I’ve been listening to Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence since its June release and here’s my review: gay conversion therapy is notoriously ineffective, but if I hear another Lana Del Rey song, I might switch teams on my own. Lana Del Rey makes me wish I were straight. It’s ironic, then, that the woman who first introduced me to her music is now my partner.
We’re as queer as they come but, when Lana croons, I can close my eyes and picture myself in the passenger seat of a Bugatti Veyron, cruising down the LIE to the Hamptons with “my bad baby by my heavenly side.” We’re the man-hating lesbians of right-wing nightmares but Lana somehow makes me want to “take a walk on the wild side” and “kiss [a man] hard in the pouring rain.”
Female pop stars have never had this effect on me before. Britney Spears made me want to “dance until the world ends” but she never made me want to give head. Adele made me cry but she’s not exactly a poster child for the joys of heterosexuality. And Katy Perry makes me want to cover my Trapper Keeper in Lisa Frank stickers but I still think that if I kissed a boy, I probably wouldn't like it.
Classic R&B singers like Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Gloria Gaynor used to sing stirring ballads to beloved men. But, these days, female pop music just makes straightness sound like a fun dance party that I wasn’t invited to. In this genre, only Marina and the Diamonds of “Primadonna Girl” fame have ever even approximated Lana’s unique brand of superhetero feminine materialism. Lana is one of a kind. Only she can make hetersoexuality sound like a life-saving elixir that I need to inject directly into my veins.
So what makes Lana the most effective advertisement for heterosexuality since, well, the cigarette? Her secret is simple. She doesn't take heterosexuality for granted. Where other female pop stars lean back and assume a de facto straightness, Lana leans into her straightness so hard that she makes it seem tempting, even to her non-straight listeners. While other pop stars simply celebrate heterosexuality, Lana describes it in such alluring detail that even the most devoted disciple of Sappho might want to give it a whirl.
And the devil of heterosexuality is definitely in the details. Whether she’s cooing “God, you’re so handsome / take me to the Hamptons” in “National Anthem” or praying “that at the gates / they’ll tell me that you’re mine” in “Born to Die,” Lana’s music paints a lush landscape of feminine yearning with the most meticulous of brushstrokes. Lana’s lyrics capture all the little details, both material and immaterial, that make straightness so alluring: cars and jewels, power and pleasure, strong hands and slinky dresses.
Lana doesn't just want men either, she needs them, she “gots a taste” for ’em, the older and badder the better. Lana doesn’t want to do whatever she wants at a Miley Cyrus party, she wants to be taken home from that party and fucked “in [her] diamonds and pearls.” She’s no standard-issue, card-carrying heterosexual; she’s heterosexuality’s chief acolyte and she worships at the altar of straightness with such reverence that I can’t help but kneel down next to her.
In “Blue Jeans” on Born to Die, for example, Lana swears her everlasting fealty to her man with a hyperfeminine desperation that would seem exaggerated coming from anyone else: “I will love you ’til the end of time / I would wait a million years / Promise you’ll remember that you’re mine / Baby, can you see through the tears?” But Lana’s heartfelt plea undergoes a sudden and mercurial transformation into an equally feminine jealousy: “Love you more / than those bitches before / Say you’ll remember, oh baby / Say you’ll remember.”
Lana’s love of men has made it to Ultraviolence unscathed. In “West Coast,” the album’s lead single, she all but prays to her man: “I can see my baby swingin’ / His Parliament’s on fire and his hands are up / On the balcony and I’m singing / Ooh, baby, ooh baby, I’m in love.” This is a woman who wants men, who craves men. This a woman who can’t even bring herself to objectify men because her adoration is so overpowering: She doesn’t want to own that cigarette-smoking hunk in “West Coast,” she wants to sing to him.
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, the social theorists who coined the now-in-vogue term “heteronormativity,” define it as an array of social forces that give heterosexuality an “invisible, tacit, society-founding rightness.” Practically speaking, this means that straight people can walk down a street without raising any eyebrows; their sexuality is unquestioned, unmarked, even invisible. My Lana-loving partner and I, by contrast, usually turn a few heads when we hold hands in public because our sexuality is questionable, marked, and hypervisible.
Most female pop stars play directly into the “invisible rightness” that surrounds heterosexuality. When Taylor Swift sings “you belong with me,” she also has the ubiquitous “best friends-become-lovers” meta-narrative singing backup behind her. Katy Perry definitely likes her teenage dreamboat enough to want his “hands on [her] in [her] skin-tight jeans,” but I’m not quite sure what makes him so appealing. I guess he’s hot or something? As a woman who only sleeps with women, I need these things spelled out for me, and female pop stars usually leave me wanting.
Katy Perry makes me want to cover my Trapper Keeper in Lisa Frank stickers but I still think that if I kissed a boy, I probably wouldn’t like it.
But not Lana. Lana speaks a language that I understand. She’s heterosexual, to be sure, but she’s not heteronormative. In a funny way, Lana is almost too straight to be heteronormative. She’s aggressively straight, tragically straight, sometimes even comically so. Where other female pop stars let you silently assume their heterosexuality, Lana sings like she’s marching in the straight version of a pride parade.
And she’s only gotten prouder over the years. In the late aughts as she struggled to find her tone, she recorded dozens of unreleased tracks, ranging from folksy Jewel-esque ballads to pop princess anthems like “Queen of Disaster,” in which an eerily peppy Lana sings: “You got me spinning like a ballerina / You’re the bad boy that I always dreamed of.” Yes, this early Lana also had an eye for a good bad man but she hadn’t yet acquired the profoundly tragic and lustful air of 2012’s Born to Die.
The Lana Del Rey of Born to Die and Ultraviolence never lets her sexual orientation pass by unmarked. She overenunciates her heterosexuality, like a mother teaching her daughter how to say “bad boy” for the very first time. The opening lines of “Blue Jeans” read like a recipe for a man who will piss off your parents: “Blue jeans, white shirt / Walked into the room, you know you made my eyes burn / It was like James Dean, for sure / You’re so fresh to death and sick as cancer.”
Sure, Katy Perry might want to “see your peacock” but Lana wants to ride it down the street while doing a parade wave. Taylor Swift “knew you were trouble when you walked in” but Lana walked out the door with trouble and never looked back.
By making heterosexuality as marked as homosexuality, Lana explains straightness to me in a language that I can understand. She makes explicit all of its hidden wonders; she teaches them to me, song after song, video after video. She makes heterosexuality as hypervisible as my own sexuality and, in so doing, opens up the possibility of mutual understanding between us. No one tries as hard as she does to convince me that men are handsome, that sex is delicious, and that fast cars are the best place to experience both of them.
And nowhere is Lana’s persuasive rhetoric sharper than in her now-classic “Video Games,” a song that captures the quotidian essence of heterosexuality so perfectly in its lilting verses that I can’t help but be seduced by it. In the song, a sexy man pulls up in his car, “open[s] up a beer,” and plays video games with Lana, who’s curled up beside him on the couch, wearing “his favorite sun dress” and “lean[ing] in for a big kiss” between rounds.
“It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you,” her voice swoons.
I don’t ever want to cuddle next to a man on the couch, especially a man fast on his way to a second beer. I’d rather play video games in my pajama pants while my partner watches a TV show on her laptop. And I rather like having a romantic relationship unobstructed by the stark power dynamics that inevitably come into play in heterosexual partnerships.
But when I hear Lana’s sleepy voice drift through “Video Games,” I’m not gay anymore. My head is resting on my man’s shoulder in a dimly-lit den, full of idle thoughts as he clears a level of his game. I pass him his beer as the next level loads. My hand rests on his chest as he takes a sip.
“Heaven is a place on earth with you,” I whisper. “Tell me all the things you want to do.”
And then I close my eyes and listen to him tell me his big dreams.