“This is a song about an old Welsh witch…”
That’s how Stevie Nicks often introduced live performances of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” These opening words, paired with her penchant for long, black dresses, fueled rumors that Nicks herself was a witch. “In the beginning of my career, the whole idea that some wacky, creepy people were writing, ‘You’re a witch, you’re a witch!’ was so arresting,” Nicks told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “And there I am like, ‘No, I’m not! I just wear black because it makes me look thinner you idiots.’” Thirty years after the rumors, Nicks was cast as a witch in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Coven, now seemingly at peace with her place in pop culture. It should come as little shock, then, that Nicks appears on Lana Del Rey’s latest album Lust for Life. After all, if there’s one musician whose career Del Rey’s has emulated for the past seven years, it’s Nicks’.
When Del Rey burst into the mainstream in 2011 with “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” she described herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” And her disaffected go-go dancer aesthetic was indeed straight out of the “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” playbook. Throughout her career, she’s added tinges of hip-hop, a la Debbie Harry, and some west coast rock ‘n’ roll in the vein of Courtney Love, but at her core, Del Rey has exuded a nostalgic, hippie-nomad appeal perfectly in line with Nicks’ Fleetwood Mac days.
Del Rey faced her own striking criticism around the release of her 2012 debut album, Born to Die, and accompanying Saturday Night Live debacle. It’s still amusing to see the breathless prose about Del Rey’s talent when just a handful of years ago she was a punching bag for music critics. There was much ado about her origins and her former life as Lizzy Grant. She was labeled a fraud, manufactured as a pin-up girl by her managers. Her early career coverage was dominated much more by her personal drama than the merits of her music. Perhaps being in a group with men protected Nicks from these types of misogynistic attacks, but there was certainly no shortage of tabloid gossip about Fleetwood Mac’s cocaine-fueled writing and Nicks’ tumultuous relationship with bandmate Lindsey Buckingham.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2014, Del Rey had begun to adopt a fatalistic approach to her career. On the backlash her debut album received, she claimed, “I wish I was dead already,” and that she “never felt any of the enjoyment” of her album’s success. Though she mused that she’d already said all she had to say with Born to Die, Del Rey quietly worked on follow-up album Ultraviolence. As she ditched her affected ‘50s style and dug more into the darkness of pop music, Del Rey finally found her niche—and critics agreed. Ultraviolence was incredibly well-received and its moody, foreboding West Coast vibes (there’s even a standout song titled “West Coast”) called to mind nostalgic Americana just as much as it felt like the soundtrack to Sharon Tate’s final hours in Los Angeles.
Perhaps this explains the kinship between Del Rey and Nicks: both embraced the allure of darkness, albeit in different ways. Nicks donned all black and looked how you imagined a witch to be, whereas Del Rey resembled one of the Charmed sisters, her witchcraft and malevolence hidden behind a plastered smile. Lust for Life has been dubbed her “happy album” because of its abundance of features and the big smile she sports on the album cover, but look beneath the surface and the music is as chilling as ever. “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing” is an appropriately melancholy song for our ever approaching end of days. Even “Lust for Life,” a radio single penned with The Weeknd, seems like a song devoted to lovers who cling to sex as a retreat from the horrors of the world. At another point on the album, Del Rey even intones: “I’m cryin’ while I’m cummin’.”
Nicks speaks fondly of her strongest bond in Fleetwood Mac—with fellow singer and songwriter Christine McVie. “We shared rooms, did each other’s makeup and lived on Dunkin’ Donuts,” she recalls, elucidating the bond of female friendship that kept both women sane during the more hedonistic days of Fleetwood Mac. It’s this relationship that’s mirrored on “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” Nicks’ duet with Del Rey. Both women sing about love and grief in the chorus—“But we’re just beautiful people / With beautiful problems, yeah / Beautiful problems / God knows we’ve got them”—and it’s a perfect marriage of two beguiling artists who overcame darkness in their pasts and came out stronger and altogether bewitching.
Del Rey’s origin story involves “homelessness, biker gangs and being caught in the eye of a media hurricane,” and it may have led her to disappear into Americana to heal herself, but now she no longer relies on it. “I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing ‘Born to Die.’ I’d rather have static,” Del Rey told Pitchfork recently.
The recent election was a wake-up call that’s caused Del Rey to embrace her own magic. She told NME that she placed a hex on Donald Trump after the inauguration and realized “words are one of the last forms of magic and I’m a bit of a mystic at heart.” It’s why Del Rey’s collaboration with Nicks encapsulates the strengths of both women’s careers and overall dominance in pop culture. Thirty years ago Nicks would have never appeared on American Horror Story; she was too defeated by the constant discussion of whether or not she was a “witch.” But now, she says: “I’m way too old and I’ve been through way too much to give up an opportunity like this. I’m fearless. I’m not afraid of anything. Don’t you ever be afraid of anything.”
As Nicks sings along with Del Rey on Lust for Life, the 32-year-old artist’s strongest work yet, you can tell Del Rey is anything but afraid.