Is the Lana Del Rey enterprise right in capitalizing on the Lolita obsession?
Positive reception of the novel, Lolita, when it was published in 1955 assumed that Humbert Humbert, the “hero” of the novel, was a charming and misunderstood soul, mainly because Nabokov had told the story in Humbert’s voice a little too well, bewitching readers to adopt his point of view just as much as he managed to fool the characters in the novel. This is why many believed the book was not about ‘the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.’ (Davies, Robertson, Lolita’s Crime: Sex Made Funny) It is my opinion that this view still prevails because we never hear Lolita tell her side of the story in her voice. Lana Del Rey, however, puts an end to that. Let me explain.
The Jimmy Savile scandal and the following arrests made under the Yewtree Inquiry has ensured that the white older male continues to dominate due to the inadvertent publicity their crimes have given rise to. This has in turn sidelined the victims to nothing more than passive objects with no voice nor identity. Recently, I’ve come to think that perhaps this is a good thing since educated members of society in positions of authority and power do not seem to have a sympathetic view of these victims. Judges of recent rape cases involving girls as young as 11 had the following to say about the girls involved:
“She was as much in control of the situation [as the 49-year-old man.]”
“[She was] like the spider.”
“Predatory in all her actions and she is sexually experienced.”
“Predatory and she was egging you on.”
“She dressed older than her age … She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.”
“[The victim is] older than her chronological age and as much in control of the situation [as the 49-year-old man] Rambold”
Given the biased (phallogocentric) nature of these comments, the parallel between the perception of these girls and that of the reception of Nabokov’s Lolita is not hard to draw. An article written by Hadley Freeman in the Guardian points out that this belief that these girls have behaved like sultry temptresses and have bewitched adult men into having sexual relations with them is a tired and misogynistic cliche which in our society is continuously recycled, regurgitated and forced back down our throats – even when we all know – and judges certainly know – that, legally, children under the age of 16 cannot give consent to sexual abuse. Freeman goes on to ask what it has to take to “learn that children are not Lolitas and grown men are not helpless Humbert Humberts”. Interestingly, however, in the comments section of this article, readers took issue with this statement as they believed that Freeman had fallen for the tricks of the self-proclaimed handsome Humbert Humbert and had thus, like many before, missed the point entirely by thinking that Lolita was portrayed as a predator. It was the readers, however, who had missed the point of the article – Freeman was actually playing on this widespread misinterpretation in order to highlight how strange it is that this skewed perception is the one which our society favours.
In any case, Lana Del Rey has massively capitalized on this misinterpretation of Lolita as a ‘demon child’ or a ‘nymphet’- to name all the instances which she has done so would be to practically list every song she has performed dating right back from her Lizzy Grant, Sparkle Jump Rope Queen and May Jailor discographies to her more mainstream Lana Del Rey records. From her album, Born To Die, her song entitled ‘Lolita’ is a given, as is ‘Off to the Races’ where she repeatedly quotes the first line of the novel (‘Light of my life, fire of my loins,’) and talks about her ‘old man’. And who can forget her 8 minute short film, Ride where she asks an ambiguous ‘you’ to be her ‘full time daddy, hot or cold,’ and the video features three considerably older men by whom she is handled like a doll as she sits on their lap complete with alice band and oversized bow. We also have repeat references of being a naive, helpless child, who passively has things done to it: ‘spin me round like a child’ (American), ‘the way you play with me like a child’ (Young and Beautiful) or ‘you came along and scooped me up like a baby’ (Lucky Ones) – all words that ring particularly eerily in light of the crimes committed by Ian Watkins. Of her less well known songs there is Put me in a Movie where she playfully flirts ‘come on you know you like little girls’ and her song ‘1949’ from her May Jailor record is as if Nabokov’s novel itself has been liquidated into music form.
Del Rey does not shy away from admitting outright that she has a ‘taste for men who older’ (Cola) or that she may have Daddy Issues. Why she wishes to make her music about this old man/young girl fantasy is anyone’s guess. A reason for her fascination with with Nabokov’s Lolita specifically maybe due to the fact that the plot of the novel unfolds through a journey across the USA. Since her music both visually and lyrically weaves in the theme of ‘the American Dream’ – in the form of the American Flag, historical icons such as Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Elvis as well as references to Pepsi/Coca cola, motels, gas stations, trailer parks, Cadillacs, road trips and life on the run – it seems that Nabokov’s tale perfectly captures the vision she wishes to recreate.
My question is: is it ethical or even healthy to set out to perpetuate this (misinterpreted) romantic idea of a child-molester? Is not Lana Del Rey guilty of not only romanticizing pedophilia but also of proliferating the idea that children are ‘predatory’ sirens who are in control of adult situations which they are not mature enough to understand? Obviously, we can see how the main answers to these questions will pan out: the Daily Mail readers will say it’s wrong and sick, the Guardian readers will say it’s art and it should not be censored.
I personally would argue that the messages of Lana Del Rey’s songs, when taken literally, are indeed unhealthy and dangerous but that the persona of the woman singing these songs has given a platform for something which has been neglected so far: the voice of Lolita. In Yayo, Del Rey pleads ‘let me put on a show for you daddy’ serving to remind us that that’s all the nymphet persona of Lolita is – a show, an act put on for the benefit of the male gaze. The fact that it is an iconically charged persona and not Lizzie who is singing provides a dissonance between the superficial nature of her songs (money is the anthem, this is what makes us girls…) and the core question as to the actual cause of all these self-destructing values. And this detachment of herself and from her cartoon-like persona underscores her every lyric. Lana Del Rey uses Lolita mostly metaphorically and merely tells us that this is what Lolita feels, this is why she acts the way she does. But she leaves enough of herself in her music to make us remember that it is all a glorified hollow shell masquerading as confident art. With one push it all threatens to break – she still needs ‘him’ to save her, for him to tell her she is his national anthem, for him not to leave her and not to break her down. The causes of this need or this lack is up for interpretation. But don’t let any of that twist the reality of the situation: a girl who thinks in this way is vulnerable and not a sexually in charge predator. At the end of the day and at the end of any song or book which artistically represents young female victimhood, we have to recognise that even Lolita is not a Lolita.