“National Anthem” by Lana Del Rey as a Commentary on American Nationalism and Political Structures
Nostalgic art and culture have been on the rise since the 2010s. Fashion, music, television and film, and more have been making a comeback or being revamped to fit the current day and age. For instance, Downton Abbey and Bridgerton are examples of period pieces that are nostalgic for the British high society of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Stranger Things is bringing back ’80s nostalgia. Classis ’90s shows like Full House, Boy Meets World, and Beverly Hill 90210 have been getting reboots and ’90s bands like the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls are active again. Olivia Rodrigo is bringing back Y2K fashion and aesthetics. These are just some examples of how active nostalgic art and culture have been in the last decade or so. An artist that has played a large role in the rise of nostalgic art and culture is Lana Del Rey.
Who is Lana Del Rey?
Lana Del Rey is an American singer-songwriter who rose to prominence in popular music and culture in 2012, following the release of her second album entitled Born to Die. Del Rey has remained an influential icon in the years following Born to Die and has released six highly successful albums since. She is known for her highly stylized musical genres and fashion sense, in which she references and emulates popular American culture and fashion from the 1950s-1970s. She also effectively fuses different genres of music to create a modern kind of alternative music with pop and rock influences. Del Rey’s music is known for its themes of glamour, tragic romance, nostalgia, and melancholy, along with motifs of American nationalism.
Longing for the ’60s
One song and music video by Del Rey, in particular, embodies this nostalgic longing. The music video for “National Anthem” by Lana Del Rey, shows a deep appreciation for American culture and history, particularly the 1960s, while also providing a subtle critique of the sociopolitical systems that form America. The works of Svetlana Boym and Audre Lorde can be used to explore how the lyrics and music video for “National Anthem” by Lana Del Rey use reflective nostalgia under the guise of restorative nostalgia to examine the neoliberal capitalist ideologies and institutions embedded in American history and societal infrastructures and expose it for its exclusivity and ineffectiveness.
Nostalgia: Restorative and Reflective
The presence of the aforementioned themes and motifs in Del Rey’s music offer a subtle commentary on American neoliberal capitalism and its effects. The concepts of restorative and reflective nostalgia, as outlined by Svetlana Boym in Nostalgia and its Discontents, help explain Del Rey’s frequent use of nostalgic themes in her music. Restorative nostalgia “…stresses nostos (home) and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home” (Boym 13), meaning that this type of nostalgia longs for a time and place that no longer exist, and attempts to recreate it, through ideology and/or aesthetics. Reflective nostalgia “…thrives on algia (the longing itself) and delays the homecoming–wistfully, ironically, desperately” (Boym 13), meaning that this type of nostalgia also misses a time and place, but looks at it critically and questions the ambivalences that are intrinsic to the time, and does not attempt to recreate it. While both can overlap, they differ in their self-perception; “restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition” (Boym 13), while “reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity” (Boym 13). “National Anthem” uses restorative nostalgia of the 1960s and the allure and glamour of JFK and his wife, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy’s life, while exposing the inequalities and difficulties they faced as public figures which uses reflective nostalgia.
Significance of Casting Choice
The music video opens with a black and white reenactment of Marilyn Monroe’s infamous “Happy Birthday Mr. President” performance from 1962. Del Rey sings the song exactly as Monroe sang it, but is not dressed to look like her. This sets up the scene for familiar historical events, with obvious and intentional allusions, but a modern spin on the key figures. This is further seen when Del Rey finishes her happy birthday rendition and the screen shows American rapper A$AP Rocky in the role of President John F. Kennedy (JFK). Before Del Rey even starts singing “National Anthem,” the longing for 1960s American culture and glamour is evident. The rest of the music video shows glamorized and romanticized glimpses of JFK and Jackie’s time in office and his assassination, portrayed by A$AP Rocky and Lana Del Rey, respectively.
The decision to cast A$AP Rocky as JFK is also noteworthy because JFK was a white man and A$AP Rocky is a Black man. The music video for “National Anthem” was released in September of 2012. At this point in time, Barack Obama, America’s first Black president had just finished his first term in office and was running for reelection. Obama’s time as president and A$AP Rocky’s portrayal of a famous white president echo the sentiments brought forth by Audre Lorde. Lorde says, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (2). By having a Black person as president, it may seem like substantial reparations and changes could be brought forth for marginalized groups of people, but the political system is fueled by neoliberal capitalist ideology and thus can never truly help those disenfranchised by the same system. In other words, having a Black president does not change the problematic system of which he is made the head. Similarly, having a Black man play JFK does not change the fact that JFK was still assassinated. Restorative and reflective nostalgia cannot change the past, but the latter can encourage improvement.
Unlike the opening scene, the rest of the video is in colour and appears to be shot with a vintage camera or filter. This serves the aesthetic function of restorative nostalgia, as the appearance of utilizing film technology from the 60s lends to the longing for that era. The aesthetics are also supplied by the clothing, makeup, and hairstyles. However, despite using the format of 60s film technology, it is deliberately very clear and not grainy. This is how the music video visually employs reflective nostalgia, as it appreciates the art form of the time but acknowledges that the quality was not good and thus uses modern quality standards. This is also applicable to the fashion included in the music video, which pays homage to the clothing, makeup, and hairstyles of the period but incorporates them in modern ways; for example, Del Rey’s nail polish designs are modern, as well as showing A$AP Rocky’s box braids (which would have been deemed unprofessional in the 60s).
Highlighting Materialistic Culture
Having discussed the visual aesthetics of the music video as restorative and reflective nostalgia, the lyrics of “National Anthem,” can be explored as they offer more insight into the reflective nostalgic critiques of neoliberal capitalist ideologies and systemic racism. As indicated by the title of the song, the lyrics discuss what the national (American) anthem represents. The song begins with “Money is the anthem of success,” which is repeated throughout the song, and is the opening and closing lines of the track. The emphasis on the importance of capitalism and wealth accumulation is present throughout the song and can be seen as a metaphor for how pervasive capitalism is throughout our lives. After the first instance of “Money is the anthem of success,” the lyrics continue, “So before we go out, what’s your address?” Here Del Rey is asking her potential lover whether he lives in a rich neighbourhood and whether he can sustain an expensive relationship. The national anthem of America is a source of pride and patriotism for many American citizens and is supposed to encompass everything the American Dream has to offer.
When Del Rey says, “I’m your national anthem” or “Tell me I’m your national anthem” throughout the song, she is talking about how America has come to represent and value materialism, and that serving her materialistic desires is how her lover can appreciate her the way that Americans engage with capitalism to show their love for their country. She goes on to say, “Take me to the Hamptons, Bugatti Veyron,” by which she is asking her lover to take her to a notoriously exclusive neighbourhood for rich families in an expensive sports car. Here Del Rey emphasizes a materialistic and superficial culture fueled by neoliberal capitalism. In the chorus, Del Rey says, “Red, white, blue’s in the sky / Summer’s in the air and, baby, heaven’s in your eyes,” which talks about the materialism that represents America and how her lover’s ability to fuel these materialistic needs are what draws her to him. In the bridge, Del Rey says, “We’re on a quick, sick rampage / Wining and dining, drinking and driving / Excessive buying, overdose and dying,” by which she emphasizes the abundance of wealth causes reckless behaviour. Here the wealth inequalities in which the lower and middle class continue to suffer and struggle and the upper class continue to get richer are emphasized by saying that the rich have so much money that they spend frivolously and are unable to cope with the overwhelming demands of a wealthy lifestyle.
The music video for “National Anthem” by Lana Del Rey is charged with restorative nostalgia that is actually reflective nostalgia and brings to the forefront the ineffectiveness of neoliberal capitalism and its place in American nationalism. The visuals and aesthetics of the music video are restoratively nostalgic, with subtle reflective nostalgic characteristics. The entirety of the song discusses the life of the elite and rich, and how on the surface this may seem desirable (restorative nostalgia) but, upon closer look, actually proves to be detrimental to the health and well-being of these people (reflective nostalgia). The lyrics and the video for Del Rey’s fifth single off her Born to Die album is a commentary on the stronghold that neoliberal ideology, capitalism, and racist political structures have on America and how they cannot be dismantled within the current systems of power in place.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001).
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 1984)
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