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Hey, Lolita

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SEPTEMBER 26, 2016

When learning how to live, people look to a lot of sources for inspiration.

For me, that was Lana Del Rey.

Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” surfaced in my life in 2011. “Video Gamescame with a simple video composite of American iconography, old-style cartoon clips and paparazzo shots of Paz de la Huerta drunkenly walking down Sunset Boulevard. At the center of this bricolage was little-known indie artist Lizzy Grant, donning a new stage name as Lana Del Rey. Hair in a rich-red bouffant, lips in a pout, she recalled the regal elegance of old Hollywood.

The albums that followed were decadent studies in white American womanhood. She filled her worlds with unreliable men, decaying facades and coquettish parodies of women always destined for pain. She pulled from great American icons of womanhood: Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Nancy Sinatra. She sourced from the great scholars of womanhood — Cohen, Nabokov and Whitman — as a romantic ideal.

A lot of people had trouble taking her seriously. Plenty of people in my own life made fun of me for defending her. Some of that had to do with misogyny. No artist, no matter how sophisticated her work may be, can get away with that level of femininity without backlash. Her frazzled, jarring American television debut on “Saturday Night Live” didn’t help either.

Still, what plagued Grant’s career more than anything seemed to be that nobody quite fully appreciated what she was trying to do. Other women in the industry, most prominently Lorde and Kim Gordon, were vocal in their distaste for what they perceived to be Del Rey’s internalized misogyny and old-fashioned representation of women.

When I saw her, though, I saw finally a symbol of hope for myself. Lana Del Rey gave me an out.

As a little queer boy growing up in Louisiana, she appealed to me on a gut level. From where I was sitting, gender felt like an absolute farce, but it was so deeply entrenched in the world that surrounded me that I felt like there was no escape. I hated what it meant to be a man. I hated what masculinity did to the men in my life.

Del Rey, as an icon and as an artist, performs her gender as an absurd drag show of hyper-femininity in the same way that Southern men always seemed to perform their hyper-masculinity. Lana’s femininity — hypersexual, masochistic and submissive in the extreme — couldn’t be real. Men around me growing up in southern Louisiana, with their toxic, embarrassing manhood rotting inside and oozing out of their pores onto everyone they touched, were just as unreal to me. Bravado and dissonance took root at an early age and shaped boys into apes.

The key difference was that, where they believed their own bullshit, Lana Del Rey was all irony and falsehood and wish fulfillment. She performed her femininity with a knowing wink, a twinkle in her eyes. Lizzy Grant took a snapshot of the common construction of womanhood from the deepest reaches of America’s collective unconscious and made a baroque, gender essentialist farce of it.

Lana Del Rey is a testament to gender’s absurdity. Del Rey, as a project, is and has always been both a celebration and a condemnation of white American womanhood. She was never performing a caricature, per se. Grant was always vocal that Del Rey wasn’t a character. Gender, applied to any person, is always a falsehood, a plastic veneer that works from the outside-in to ravage and reassemble. This persona of Lizzy Grant’s was a testament to the severe damage gender does to a person.

In making her gender a fiction, Lana taught me to conceive of my own gender as fiction. Free from those constraints, I had room to explore myself.

Tucked away in my room, I’d put on “Yayo” and “Burning Desire” and dance earnestly, surrounded by her lonely feminine worlds of trailer parks and moneyed L.A. opulence. I’d feel myself as her, falsely thrust into the role of woman that she wore so lavishly, just as I had been thrust into the role of man so arbitrarily.

Lana’s ironic performance of gender was a powerful symbol for me. Removing the sincerity from gender took away all of its power. Being a man couldn’t hurt me if I was only a man ironically.

Gay male self image and expression can often be traced to the inspiration sourced from female pop icons. I’m friends with Lady Gaga gays. I’m friends with Britney Spears gays. I know Beyoncé gays, Cher gays and Björk gays. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.

Often you can expect a gay man to have one undeniable pop goddess in his arsenal to whom he bows and swears fealty. There’s an absurd comedy to it, but beneath the silly idolatry usually lies a deeper level of genesis.

Pop music has that kind of hyperreal magic embedded within it. The exaggerated performance of pop music can almost be likened to drag itself. This is a story of identity formation by proxy.

Lana Del Rey queered me. Her post-ironic take on American femininity informed the way I expressed my own gender, a blending of masculinity and femininity that forms and informs me.

Pop cultural icons wield that kind of power in spades. They need to know that.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.

SEPTEMBER 26, 2016