Lana Del Rey's 'Tropico' Illustrates Why I'm Totally Over Referential Art
Lana Del Rey’s overtly filtered ode to love and sex and art and living called Tropico is 30 minutes of talking, singing, and reference-making of the biblical, unicorn, snake, and lamb variety. There is nudity aplenty — enough to make you feel as though you’re being force-fed references as some form of torture device of understanding. And honestly? I’m bored. Can we move on?
Lana Del Rey and Lady Gaga have both made a living by harping on that Warholian idea of referentialism as art. It’s nothing new, which is exactly what so much of pop art of this nature embodies. And that’s not a bad idea, really. In fact, most people would agree that they are good ideas or even fact: nothing we do is new, or different, or all that special, merely a redefinition of longstanding ideas that have come before us. But there’s also hopefulness in it, that through all of these images, ideas, and pop culture points, we will find some sort of sameness to bind our collective human experience, and each other, to one another. The idea is beautiful in its cyclical nature, its appreciation of old and new alike. It’s about a deeper collective understanding. I like that.
And yet I still don’t care about it. Why?
Cultural appropriation is nothing new. Whether it’s your own culture or that of another’s — everything that is created for public consumption is fair game. It is — inherent in it being part of the culture and therefore public — asking you to have an opinion or some sort of interaction with it. To make something of it. All as the viewer sees fit. I’ve always believed that, especially when it comes to dissecting the attitudes and motivations behind said culture.
Today those discussions are apparent, and necessary. We are living in a time of particular flux in terms of our group mentality, from which our society creates rules, laws, codes of conduct, and the like. Lana Del Rey is merely showing us her frame of reference. But I just find the whole thing misguided. Maybe Lana Del Rey, Lady Gaga, and I are all hanging out in the same Dadaist circle, but they’ve decided to go the pop art route, whereas I’m more interested in moving towards that Surrealist tip.
When it comes to Del Rey’s overabundance of references — leaving Tropico completely devoid of any sort of real originality, let’s be frank — that lends itself to the slippery, and toxic slope of the “life is what it is” mentality. (I’m, personally, more of a fan of the “it is what you make of it” ilk.) Interpreting culture in the former way allows for a certain level of complacency in how the world works and operates. Those that adhere to such a line of thought probably prefer to call it “acceptance.” And to a large extent, that much is true: our lives are wheels; a series of moments stuffed between periods of nothingness, maybe darkness, or maybe heaven. We go up and go down, but on and on those levels spin in ever-changing succession, but ultimately end outside of our bodies — or, you know, however it is you interpret birth and death.
But while acceptance may be what the artist is unpacking in a work like Tropico, it is not necessarily what the viewer experiences. And one thing you can never do in art is assume that you'll understand the viewer's frame of reference. As an outsider to both the industrious machine that makes pop culture (which Del Rey is most certainly a mechanism in and byproduct of) and the mental aerobics the artist climbed in order to create it, a viewer will always have a different viewpoint and takeaway from the work. And, clearly, Del Rey and those involved are inside the very machine they hope to lambast and/or glorify — an experience far different from those outside of it.
Which is where the iconography comes into play: John Wayne, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus. Words of Allen Ginsberg's famous poem, "Howl;" notable phrases like “I sing the body electric,“ “drop it like its hot,” “life imitates art,” and “living like Jim Morrison" — they're references or images, the lot of them. And they weren't Del Rey's the begin with, and she won't be the last to use them, either. Representations as a means of interpreting what Del Rey is unpacking here does nothing to elevate her point, but rather dilutes it. Because when everyone sees Jesus Christ or Marilyn Monroe up on the screen they dismiss it and go, “Yeah, yeah, OK, OK, I get it” because they already feel they have an understanding of it.
Using these iconic figures to traverse and explain the human experience then, directs the viewer towards what they should believe rather than give them the opportunity to create — and explore — their own journey. And art is a very personal thing. Every single person is going to see and understand a piece of art in his or her own way because art is about filling in the blanks with your own personal interpretations. Putting loaded icons where the blanks should go robs the viewer of the process of discovery. And process, discovery, and interpretation are 90% of the fun — and impact — of art.
And that’s the sticky widget that butts up alongside the intention in works that live and die on the backs of the references within them: people must "get" the exact and/or intended interpretation out of the work. Artists that work in this way are forcing you to interpret as the artist and/or popular culture has already done for you, rather than leaving one up to their own devices and contexts. Context may no longer inform the viewer, because the icons overshadow and are then put in the driver's seat, taking control when perhaps they should not.
There's a balance that must be met, and when context is overshadowed, it loses its meaning and ability to function. It is muted. And if goal is — as it seems in the instance of Tropico — to tell or interpret a story or idea in a certain way in order to achieve some sort of universality, the art in question can only have the intended affect on those who agree, who share the same exact mindset. Which means it doesn’t change anything at all. Certainly not a person's point of view.
And isn't a change in vantage art's greatest gift?
Because these icons, these revered beings and things, are diametrically opposed to being interpreted in any other way than how the viewer wants to see them or how they've been defined. For someone like Marilyn Monroe it’s sexpot, cautionary tale, and fashion icon — a representation of materialism. For John Wayne, it’s cowboy, a rugged definition of masculinity from a bygone era. And then of course there’s Jesus, who is a savior to so many. Representations set in stone.
Which is probably also where the basis for criticism lobbed against the genre arises: calling it unfocused, overwrought, and pretentious. And the artist’s defense? In this case (as, I feel is the case for Gaga, especially her video for "Applause") as well as many others, it's, “Oh, do you get what I’m doing? Here are 567 more references you should already know to help you get it. And if you don’t get it well then you’re not who I’m speaking to.” It doesn’t allow for discovery, just the rehashing of old, tired ideas and themes, speaking what is known to those who already know it. And when your only desire is to reflect into a reflection, all you get is the same image repeated.
Which isn’t to say that reflection isn’t important — it’s pivotal to the evolution of society. In times of tumult and evolving horizons such as now, it can be important to look back from whence we came and understand the bridges that connect us, no matter how seemingly superficial they might be. There's a lot to be said for how and what rises to the top of pop culture when considered in context to the machinations of the world around it.
But it’s also a time that begs for newness, for originality. And at its core, though attempting to extrapolate the new through the lens of the old, art such as Tropico contradicts itself: it cannot be new, even if you slap some new paint on it and call it something fancy. A circle will always be a circle, folks.
And you have to get off the wheel and take a chance on something completely new and different in order to better understand the circumstances that surround us. At least sometimes. And I sort of believe that time is now. I think that’s the issue many like myself take with artists like Del Rey and Gaga (especially in her ARTPOP iteration): if ever there’s been a time for art to give us something completely new, something so off-the-rails and maybe a little bit strange-in-a-refreshing way that it scares and confounds, it’s now. Be ahead of your time, not a product of your time. Instead all I see is is the same damn wheel.
Images: Lana Del Rey/VEVO