Joshua and I were sitting at the birthplace of Charm City Jukebox, nursing a couple of whiskey laced cocktails so strong, we screwed our faces up and incanted the bar’s name after the first sip.
“I’ve got a rule now,” I said. “When it comes to alcohol, I do what I want.”
Joshua raised an eyebrow. When two people with a genetic history of alcoholism hang out at a dive bar, and one claims to have a new idealogy on drinking that allows for whatever, it doesn’t sound promising.
“It’s not what you think,” I said. “It’s not a free pass for debauchery—it’s the opposite. If I don’t want to drink, I don’t. If I want wine and everyone wants whiskey, I drink wine. I don’t take shots. I do what makes me comfortable. I do what I want.” There it was, a final screw you to peer pressure and other people’s nonsense. I’m 26 years old. We all stopped drinking Kahlua in someone’s basement a decade ago. The after school special is over. And me? I do what I want.
Why does this feel so revolutionary? Because I can’t think of another time in my life where I’ve so clearly stood up for myself. I wish I had a really engaging story for you about the time I became a vegan, or the time I got a mohawk, or any other number of alternately cool and virtuous things I could’ve done to get a handle on my personal agency. I’ve stood up for myself in the past, sure, but it’s always accompanied with a burning streak of anxiety, the bone shaking worry that I will be unliked or in danger or, worst of all, wrong. This time I have a clear grasp on what I need, and I’m going to get it. I’m going to look out for myself. I’m not going to worry too much about what that means for anyone else. It’s an idea that started with passing up refills or picking white over red, but sometimes ideas borne out of trivial circumstances and decisions are powerful. I’d like to be this way all the time, not just when I’m saying “no thanks” to an IPA.
If I were to apply this novel way of thinking to my music collection, I know where I would start: With a public declaration of how much I like Lana Del Rey.
I like Lana Del Rey. A lot.
I know there’s something patent leather polished about that image of hers, a little plastic and certainly affected, but I’ve never been able to figure out why that matters. It’s not like she’s unaware of what she’s doing, and don’t most artists cultivate an image? And why are we so hyper focused on accuracy and authenticity from musicians*? These aren’t our friends or loved ones. For all we know, Elvis Costello goes home and wears nothing but sweats and rimless glasses. Maybe he ditches the nervy, hyper literate British songwriter the second he steps off stage and spends half his week quoting nothing but football stats and jokes from late night Comedy Central movies. Maybe Lana Del Rey goes home and is a tee-totaling health nut lesbian, with zero interest in bad men and late nights. Or maybe she’s just Lizzy Grant. Who knows? And really, who cares?
Lana Del Rey’s albums feature one ear weavil after another, and they’re rife with silly bits and baubles that are, well, fun. Really fun, like the musical equivalent of sneaking out your bedroom window to go to the kind of party you only see in movies. There’s the breathy sex kitten delivery and the world weariness and the kitschy Americana (“Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother” is certainly the title of one of those terrible old movie star hybrid paintings that are always in diners, where Buddy Holly and James Dean split a strawberry shake). There’s a closet full of references to party dresses and bad men galore, there’s wild adventures and the thrill of escape. It’s catchy, ridiculous, and sometimes raunchy. Is some of it cringe-worthy? Sure. The opening lines of “Cola” are pretty unfortunate. The constant references to calling older beaus “daddy” gets a little weird.
But I like it. I like all of it. I like the Walt Whitman inspired chorus in “Body Electric” and the fast car freedom of “Ride.” I think “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” are powerful, evocative pop songs that will get better with age. And I can’t stop listening to “National Anthem” and her “Blue Velvet” cover no matter how hard I try.
Lana Del Rey is easy to make fun of and ignore; but, I find her music just as easy to like, and that’s what’s most important to me. All you get out of music snobbery in the end is stop signs and road blocks holding you back from listening to something you might really enjoy. Every critic who I like dislikes Del Rey and can’t get enough of Beach House. I still like them and respect their opinions, but I disagree on both counts. You could say that this is an example of my poor taste in music, you could say I’m not trying hard enough or I don’t get it, you could even say I don’t have the right to write about music after this kind of declaration. I would argue that I’m someone who likes pop music and finds Beach House boring, and that there isn’t much more to it.
The new year is around the corner, and if you want to embrace your own tastes and ignore the crowd, here’s my advice: Skip the music snobbery and embrace music gluttony. Listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, and as much of it as you possibly can. Like what you like, dislike what you dislike, and be open to changing your mind (There’s a Beach House song on my December So Hot Right Now). And if you’ve been avoiding Ms. Del Rey because you saw her on SNL last year, or because you were encouraged not to like her, give her a try.
* There’s actually a great book about the roots of our obsession with authenticity in art, specifically in music: Check out Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone! by Craig Schuftan.