Concluding her controversial post on Instagram, a “Question for the Culture”, Lana Del Rey promised that “there will be tinges of what I’ve been pondering in my new album that comes out September 5th.” In true Lana fashion, this was only half true, in that while Chemtrails Over the Country Club details Lana’s personal feelings about fame and femininity, echoing her “Question for the Culture,” the album in fact came out on the 19th March. It seems clear to me that with Chemtrails, Lana wanted to further solidify herself as a complex and mature singer-songwriter, following on from the massive critical and cultural acclaim garnered by her 2019 album, Norman Fucking Rockwell. Chemtrails is shorter, more experimental, and more personal than NFR, while still maintaining the sophistication and maturity that made NFR so successful.
In fact, Chemtrails is so personal that it alienates those who aren’t actively invested in Lana’s personal feelings; while her early albums positioned herself as the messiah of any generically sad and glamorous aesthete (myself included), not many of us can relate to Lana’s musings on feeling trapped and unembodied within the cold scrutiny of fame. To be more specific, in the album’s opening track White Dress, Lana sings of her time, pre-fame, as a “waitress, wearing a white dress”, unknown, glamorous, feeling “seen”, all while within the patriarchal setting of a mythical “men-in-music-business-conference.” You can see the tinges of Lana’s “Questions for the Culture” in how she glamorises the sense of embodiment resulting from reclaiming agency and finding freedom while under an anonymising male gaze. She implicitly contrasts this kind of gaze with the scrutiny of fame which has previously brandished her music as “antifeminist” and “glamorising of abuse.” Of course, being a #girlboss is not the only way to be a feminist, and Lana’s music could open discussions about soft forms of resistance within feminism; however, her controversial assertion that feminism needs to make space “for people who look like me” reveals her tone-deafness to the importance of race within such dynamics of embodiment and scrutiny. Perhaps in blissful ignorance, she ends White Dress with the line, “It kind of makes me feel, that maybe I was better off…”
Throughout Chemtrails, Lana continues to make allusions to her dissatisfaction with her perceived lack of freedom within the “Country Club” of fame. In Let Me Love You Like a Woman, Lana is “ready to leave L.A.” and in Dark but Just a Game, she laments on how the “best ones lost their minds.” Representing this idea visually, in the music video to the album’s title track, Lana portrays herself as one of “those debutantes//Smiling for miles in pink dresses and high heels and white yachts,” which she stressed she could not pretend to be in the final track of NFR. But, midway through the song, Lana and her friends transform into seductive werewolves, asserting that despite outward appearances, she fundamentally feels at odds with the person fame dictates she must be. In an attempt to define herself she sings “I’m not unhinged, or unhappy, I’m just wild,” a sentiment echoed by the track Wild at Heart.
Musically, Chemtrails goes to further prove the point that the formula of a female singer-songwriter and producer Jack Antonoff really can’t go wrong. Lana uses her voice in ways hitherto unheard in her ouvre to bring magical subtlety and control to the delivery of her poetic lyrics, and Antonoff’s production brings a kaleidoscopic world of subtle colours to support her delivery. The choice to end the album with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s For Free from Ladies of the Canyon (an album Lana has ubiquitously made reference to), functions as a statement of Lana positioning herself alongside, and arguably as the “successor” to, legends like Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Carole King. Joni in 1970 sings about the complex entanglements of fame and talent that meet in her watching a man “playing real good for free” while she only plays “for fortunes.” Perhaps Lana sees her past self in this man and her present self in Joni, and she wonders to herself who she would rather be.