Is There Revolution in Lana Del Rey's "West Coast"?

Lana Del Rey's newest single "West Coast", from her upcoming album Ultraviolence (2014), is not the most accessible song in the world lyric-wise. Listening to it for the first time, however, I felt like she was trying to convey some sort of message about political revolution underneath the breathy vocals and surf-rock composition. Despite its summer-festival sound and laid-back vibe, there seemed to be something more poignant brewing underneath. So I decided to take a closer look to see if there really was some kind of revolution going on in Del Rey's new album. Its title -- Ultraviolence -- seemed promising, referring as it does to the disturbingly "revolutionary" ideas bantered about by the character of Alex in Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange. Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed with the outcome of my close reading: revolution turns into a form of "selling out" as the poetess embraces the glamor of Hollywood as an escape rather than working to change the political situation her people suffer under.

I guess what first made me feel like maybe this was a "revolution" song was the underlying story of two Cuban lovebirds trying to escape their oppressive political reality. The poetess makes mention of their nationality in the chorus with the Spanish phrase "Y Cubano como yo", which translates to "and Cuban like me". And then there's the other line from the oft-repeated chorus: "His Parliament's on fire and his hands are up / On the balcony". This made it seem like the song may be advocating for political upheaval in Cuba, and maybe it really is. However, the revolutionary aspect is undercut by being subsumed into the experience of a concert. The young man's actions of "swaying" and holding his hands up become mere dance movements to the poetess's music. The "Parliament" that is on fire can be seen now as simply a metaphor for the man's rational mind, perhaps, or his pragmatic judgement. While listening to the poetess's music, the man is freed from his analytic mind and allowed to experience an emotional pleasure, supposedly free from the constraints of the practical world. Music has the power to make peace, not war, by allowing us to stop thinking about our problems and drift away on the hypnotic waves of island jams. Peace and love, glory, hallelujah.

But is this what we really want from the arts? Do we really want music that is going to lull us into submission by washing away our sincere worries and cares in fuzzy feelings? Is the role of music, and art in general, to be just a form of entertainment, an emotional massage to knead out the stress of the work day, an anesthetic for the mind that drains thought away and replaces it with ephemeral feelings? I don't think it is. Art should be entertaining and enjoyable, I agree, but, if that's all it is, it becomes nothing but a form of pablum to feed intellectual and emotional children. In fact, we tend to become children by exposing ourselves to it. I found it interesting that one of the lines of "West Coast" says, "I guess that no one ever made me feel I'm a child". The poetess is referring to the man's love for her in this line, but it fits nonetheless. There is a danger, in both our desire for entertainment and our desire for love, to feel like we deserve to be coddled, to be given only the fuzzy feelings. In both scenarios, we are reduced in maturity. Someone who is treated like a child in love will not learn to reciprocate that love as a mature person; art and entertainment that treats us as children who need to be mindlessly amused works to make us mindless. In a sense, art -- and love -- should inspire within us some kind of revolution, whether it be on a political/economic/social level or a personal/psychological/spiritual level. The power that art -- and love -- has to touch us on a deeply emotional and spiritual level should not be uncoupled from its ability to speak to our minds and inform our decisions. Both should strive to make us better people who are able to make better decisions for ourselves, those close to us, and the world at large.

But how did we get to here? How did the poetess get from this artistic chance at revolution to a sedate swaying to the theme of fuzzy feelings? Where did the fire go? Well, in large part, it was wholly misdirected. The verses of "West Coast" deal largely with the separation of the two Cuban lovebirds: the poetess, although her love for her man is undoubtedly passionate, has chosen to leave him (and Cuba presumably?) to pursue her music career on the West Coast of the United States. She leaves her lover -- and the revolution -- to seek out fame and fortune in Hollywood: "Down on the West Coast / I get this feeling / Like it all could happen / That's why I'm leaving / You for the moment". It seems to be the classic tale of leaving the homeland in order to find a better life in the "land of opportunity". Once the poetess has made her dream a reality, she will undoubtedly enable her lover to join her. But the poetess knows that what she's really doing is selling out. She knows that the glamor of Hollywood is almost a cultish phenomenon in which she will have to make sacrifices in order to succeed: "Down on the West Coast, they got their icons, / Their silver starlets and Queens of Saigon / ... Down on the West Coast, they love their movies, / Their golden gods and rock-and-roll groupies". She will have to fit herself into one of these molds, to allow herself to be fashioned into a queen, a god, a groupie, or some hybrid combination of all three. Despite the fact that "you've got the music in you", the exterior must be covered in gold and silver before the inside will be allowed to come forth. She'll have to "fake it till she makes it", as the saying goes; in order to succeed in Hollywood, she will have to be fashioned in their image before she can contribute her own. But in doing so, does she not lose that passionate fire that she seemed to possess back home in Cuba? Did not the glamor of Hollywood cause her music to lose something of that passion and instead become nothing more than an emotional drug to soothe away thoughts of real revolution? In her attempts to be "free", the poetess seems to be regurgitating that same cloying pablum that renders her art nothing more than glitter and fluff. The substance has been sucked out of it in favor of mindless pleasure.

Rather than revolution, perhaps "West Coast" should be taken as a warning. If you have the music in you, if you have the passion and power to create true art, then let it be revolutionary. Let it wake people up and shake them out of their complacency. Call them to action and encourage them to take sides, to take a stand, to make up their minds, come to decisions, and act. Art should not be a passive experience, but a dynamic and life-changing interaction. This is what is worth creating. This is what is worth suffering for. This is what is worth risking revolution for.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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