, in different contexts, baroque, self-indulgent, multi-layered, dishonest, chintzy, glamorous, shallow, beautiful, stirring, symphonic. All of this is true of Born to Die. It could be, ultimately, just an album — a real hot take factory of an album, but an album nevertheless, as good as the music on it and no better.

Well, we cherished the music, my friends and I, but what we really cherished was the package: music, videos, style, one item inseparable from the next. To divorce one of the elements that comprised Lana Del Rey from its fellows, even in attempting to critique it, is to miss the opportunity for enchantment. Dare I say that I smelled jealousy in the way that some people called her a pick-me or sneered at the devotional eroticism of her lyrics? At the very least, some sort of hostile misapprehension was at work, a failure to understand how an adult woman in the 21st century could still think this was romance — all this man-pleasing and lash-batting. Every time a woman imitated it or a man liked it, the hostility doubled. Maybe I only saw it this way because it looked so much like the clenched way women responded to me when I told them I was a stripper, especially if I happened to do so in front of their boyfriends. Del Rey was letting the side down with her dirtbag Betty Boop act, just as I was by performing the same retrograde eroticism for cash.

Yes, I re-litigate old conflicts with other women using Del Rey’s music. That’s what it does best!

To me, it didn’t matter whether the “act” was real or fake. Del Rey got it. Or to be pedantic one last time, maybe she got it and maybe one of her handlers did and maybe, instead, we were fortunate enough to see the results of a creation, maybe the last creation, that everyone got. You don’t have to love Born to Die; for every critic whose analysis of it was all about that dreary fucking authenticity, there were others who simply found it repetitive, undercooked, or boring. To this day, the album maintains a respectable but unexciting score of 62 out of 100 on Metacritic.

The question I seek to answer isn’t whether Born to Die is good — after ten years, you already know what you think. I don’t care whether she’s authentic, either, or whether her “story” is. I mostly try to ignore her story, the cracks in her armor, the racist holes she kept digging herself into on Twitter before deleting her account, the visible jitters during her infamous Saturday Night Live performance. That stuff detracts from the package, and the package is first rate. Maybe we’ve been getting the real Lizzy Grant for ten years; maybe we’ve gotten nothing but a label-polished Lana Del Rey; maybe her voice is a glorious instrument; maybe it’s too bogged down in rococo arrangements and fluff. Does it matter? For ten years, love her or hate her, Lana Del Rey has been an aesthetically perfect Lana Del Rey. Maybe that’s all we need to know.

Find more from Rax King here. Her book TACKY: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer is available now.

Lars Hagberg / AFP via Getty Images

How Did Canada End Up With a Nazi “Trucker” Rally in its Capital City?

by Karen Geier

Canada is a place that prizes appearing nice over just about everything else, and that’s including limited time promotional Timbits. It’s a place where people will try to shame you with niceness into being more nice. It’s all a big fat fucking lie.

My last dispatches for Hell World have discussed two issues — our response to Covid and our history of cozying up to fascists — that have both contributed to where Canada found itself this weekend: watching as the news cack-handedly tried to make a story out of a “truck convoy.” It was a convoy, to be clear, that had a lot more mid-price crossover vehicles than trucks (only about 110 of the “50,000” that were promised showed up) and precisely zero members of Canada’s largest trucking federation involved. Still, the scene in Ottawa yesterday was a grim one indeed. The “protestors” (consisting mostly of anti-vaccination freaks and Dominionists) flew Gadsden, Confederate and even Nazi flags. They talked about overtaking Parliament and forcibly removing the Prime Minister, and in an extremely twee nod to “Let’s Go Brandon,” they also flew custom flags and wore garb that read “F*ck Trudeau.” Yes, the Nazis were too scared to tell a screen printer to put the word “fuck” on a t-shirt.

How did we get here? Well, it starts with decades of neoliberalism and an entire country’s history of systemic racism. But for now we’ll pick up the story from where I previously left off: The Federal Government of Canada, which recently gave $4 million dollars to a Nazi memorial (one of many in the country, mind you) and was also caught training their troops alongside Ukrainian forces with Nazi ties. When news of renewed tensions in Ukraine hit, the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, a self-proclaimed “proud granddaughter” of a known Nazi collaborator, and who has a slightly murky story of how her family left Ukraine, released a pretty weird statement universally supporting Ukraine, much like she did with a hard right coup in Bolivia.

Canada loves to flirt with fascism (and sometimes show it a little tiddy for good measure.) Because of this and its nice dovetail to the Liberal Party of Canada’s devotion to neoliberal capitalism at all costs, even in the midst of a massive public health crisis, it has paved the way for systemically laundering the idea that a bunch of religious crank weirdos from the West of Canada deserve to be treated with respect instead of derision.

Adding to these preconditions is the two year hellish nightmare that has been Canada’s Covid response. To call it a crazy quilt of regulations does a grave disservice to the Old Order Mennonites (famous for their meticulous quilting.) I’ve written here previously on how, provincially speaking, we were driven to “Royally Fucked” status due to our Covid mismanagement. We’ve since been overtaken by Alberta, where the “truck convoy” originated.

Alberta for too long took the let ‘er rip approach to Covid, and had to take more drastic actions before Christmas once they realized that Omicron was not a lie the devil was telling them. But therein lies the rub: Canada has mostly conservative Premiers in charge of provinces, and conservatives don’t actually want to govern and provide services. They want to funnel money and favors to their friends for when they get out of office and want to collect. The Prime Minister has known this all along and has neglected to do anything to bring the provinces in line or to use emergency powers at his control to execute a unified, country-wide plan to battle Covid. Because of this, and the reasons mentioned before, people are getting pissed. There is a leadership vacuum, and the worst possible actors are using that to push reactionary agendas and say even crazier shit than they were saying before the pandemic.

So, we’ve made it nice for the Nazis, we’ve fucked up our response to a once in a 100 years pandemic, and the government is “too nice” to tell these total knobs to “fuck off on ice.” Now at the tail end of the coldest month of the year, a bunch of dweebs, fortified by some of the worst sandwiches on earth, made to the tune of “O, Canada!” set off to the nation’s capital under the guise of protesting “vaccine mandates for truckers.”

There’s only one problem with that: Truckers are some of the most highly vaccinated people in the country. The Trucking Alliance estimates about 90% of truckers in Canada are vaccinated because… it’s a condition of entering the United States of America. 90% of Canada’s population live within 200 kilometers of the United States border and most of our goods are imported from our neighbors to the south. This was a non-issue from the start.

But hey, it was worth a try right?

Turns out it was! Just for more banal reasons. The “truckers” have raised a staggering $9 million dollars in funds, which will now no doubt be funneled into more right wing Christian/Dominionist causes, and likely into the coffers of the conservative politicians who showed up to support the “truckers” on the hill.

Here’s where it gets very Canadian. While this non-protest by non-truckers was happening on Parliament Hill, it was the same weekend as the 5th anniversary of the Quebec Mosque Massacre. Families who wanted to mark the event in Ottawa had to cancel because they were being harassed by the “truckers.” Meanwhile, actual truckers protested a deadbeat employer for non-payment by picketing outside the employer’s home. This story, and the Mosque story, funnily enough, weren’t deemed as newsworthy as the non-truck, non-protest.

At this point, you might be asking yourself how do the progressives in Canada feel about all this? In addition to starting the absolutely moronic hashtag “FluTrucksKlan,” they mostly made jokes about their perception of the level of poverty or attractiveness of the protestors. They also got EXTREMELY MAD about the defacing of a statue of Terry Fox, a Canadian hero who attempted to run across Canada to raise money for Cancer Research (he died doing it) and the Tomb Of the Unknown Soldier (which is a weird relic from WW1, which Canada absolutely did not need to participate in save for the fact that it is a Dominion of the British Empire.) In short, they got very petty about the people doing the protesting, and went full conservative/police state as a result of seeing someone put a scarf on Fox’s statue.

For the record the statue is made of stone, it’s not actually Terry Fox.

Even with the outrage regarding Terry Fox’s statue, the lesson being learned hasn’t been “hey our Prime Minister promised us pharmacare and has never delivered, and that right there is an affront to the legacy of Terry Fox.” Instead it’s been “look at these disrespectful goons.” Not very nice indeed.

Real quick: In Canada, if you are diagnosed with cancer, your “treatment” is free (meaning the devices, the room, the time, and the staff) but your drugs (chemotherapy infusions included) are not. This leaves Canadians who can’t afford a sudden expense of thousands of dollars to wonder where that money is going to come from. I don’t think Terry would appreciate knowing that decades after he died trying to improve our lives. Nonetheless, to be Canadian is to understand the intense societal pressure to never demand anything get better. It’s pageantry over policy at all times.

A lot of comfortable white Canadians will look at what happened this weekend and say that “this isn’t my Canada,” solely referring to the truckers making a big loud mess in Ottawa and causing property damage to things they know they’re supposed to care about. What’s being missed in that is that Canada has always been an insanely racist country that has always been pretty chummy with fascists, and has no problem laundering egregious ideas if they don’t impede capitalism (funnily enough: fascism never impedes capitalism.)

So how will Canada grapple with the issues presented by this convoy? Politicians from the Left and the Right will go on TV and denounce the property damage and the flags, as if this all happened in a vacuum, and then the Liberals will use this footage to fundraise off of and campaign on in the next election (where they will once again promise to deliver pharmacare, but for realsies this time, they totally promise, dude.) It’s the rudeness to property, to statues, to mythology, that will be called out, and not the substance of any of our real issues bubbling under the surface that will get the attention. And while that’s going on, once again, Canada will neglect to truly reckon with its tolerance of fascists until it’s too late.

Karen Geier is a writer in Toronto. Find her on Twitter.