These days, Lana Del Rey records every interview she does as a mode of self-protection against publications taking things she says out of context. The anxiety of citation has caused Del Rey to take major precautions; and yet, her new album Lust for Life is brimming with references, even more than her previous albums, from its title all the way to its final, Radiohead-riffing manifesto. Though they may not be attributed as citations, they are easily recognizable as pop canon: there are direct lyrical callouts to “Tiny Dancer,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and many more. The album also nods toward genres: the motorcycle revving at the beginning of the title track is straight out of teenage tragedy ballads like “Leader of the Pack.” How does the fact of Del Rey’s concern with citation, and with being cited correctly herself, reconcile with her borrowings from pop?
As I was listening to Lust for Life, I was also rereading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Nelson exhibits a transparency and generosity around citing her sources, especially in her lauded The Argonauts, and moves between different arenas of thought with ease while giving a nod to everything that led her to those places. Though this acknowledgement of citations feels different to what Del Rey is doing, the more I thought about Bluets and the work of Del Rey, the more connections I found.
With just a limited number of musical progressions and lyrical tropes to go around in the totality of pop music, one could argue that it’s impossible to make anything sound totally new anyway. And Lana Del Rey, the artist, is crafted from references. What she pulls in will offer you more to experience in her art if you know its provenance — for instance, I wonder if her adopted name is as evocative to people who’ve never heard of Delray Beach, Florida — but even if you don’t, as Anna Gaca put it in her review for Spin: “[O]ne needs little background in anything to appreciate her. She’s always borrowed freely, and on Lust for Life, she relishes her position as a kind of cultural medium.” The work of the medium is to reach across boundaries of time and space to deliver information to a recipient who might not have received the message without the medium’s aid. Each reference is a hole bored through to another layer of time and place, showing the fabric underneath. And with these references, Del Rey is creating the pop context she wishes for herself — asynchronous, collaged, a self-presentation with the right family — and transmitting it as a package to the listener.
The notion of referencing as family-making comes, of course, from reading Maggie Nelson. When reviews of The Argonauts came out, almost every one made reference to its groundbreaking nature as a memoir of queer family building. Nelson herself acknowledges the role that citing one’s sources plays in the family building that an artist working in this time participates in: “I think of citation as a form of family-making,” she has said. What is a family? A family, chosen or given, gives you an origin point. When your home is a text or an album of music, can you reach across time and compile a family to dwell there? The answer within the context of these two artists is most definitely yes. And the family gives you context and identity. “It wouldn’t be a stretch,” writes Moira Donegan in N+1, “to read Nelson’s method of citation as a way of constructing her identity as a writer: she cites Wittgenstein or Deleuze when she wants to be a philosopher, Dodie Bellamy or Eileen Myles when she wants to be a punk.” Still, even though their methods are similar, where Del Rey is repeatedly read as a borrower or a medium, someone more concept than creator, Nelson is always depicted as someone who actively constructs. But why the critical difference when their methods align? Is it because one artist creates their family in text, and the other in pop music?
Both artists are genre blenders — neither work in the constraints of what they’re “supposed” to be doing. Del Rey’s albums, with their sleepy six-minute songs, are decidedly radio-unfriendly. Nelson’s work never offers the reader a single interpretable medium: she combines academic research methods and personal narrative from memoir; she quotes philosophers and gives graphic descriptions of sex in the same breathless sentence. Emmett Rensin wrote in Vox that Nelson’s nonfiction work The Red Parts, while hailed as true crime and memoir, is neither; rather, it “by design gives a sense of a life, but not the story of one.” By blending personal and philosophical materials, Nelson creates something potent and relatable, theoretical and emotional — an “autotheory,” a concept she refers to near the beginning of The Argonauts. It gives readers a new genre by bending existing genres out of recognition, and readers respond with both emotional intelligence and intellectual curiosity to this new genre. Around the time when I began working on this essay, I found myself talking with someone I didn’t know too well, and the conversation turned to what we were reading. She gushed about The Argonauts, saying it was unlike anything else she had ever read, and that it made her feel personally seen; I had Bluets in my bag and heartily agreed. The popularity of Nelson’s brand of autotheory feels to me based on the emergence of a particular kind of reader — someone from the digital age, a millennial steeped in confessional tradition but hungry for intellectual rigor at the same time.
Maybe the same is true in music — maybe music that offers a kind of self-definition via genre blending creates powerful fandoms because this is the way that we have evolved as music listeners. Borrowing, sampling, and re-interpreting is not new in music, but in line with the idea of autotheory, Del Rey’s oeuvre truly comes alive when it’s looked at through the lens of the millennial experience. We live in a time when it’s supremely easy to find obscure music and have your sense of musical and cultural lineage handed down to you not by siblings or friends but by clicking “Related Artists” on Spotify, or by reading Wikipedia for mentions to known collaborators. Physical objects need not be traded. But to make a work sound cohesive and personally compelling is something that both Del Rey and Nelson do, and do well.
I keep mentioning millennials because this form of attribution and citation feels deeply millennial to me, and is, I think, part of both artists’ appeal to audiences of this age group. Digital natives have an ease around citation that those of us who recall slowly connecting to dial-up in order to make Geocities fan pages from behind gigantic, tan computers in the family room have a harder time understanding. Nelson is in her forties, and Del Rey is 31, which puts both at least in the AOL age group with me and my cohort. But for a large part of the fandoms of both artists, following hashtags is second nature. And on the whole, millennials seem to care less about the nebulous idea of authenticity than do their older counterparts do, particularly because citation is a form of self-curation, and coolness isn’t tied to originality, and fandom is no longer limited to physical location (attending shows with your friends) or objects (obscure albums or merch).
As Elizabeth Newton wrote in her essay at Real Life: “Through reference, we stitch ourselves into networks of thought. Online, these attachments might manifest as friendship, fandom, nepotism, or, not uncommonly, as self-promotion.” Aligning oneself with an artist or idea through publicly identifying with it — citing it — elevates you. Del Rey knows it and her fans know it. And as fans, they are passionate. Once, in those early days of Del Rey thinkpieces, I posted something online that compared imagery in her videos to videos from Amy Winehouse and Marina Diamandis. It was the Lana fans who discovered and vehemently disagreed with the piece, which I can hardly call a piece, and which I’d dashed off, figuring that the post would only be seen by my couple dozen music writer and poetry friends. My hasty words made it onto the radar of a fandom because its participants were actively seeking them out. The work in citation, in curation, is ongoing self-definition.
When your influences and fixations are constantly on display in your product, and your fans are so interested in your totality, what role does privacy play? Nelson, for one, reconciles it by staying largely off of social media. For her, the context in which she can be open matters: as she told Brandon Stosuy at the Creative Independent, “I’ve always been somebody really interested in the form of the book, what two covers do to seemingly raw expression.” Social media has none of the constraints, just an endless drip of a thought process with no beginning or end. And though Del Rey has a robust social media presence, she has also said she prefers to keep the private private. All the same, she has a documented history of fans getting too personal and invading her privacy: in 2015, a fan who believed he had a spiritual connection to her was arrested after he was discovered camping out in her garage. In “13 Beaches” — one of her more reference-free songs — she sings about going to beach after beach to avoid photographers before finding one that’s empty. Only then, from the melancholy setting of an empty beach in which she doesn’t have to be camera-ready, does she move on to some lyrics that evoke the desperation of the ended love affair that Bluets circles: “It hurts to love you but I still love you / It’s just the way I feel / and I’d be lying if I kept hiding / the fact that I can’t deal.” Saying something true ultimately requires the right context for it. That, in turn, takes work.