Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Polydor/Interscope). The best that could happen to this whirlpool of an album—freezing up only with its last number, “The Other Woman,” a torch song written by Jessie Mae Robinson and a hit for Sarah Vaughan in 1955, which is structured, which is obvious, and which compared to everything else here sounds artificial and fake—is for it to sell its requisite five million copies and then be completely forgotten. Erased from public memory, so that generations from now, when someone opens a closet and finds—along with the Lana Del Rey hologram projector and the Lana Del Rey Barbie—a CD and an old box to play it on, that person will wonder what it is, and hear it at least as clearly as anyone living now, but in a world where our frame of reference is completely gone. Everything I’ve read about this record is about its words, literal-minded, Philistine readings that assume that the I in any song is a real person, and the same real person: What is Lana Del Rey telling us about herself? But no good song—no good creative work of any kind—is literal. Even if the artist starts out thinking she knows exactly what she means to say, the rich text, as I once read, resists not only the reader but the writer as well, and intent vanishes into the swirl of the songs. The music is gorgeous, and uncanny—words matter only when they play a musical role. You can hear the singer fall in love with the staircase she makes out of the repetition of “I fucked my way up to the top… fucked my way up to the top”—it’s not a confession; it’s a rhythm. Again and again, a chord comes down, breaks like a wave, flows back, and you keep listening for that moment to repeat itself, but it never quite does. Lana Del Rey knows how to wait out a song, and this album may know how to wait out its time.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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