Contemplating Lana Del Rey

Born to Die 2

 

I’ve never known quite what to make of Lana Del Rey. I know for sure that I love her voice, her music, and I love her all the more for the fact that she’s weathered a backlash over her looks, her past and even her name. She’s a 26 year old, sometimes-mainstream, Hollywood era-styled glamour darling whose songs are just that bit too melancholic to rest in the upper echelons of today’s brashly extroverted music chart for long.

But I have never been quite sure whether to take her at face value. Lana Del Rey is a pseudonym, a character created by the woman otherwise known as Lizzy Grant. And though the distinction between artist and creation is subtler than in the case of, say, Brian Warner / Marilyn Manson, I still believe there’s a real divide there. Which begs the question; what has Lana Del Rey been created to say?

A big part of the Del Rey package is about nostalgic Americana; references to James Dean, Coney Island, diet mountain dew et cetera get thrown into the mix throughout her debut album, Born to Die. Lana herself is a self-styled “gangster Nancy Sinatra”, her looks embodying all the dark glamour that label implies. But, on listening to her debut album, one thing jumps out at me more than anything else; all these songs are about desperate, hopeless love.

This is not necessarily a problem, of course. Love is an interesting and multi-faceted thing. But there is a definite theme here; of 15 tracks, 10 make reference to either being in love with the object of affection forever or being nothing / dead without them. 6 of these specifically refer to the other as male, although interestingly the video for “Summertime Sadness” suggests a relationship with a woman. A sampling of lyrics from this album; “Only worth living if somebody’s loving you”, “I can be your china doll if you want to see me fall”, “Love you more than those bitches before”, “No matter what you did I’d be by your side”, “We don’t stick together ‘cos we put love first”.

There is a fine line between loving devotion and blind, romantic naivety; the latter being the ideal breeding ground for abusive relationships or, at the very least, an erosion of autonomy. This is why I struggle to be entirely comfortable with some of the above lyrics. However, while they are perhaps not straight-up ironic, I take these songs to be an invitation to think a bit more about our expectations of the feminine, as skilfully unpacked by Tara Cartland in this article. This ambiguity, coupled with the narratives that Lana weaves around these concepts and her impressively versatile and emotive voice, keep me listening.

Some have taken against Lana for her eagerness to objectify herself on this album, what with the copious lyrical references to what she’s wearing and how she’s done her hair. What not so many seem to notice is the way she also objectifies men & presents an equally narrow version of masculinity as she does of femininity. Whether it’s the “tough man” with a “cocaine heart”, gold chain and cigar, the “sorta punk rock” James Dean-alike or the all-American guy who drinks beer, plays video games and holds Lana in his “big arms”, the men in her songs seem to be bound just as tightly by gendered expectations as Lana herself.

In November last year, Lana released a new edition of Born to Die (titled the “Paradise Edition”), which contained 8 new songs. While continuing the wistful, noir-ish feel of the original album, none of the new tracks portray such a deep investment in a man or the trappings of gender or romance. In a welcome development, Lana seems to have taken a more autonomous, self-aware, not to mention sexual turn. The self-referencing line “like a groupie incognito posing as a real singer / life imitates art” particularly makes me smile.

On Sunday night I was lucky enough, thanks to a kind friend with a spare ticket, to see Lana perform at the Hammersmith Apollo. Before it started, we wondered if the concert might be a bit subdued. After all, for all their brilliance Lana’s songs can’t exactly be described as rabble-rousing. I’d also heard reports that she was nervous and faltering on stage. I needn’t have worried.

Lana was a competent, practised performer, dominating the stage in a quietly assured fashion. She seemed equally confident hitting all the right notes and addressing the audience, whom she took the time to collect gifts from. The impressive ensemble of musicians behind her provided a heavier texture to many a chorus with pounding guitars and stabbing drums and the four-piece string section particularly came into their own during the spoken-word intro to “Ride”. There was also a pianist and a keyboardist.

Lana’s theatricality extended to the stage-set, which to me looked like the foyer of a sleazy, aging hotel, complete with palm trees and lion statues. An art deco-framed video screen at the back of the stage alternated between shots of Lana and evocative, pieced-together video montages.

Seeing Lana live has added another dimension to my appreciation of her music and aesthetic. I’m looking forward to hearing her forthcoming second album, which she says has “moved on to a more spiritual place lyrically […] It’s a little more stripped down but still cinematic and dark.”

I can’t wait to hear what she has to say next.

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TV Review; “Black Mirror”

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Charlie Brooker’s been on my radar for a while now. I first came across him on the weekly show “Newswipe”, a show that both lampooned and analysed recent news coverage and that my partner found hilarious. Charlie is a biting, sarcastic comedian but listening to him, you get the sense that a strong and questioning intelligence lie behind the amusing outbursts. I was impressed by the way that he avoids using easy targets for cheap laughs or shock value, the way some comedians do.

Then I heard about a TV show he’d created, called Black Mirror. The first series of three episodes aired in December 2011 and I must admit they passed me by. But since adverts for series 2 started appearing on TV recently, I read up on the shows. They sounded fascinating; a far cry from comedy. The programme looks at the current technology we have and extrapolates it slightly into the future, predicting what life and society may shortly be like, in Charlie’s words, “if we’re clumsy”. The results are something in the vein of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, updated to take account of our new social media and its potential repercussions.

The “Black Mirror” title has a clever double meaning; it is a dark reflection of society, it is the black, reflective surface of your TV or computer screen.

The first three episodes explored such ideas as Government control, reality TV shows and the way we can now record parts of our lives so that they could live on forever. They explore the boundaries between technology and humanity and what happens when those boundaries are blurred.

On Monday, I sat down to watch the first episode of series two, entitled “Be Right Back”. This title; an off-the-cuff, text-age acronym, juxtaposes brilliantly with the gravity of the story, which focuses on Martha, who tragically loses her partner, Ash, in a car crash. A well-meaning but obviously unhappy friend introduces her to a service that gives bereaved people the experience of feeling that they are talking to their lost loved one. It does this by scanning all the information that the deceased has ever put out on the web; facebook, twitter, forums, everything. It starts as an online chat, then evolves into phone calls which use Ash’s voice, and goes from there…

The show was beautifully put together. I did worry that there may be jumpy moments and grisly scenes in an attempt to be “hard-hitting”, but there weren’t. Everything was understated, which only reinforced the unease of the escalating situation and the deeply felt emotions of the characters. The show left me thinking about the traces of ourselves we inevitably leave all over the web and questioning the morality of the service offered to Martha. Ostensibly, it was there to help people like her, but surely in the long run all it did was interrupt and prolong the grieving process?

To me, it was also a comment on capitalism. There was a telling moment when the “Ash” on the phone informed Martha that there was another level to the service, but “I won’t lie, it’s expensive…” Exploitation of grief in the name of profit; a grim topic indeed, but a perennial one.

In conclusion, if you want a thoughtful, insightful comment on our times that sends chills down your spine when you realise how easily our world could morph into the world on the screen, check out “Black Mirror” without delay.

Writing success!

So, I’m published!

Well, kind of.

50 of my finest words are now gracing the Nottingham Festival of Words’ blog. This is because I was shortlisted, only one of nine from almost two hundred, in their recent flash fiction competition. There was no theme, but entries had to tell a complete story in fifty words or less. My story, “One Final Kiss”, is the last on the page and I’m pretty darn proud of it!

Flash fiction is a challenging format but one I really enjoy because it forces you to consider each and every word and teaches you to tell a story in the most economical way you can. I find it essential, with flash fiction, to imply context and back story with just a few strokes of the keys, because you just don’t have the space to spell it all out.

My other writing has been going well lately, too. I completed the Nanowrimo challenge in November and reached the hallowed 50,000 wordcount. I’ve now got that manuscript up to 62,000 words and am determined to finish it in the near future.

I will leave you with some words of wisdom from that literary genius, Neil Gaiman, to inspire you on your writing endeavours. I’m still holding out for those elves, though.

In praise of positivity

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These days, it’s easy to be despondent. Economic crises, climate change, natural disasters and conflicts seem to be everywhere you look. Here in the U.K, public spending is being cut and politicians keep reminding us that worse is yet to come. Unemployment here is falling slowly, but is still at 8.1% (that’s 2.59 million people out of work).

All this considered, the natural reaction would seem to be despair. “Isn’t the world in a mess?” goes the refrain, “Aren’t people terrible?”. It’s an easy reaction to worldwide events, and at first glance, somewhat justifiable.

Of course, it’s a good thing to be clear about the problems facing the world. How else would we begin to fix them? Hiding in a rosy world of denial is not the answer. However, it is a dangerous situation when the problems of the world paralyse us into inaction. It is precisely because there are so many problems that I believe we should all do our bit to help fix them. And that’s pretty hard to do if you’re mired in despondent apathy.

There are many people currently struggling in desperate situations, including extreme poverty. I am not suggesting that positive thinking is their answer to all their problems. However, there are many people who are not in such a desperate scenario; they are the ones who are in a position to help. Instead of doing their bit, however, there’s often a sort of fatalism; “what’s the point in trying? I won’t make any difference.”

Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest seems to be generally accepted to be prevalent in society; those with more money, power and influence will inevitably dominate those with less and there’s little we can do about it without putting ourselves at risk. However, Darwin also wrote that “sympathy is our strongest instinct, stronger than self-interest”. In order to look after our vulnerable young and to ensure our long-term survival, humans developed the excellent strategies of co-operation and compassion. These instincts exist in all of us, whether or not we choose to act on them at any given point in time.

When we see someone else suffering, the same part of the brain is activated as if it were us suffering. In addition, the part of the brain responsible for nurturing is also activated. Not only that, but experiencing compassion and helping others leads to mental and physical well-being for ourselves. It is obviously something we are designed to do.

You can see these tendencies in action in the charitable sector. We live in a capitalist society, where pursuing your own financial interests is necessarily encouraged. However, despite this, in the 2010/11 tax year UK adults donated £11 billion (£11,000,000,000) to charitable causes (that’s more than the UK wedding industry is worth annually, apparently). During the same year, 10.6 million people volunteered (gave their time for free to good causes) at least once a month. If we were all inherently selfish, these figures would make no sense at all.

Positive, prosocial emotions spread more rapidly than negative ones, so acting positively and compassionately can help to start a ripple effect of people doing good things – but you’re only likely to do this if you believe things can get better.

Taking all the above into consideration, I believe that optimism is not the fool’s choice; it’s the compassionate choice.

Movie review: The Lorax

WARNING – POTENTIAL SPOILERS ALERT!!

Having previously enjoyed “Despicable Me” immensely, my brother and I decided to go and see “The Lorax”, as it is made by the same people and the trailer made me laugh every time I saw it.

The Lorax was originally a book by Dr. Seuss, he of the cat in the hat fame. However, I have never read  any of his books so I was not sure what to expect. Would it be one of those films where all the best bits were in the trailer? I am always a bit uncertain about children’s films, which have the potential to meander about in a way that is mind-numbingly tedious for adults.

However, aged 27 and 32, we were not disappointed! The Lorax was sweet, funny, visually luscious and contained a timely environmental message. It is set mainly in Thneedville, a seemingly perfect town where everything is made of plastic, but there are no real trees and the air is so polluted that the inhabitants each willingly pay for their own supply of fresh air. The hero of the story sets out to find out how this happened and aims to find a real tree.

He discovers that once, the land was full of colourful, fluffy trees and equally fluffy animals. This all changed when a young man rolled up, looking to make his fortune and exploiting all the natural resources in the process. He was not a bad person but simply could not foresee the outcome of his actions. “I’m just building the economy,” he sings, “how bad can I be?”

Needless to say, a heroic adventure ensues.

Of course, there was a hearty supply of cute, furry animals (which would have looked even more amazing in 3D I’m sure) and slapstick moments, but I was very impressed with the maturity of the underlying message. The environmental focus reminded me of Pixar’s “Wall-E” & the Japanese “Princess Mononoke” by Studio Ghibli.

My only gripe was with the love interest; the hero initially sets out to find a tree only because the girl he likes wants one. This element really seemed to jar with the rest of the film and I think it would have underlined the activism message a lot more clearly if he had set out on the quest off his own back. I found the girlfriend character stereotypical and superfluous, her main skills being flicking her hair, staring inanely and asking other people to do things.

Overall, however, The Lorax was a great movie about the seductive dangers of consumerism and the joys of furry trees. It has my seal of approval!

Trying times

Image by Spirit-Fire

Lately, I’ve been practising meditation. This has been a difficult undertaking. The aim of meditation is to quiet your mind, and mine is a mind that does not like to be quieted. In fact, since learning to become more aware of the thoughts in my head, I have been amazed by just how many there are in there. Most of them aren’t very useful or productive, either. For the first few months, my meditation attempts resulted in more failure than they did success, which would have been disheartening were it not for the lady guiding the sessions. It’s difficult for everyone at first, she said, the trick is to keep trying. Every time you try, your brain starts to understand that you want it to quiet down. I’m an impatient person and tend to avoid things I’m not very good at, so my natural instinct was to give up. This time, though, I really wanted to stick at it.

I realised that even after my very worst meditation sessions,  I would feel calmer and more peaceful. As I continued to give it my best shot, over time I gradually noticed that I could still my mind for a minute or two at a time and then for even longer. I’m still no expert but my success rate is now much higher and I know it’s something I want to continue improving upon.

This has been a valuable lesson. In the past, I always saw the “trying” period of any new activity as the boring part that had to be endured before achieving full competency. Through my experience with meditation, however, I’ve realised that the practice is vital. You sit down to meditate but your mind wanders off, so you bring it back. It wanders off again, so you bring it back again. Normally, our minds go off in all kinds of haywire directions and we do nothing to control or still them. So simply by making this effort, you are already practising a big part of meditation. Every time you do it, you are changing your brain.

I mean this literally. Throughout most of the 20th century, neuroscientists tended to think that the adult brain was fairly fixed. Recent findings, however, show that many aspects of the brain remain changeable throughout adulthood (this is called neuroplasticity). The very fabric of the brain can be altered by a person’s behaviour; new, efficient connections form between the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) when we practice something often and with our full attention.

This concept has been demonstrated by Buddhists monks, who have participated in experiments at the University of Wisconsin. The outcomes showed that long or short term meditation practice results in changes in brain regions associated with attention, happiness and emotional control, even when not meditating. The more experienced the meditator, the more pronounced the changes.

This is a lesson I am going to apply to my writing. I often get frustrated when a story doesn’t come out exactly the way I want it to straight away. The writer Malcolm Gladwell theorised that in order to excel at something, you first need to practice it for 10,000 hours. This may seem a bit over the top, but I can believe it when it comes to writing. Now, however, I’m not going to see these practice hours as a dull apprenticeship, because I know that as with meditating, the act of doing the writing, however imperfect, will change me, bit by bit, into a better writer.

I swear I can feel those new neural networks forming already.

Ugliness and Samantha Brick

Image by Retrogade Works

On Tuesday, a lady called Samantha Brick had an article published in the Daily Mail about how tough it is to be beautiful. Although men fall at her feet wherever she goes, she says, women hate her because of her beauty. She claims she has lost friends and been passed over for promotions by jealous female bosses.

In Wednesday’s Daily Mail, Samantha published an article about how upset she was about all the nasty comments her original article had received and stated that the reaction just goes to prove her point; everyone’s jealous of her.

It’s true that a lot of the article comments are themselves ugly, but considering the content of her article, sadly, I don’t think this is particularly surprising. Samantha claims she simply wanted to enter into “a debate about why we can’t compliment women when they are good looking”. However, if this is true, would it really have necessitated her telling us about the time the pilot of the plane she was on sent her a bottle of champagne, or the four other similar anecdotes that pepper the article?

The haughtiness of tone was more pronounced in her second article when she stated “in the U.S. you’re expected to look good and you’re rightly applauded for it.” Samantha seems to feel that looking good is some kind of moral imperative, that she is somehow doing the world a great service when she puts together her impeccable outfits. I enjoy putting together outfits for special occasions now and then but can’t understand why anyone would value outer beauty this highly.

Many commenters were quick to point out that they didn’t find Samantha attractive, but I can’t help but feel that if the same photos had been published alongside an article about a woman who had an eating disorder and thought she was unattractive, the comments would instead have been full of compliments and support. People respond to how they feel they are being talked to, and Samantha’s article seemed to say “not only are you not as attractive as me but you’re jealous and bitter, too.”

Her statement “I could never have imagined the fury my piece would spawn” is, if true, incredibly naïve. Because after all, there are not many subjects that unnerve western women quite as much as their appearance. With a UK beauty industry that in 2007 was worth £3.7billion and in 2005 spent £45million on advertising makeup, and surrounded as we are by doctored photos of beautiful women, perhaps it isn’t that surprising that we are sensitive about how we look.

Recent studies found that 44% of women have negative feelings about their looks when they don’t wear makeup, a third wear makeup every single time they go out and 60% wouldn’t consider going to work barefaced. I would never condemn anyone for wearing makeup (I sometimes wear it myself), but it worries me that the majority of us seem to do it for negative rather than positive reasons. I think this says a lot about the culture that we live in and the pressures that surround us. When a highly competent woman can be forced out of her job for refusing to wear makeup, that sends the rest of us the message that we simply are not good enough as we are.

A common reason for wearing makeup seems to be to improve others’ perception of you. However, my philosophy is that someone who would treat me significantly better if I was made up is not worth my time in the first place. It’s a philosophy that Samantha Brick might do well to adopt herself.