They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
-Sylvia Plath, “Stings”
Even amidst the buzz surrounding the release of Adele’s 25 this month, I’m still caught up in two other albums released by major female artists this year. Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Rey both (like Adele) released their third major-label albums in 2015. Florence and the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful and Del Rey’s Honeymoon each mark a sonic departure from the albums that preceded them. Beyond that, Florence Welch and Lana del Rey are two of my favorite female artists, and listening to these two albums on constant repeat—Florence’s since May, Lana’s since September—has led me to wonder what these two very different singer-songwriters have in common, and why both have a similarly dark, magnetic appeal for me (and, I suspect, many others). Placing their latest albums in the context of their work as a whole, I can see that part of what’s intriguing about both of these artists is their blurring of the lines between authenticity and performance, mythmaking and confession. Both perform femininity and embody it in ways alternately troubling and inspiring.
Florence and Lana have both used their music to construct elaborate self-mythologies. While Adele rests her golden voice on universally relatable lyrics, Lana and Florence create worlds you can get lost in. Lana’s world (amusingly charted in one diagram) is a retro-glamorous L.A. (or occasionally NYC) peppered with allusions to Whitman and Nabokov, and peopled with tough guys who always end up leaving the heart-shaped-sunglass-wearing, soft-ice-cream-eating starlets who love them. Florence’s world is one drawn from ancient myths, fairy tales, and ghost stories, saturated in the lush pigments of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and ruled by powerful forces—the ocean, the elements, the supernatural. Both of these world also have uncomfortably violent undercurrents, which Florence’s latest foregrounds and Lana’s latest submerges.
Photo via Twitter @lanadelrey
Lana’s new album is one long old-Hollywood swoon from the title song on, with a sedate, almost languid tempo and no sign of the pop sensibilities 2012’s Born to Die displayed on songs like “Radio.” Honeymoon leans even more heavily on jazz influences than 2014’s Ultraviolence. But Lana has also never seemed so assured, so musically at home, so canny in her use of her voice as an instrument. The album is also virtually free of references to herself as “insane” or “crazy,” which is a refreshing change. What’s even better is how clearly in control of the whole project Lana is. One certainly can’t imagine any manager or producer telling her, “You know what we need to really climb those charts? A spoken-word interlude in the middle of the album, with you quoting T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding.” Yet that’s exactly what she does.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (HBHBHB), meanwhile, is Florence Welch at her rawest, most personal, and thus most vulnerable yet; the eerie whimsy of Lungs (2009) and the spectacular gothic drama of Ceremonials (2011) is replaced by a kind of rock-goddess ferocity as Florence bares her soul.
I went to see Florence in concert this past June; the last time I had seen her live was at the same venue in 2012, when she was promoting Ceremonials. The difference was striking. The second time around, if my memory serves, her beloved harp was hardly present, and her once-ubiquitous flowing gowns made no appearance at all. Instead, Florence was a woman in a white suit, recovering from a broken leg and perhaps a broken heart, burning with such energy and vitality that she almost re-injured that leg during the performance. At one point in the evening, she told the audience that since she’d last been on that stage, she’d been on a sort of journey, weathered storms, done some “slightly self-destructive” things. The sense she gave of a journey of self-discovery is echoed in the videos for HBHBHB’s songs, which form a sequence she titles “The Odyssey,” ranging from “What Kind of Man” to “St. Jude” to “Ship to Wreck” to “Queen of Peace/ Long and Lost” to “Delilah.” Some of these videos also suggest the self-destructive behavior that she referenced—heavy drinking, toxic relationships—and which, it seems, she is seeking to leave behind. When Florence declaims with righteous indignation against the man who “let me dangle/ At a cruel angle,” and describes “trying to cross a canyon with a broken limb” (“What Kind of Man”), she seems to record an epic emotional journey of which she is the protagonist. Ultimately, as the use of a literally doubled self in many of the album’s videos suggest, her a journey has been one of self-reconciliation after a time of self-division.
While I found Florence’s emotional honesty throughout that concert utterly compelling, I was surprised by the last song she performed as an encore, the song she said “started it all”—I presume she meant it was the first she wrote for her first album, Lungs. It was one that I had always found troubling and anomalous, and so was surprised to think of it as the origin of Florence’s musical journey, rather than a slightly uncomfortable detour. The song was “Kiss with a Fist,” a rollicking celebration of a tempestuous relationship—in fact, of mutual domestic violence, despite the bizarrely cutesy video. “A kick in the teeth is good for some/ A kiss with a fist is better than none,” she sings in the chorus.
In some of the songs on HBHBHB, Florence seems to have returned to that raw depiction of interpersonal conflict. In the video for “What Kind of Man” she is shoved from one man to another in what must be an intentionally unsettling sequence. She lifts the veil on the reality of that addiction to danger, that fascination with death, which in most of the previous two albums was veiled in metaphors of cosmic struggle and surrender. Florence had presented herself as a sort of ritual sacrifice in Lungs’ “Rabbit Heart.” Ceremonials documented an obsession with drowning, particularly in “What the Water gave me,” which alludes to Virginia Woolf’s suicide: “Lay me down/ Let the only sound/ Be the overflow/ Pockets full of stones.” She has figured herself time and again as surrendering, letting love or the ocean or death engulf her. But these songs are less disturbing because we’ve become (problematically) comfortable with at least the metaphor, or even the image, of the aestheticized drowning of a woman. The videos for “What Kind of Man” and “Ship to Wreck” return us with a jolt to the grittiness of “Kiss with a Fist,” forcing us to confront our discomfort, to try to make sense of it.
Lana’s works are similarly challenging in their apparent romanticization or glamorization both of death and of domestic violence. The video for the title track on Born to Die ends with her bloody corpse after a car wreck. On 2014’s Ultraviolence, she sings in the title song’s chorus: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” In the video, Lana is dressed in bridal white, and given the song’s violent content, she looks as much a sacrificial victim as Florence in “Rabbit Heart,” without the surreal trappings. The video for “Pretty When You Cry” (Ultraviolence) is more graphic, and more like Florence’s “What Kind of Man,” in portraying Lana as the victim of what appears to be sexual assault.
Lana’s inhabiting such roles foregrounds the question of agency that’s so tricky to pin down in her work. Questions about the limits of agency, and whether agency equals female empowerment, haunted most of the songs on Ultraviolence, as they moved between masochism and aggression. Lana assumed the role of dangerous antiheroine on songs like the frankly titled “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” and “Money, Power, Glory,” alongside the victimized woman of “Ultraviolence” or “Pretty When You Cry.” But the roles blurred together, as even “Ultraviolence” begins with a flourish of femme fatale menace: “He used to call me D.N. / That stood for deadly nightshade/ Cuz I was filled with poison/ But blessed with beauty and rage.”
Some of the same ambiguity characterizes Honeymoon. “I like you a lot/ So I do what you want,” Lana sings on the album’s catchiest track, “Music to Watch Boys To.” That sounds like a passive stance, but as the song’s title (and video), suggest, Lana also assumes the traditionally male role of the gazer in this song, with men the object of the gaze. And while Honeymoon’s torch songs seem to lack the aggression present in the previous album, it’s there if you look closely. The first clue is that Lana seems genuinely fed up on “High by the Beach,” telling a presumably former lover, “The truth is I never bought into your bullshit/ When you would pay tribute to me.” The video for “High by the Beach” starts by featuring what appears to be Lana at her most passive and vulnerable, lightly clad and restlessly wandering a beach-house while a stalker’s helicopter hovers relentlessly outside her window, hoping for a glimpse. But then something shifts. She runs outside, digging up a guitar case she’s buried among some rocks on the shoreline. The helicopter swoops dangerously low, and at first I thought she would try to run for it, just Lana and her guitar, fleeing her voyeuristic pursuer. Instead, she clambers back to the balcony of her beach-house, opens the guitar case, and takes out not a guitar, but a very large gun. In what must surely be one of the most gloriously cathartic moments in music video history, she shoots down the predatory helicopter, which falls into the sea engulfed in flames. It’s a caution to all those who would underestimate Lana: Watch out for the gun in the guitar case. Lana’s music has been a weapon all along.
As Lana’s dramatic gesture in that video suggests, we should not be fooled— she’s very much in control. The same is true of Florence. Both artists may raise uncomfortable questions about relationships that they never satisfactorily answer, and they may sing seductively of self-destruction. Yet they always seem to emerge from the darkness they commit to song with greater grit, grace, and even humor, and in a position of ever-greater creative power and control. Likewise, both artists may sing about the men and boys who infatuate them and do them wrong, but those males are stock characters—paper bad-boys– who hardly matter, except as catalysts for the tidal force of Florence’s and Lana’s feelings. Those male muses, real or fictional, can hardly hold our attention next to the mercurial, charismatic presences of Lana and Florence. These are women who cannot be contained by the roles they play; they move fluidly from femme fatale to angel to demon to victim to goddess, but always transcend these roles. They both suggest that they have been through things that have given them a particularly female wisdom to impart. “I know what only the girls know,” Lana coos in “Music to Watch Boys To.” And we believe her.
They both remind me a little of the poet Sylvia Plath, who constantly used her work to self-mythologize. I know, it’s not cool in feminist circles to love Plath anymore—–she’s not a “good feminist role model” because she committed suicide and her work toys with madness and self-destruction. Her poems are precise as a surgeon’s scalpel, never wallowing in self-pity, but she’s been lumped in with a particular type of performance of female pain that we’re supposed to have moved past. It’s the type that seems to get blood and emotions on the carpet, the type that gushes. As Lana says in the opening lines of “Honeymoon”: “We both know it’s not fashionable to love me.” It’s not fashionable to love Plath, and perhaps for the same reasons. But Plath was the consummate artist when it came to one of the most crucial tasks for any artist: turning pain into beauty. She was also, as I mentioned, a masterful self-mythologizer, emphasizing in her various reincarnations the female capacity not just for self-destruction but for transcendence and rebirth. We can imagine Lana, like Plath, conflating beauty and woundedness, hungry to “marry that kind of hurt.”[i] But we can also imagine Florence, standing triumphant with Plath’s Lady Lazarus, proclaiming: “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”[ii]
[i] Plath, “Tulips in July.”
[ii] Plath, “Lady Lazarus.”