There are perhaps more similarities between Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey than first meet the eye. Both artists had a meteoric rise to fame – accompanied by more than their fair share of public criticism and media harrassment; both are solo artists, singer-songwriters who author their own output; both are deeply invested in projecting a very specific public image; and both have built their global brands by drawing on a particularly American set of images and associations.
Swift had her beginnings in country music, convincing her parents to move the family to Nashville (from Pennsylvania) at the age of fourteen so she could kickstart her career in country music’s home state. Her self-titled debut, released in 2006, is not only full of country songs – the lead single, Tim McGraw, is named after one of country music’s best known artists (with whom Swift later collaborated on Highway Don’t Care, a song from McGraw’s 2013 album Two Lanes of Freedom). By beginning her career as a country artist before transitioning to pop, Swift achieved two goals: she found herself a deeply dedicated fanbase who wholeheartedly supported her first four albums (and managed to retain most of them when she made the leap to pop in 2014); and she laid the foundations of her brand in perhaps the most quintessential American music genre. No other teen musician who began their career in the noughties reached Swift’s level of success, likely because she rooted herself so deeply in a genre which rewards honest, autobiographical storytelling. Once she had established herself as a “smart songwrit[er]”, her success was assured whether she stuck to her country roots or abandoned them. From the very beginning of her career, Swift has taken care to position herself within a canon – first of American country music, now of Western pop.
While Del Rey has consistently and explicitly drawn on American national imagery, particularly mid-century Americana, Swift’s appropriation of these tropes is less consistent. Although Del Rey is only around 5 years older than Swift, Swift rose to fame as a teenager (Taylor Swift came out when she was 16, whereas Del Rey’s was in her 20s when her first LP came out) and her self-presentation has been necessarily more mutable than Del Rey’s. Swift’s early work is set firmly in the countryside and appeals to America’s “heartland”, with references to “rednecks”, “Chevy truck[s]”, “lake[s]” and “the field behind your yard”. Fearless (2008) takes place in a “small town”, and while Speak Now (2010) charts a path towards maturity – Never Grow Up sees Swift struggling with living alone for the first time – this isn’t fully realised until Red (2012), released when Swift was 22 (relatedly, she took the stage on the Fearless tour to Tom Petty’s American Girl; on the Red tour, it was Lenny Kravitz’s American Woman). The Red era, as fans refer to it, was very closely tied to the kinds of 50s and 60s aesthetics that Del Rey employs: red lipstick, full fringe, high waists, full-skirted dresses, many of which were actually vintage pieces. Although 1989 (2014), reputation (2017), and Lover (2019) don’t deal in Chevies and small towns to the extent her early work did, Swift hasn’t entirely left her Americana aesthetic behind: 1989’s Wildest Dreams music video envisions Swift as a 50s movie star, and the lyrics of Style refer to James Dean; reputation invokes Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Bonnie and Clyde, and the typically American adventure of the open road, complete with motel bar; and Lover cites Nashville’s Music Row, blue jeans, and Tennessee whiskey. Even now, when Swift is objectively a global phenomenon, her references are specifically American and her view of herself is of an American girl / woman. “He likes my American smile”, she sings in Lover’s London Boy, emphasising her own out-of-townness as she reminds us of her roots in the USA.
Taylor Swift, “London Boy”, Universal
Del Rey, too, has undergone significant transformations over the trajectory of her career – though not necessarily under the name Lana Del Rey. She began performing as Lizzy Grant (her birth name is Elizabeth Grant) and released her first EP Kill Kill in 2008, before the release of her debut studio album Lana Del Ray (A.K.A. Lizzy Grant) in 2010. After the album was pulled because the record label couldn’t keep funding it, Del Rey bought the rights back from them and re-emerged in 2011, fully formed, as Lana Del Rey. Her debut single Video Games, released alongside a lofi music video, was a viral hit, and her major label debut Born to Die (2012) was an international success, debuting at Number 1 to become the fastest-selling album of that year. The name Lana Del Rey is itself significant: dreamy and evocative of glamour, paying equal tribute to film noir star Lana Turner and the vintage Ford Del Rey. Del Rey herself said that, “I wanted a name that sounded sort of exotic and reminded me of like the seaside on the Floridian coast.”
Although it took some time for Del Rey to perfect her stage name, her brand has been consistent since 2008. Her preoccupations on Kill Kill and Lana Del Ray are clear: violence, power, beauty, America. In a review of Kill Kill, one critic wrote that, “Her videos are quirky, odd, magical and infatuated with Americana.” Del Rey grew up in New York, and Coney Island in particular features heavily on Kill Kill; “there was something desperate about the boardwalk, and I related”, Del Rey said, citing her “history with cheap thrills[;] I like things that go fast, things with bright colours, things that taste good.” She’s not only interested in her home state, though: much of her work has a fascination with the West Coast, and Del Rey said in the same interview that, “Vegas makes me shine. Daytona and the Jersey Shore just kill me.” She explains that, “I’m very swayed by how things look on the outside […] A flag waving or a Pontiac GrandAm – I didn’t even have to know what those things stood for to know they were beautiful. I once had a boyfriend who talked about all the reasons why he loved flags, Rock-and-Roll, and America […] everything in the videos […] they’re all different expressions of the happiness I had when I loved a man who loved me and America. Vegas and sparklers and the 50s are all things that are beautiful, and they’re all a big part of my film world.” Flags, especially, crop up frequently: a rippling US flag appears in the videos for Kill Kill, Video Games, and Born To Die, to name just a few, and Del Rey wears a flag around her shoulders in Ride.
Lana Del Rey, “Ride”, Universal
Del Rey’s work – like Swift’s – has always been heavily referential, both frequently citing American culture and music. Just as Swift’s first single invited her listeners to think of her when they think of Tim McGraw, Del Rey’s debut notably evokes Springsteen’s Born To Run. As well as the eponymous Born To Die, about a doomed relationship, the album’s tracks evoke a multitude of American pop cultural touchstones. Both Off To The Races and Lolita evoke Nabokov’s 1955 novel; the former quotes from Lolita’s famous first chapter (“light of my life, fire of my loins”) and refers to “my old man [who] is a bad man”. Lolita is not only a classic novel, but one which specifically centres around Americanness – the summer camp, the road trip, the motel. The song also refers to many places within the USA, on both coasts: Coney Island, Rikers, Las Vegas, LA. Other tracks on the album include Blue Jeans, National Anthem, American, and Bel Air – Blue Jeans references James Dean, as Swift does a few years later on 1989, while American invokes Springsteen and Elvis.
Her most recent album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, is named after the American painter and illustrator. Rockwell is known for his depictions of American culture in the twentieth century, particularly the covers he illustrated for The Saturday Evening Post magazine. Due to its idealism, his work was dismissed by serious art critics – his name was “synonymous with bad taste.” In naming her album after Rockwell, Del Rey isn’t only invoking a famous artist; she specifically aligns herself with someone who was maligned for his sentimental depictions of America. Both Del Rey and Swift are particular about the references they make, consciously placing themselves within specific American cultural traditions.
Both artists are hyper-aware of their public image. They are singer-songwriters, which may influence their approaches to their reception; judged not only on their performance but also on their creative outputs. Del Rey has spent “years […] feeling manipulated and harangued by the media”, and now records all interviews she gives as a “defence mechanism”. Swift, too, is deeply “invested in the creation and preservation of her public image.” It is particularly interesting, then, that both artists have been caught up in controversy concerning their treatment of other artists, particularly black musicians; both have been criticised not only for their original comments but for their seeming failure to take responsibility for them. Both are choosy about what they apologise for and how – Swift, on Speak Now, wrote a song which is widely interpreted as “forgiving” Kanye West for upstaging her at the 2009 VMAs. Eight years later when they were embroiled in another feud, she not only didn’t apologise or extend forgiveness, she doubled down on the “villain” image she considered herself to be cast in and released reputation, whose tracklist alone made it clear she wasn’t going to be magnanimous again (I Did Something Bad, Don’t Blame Me, Look What You Made Me Do, and This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things in particular). Both artists have had a complicated relationship with feminism, with Swift only starting to call herself a feminist in 2014 (and weaponising her feminism when it suits her) – culminating in Del Rey recently making headlines for her comments about Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Doja Cat and other female artists, mostly of colour, whom she claims are celebrated for singing freely about controversial subjects, while Del Rey is vilified.
In view of this shared obsession with projecting a particular public image, it’s significant that both Del Rey and Swift have continued to lean heavily on this kind of idealised cultural iconography which is widely considered problematic by contemporary audiences. Specifically, the imagery deployed by both artists is not only patriotic but nostalgic – their versions of America are saturated with mid-century aesthetics, harking back to the golden age of the American Dream. The American historian Hampton Sides wrote in Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier that, “There is, of course, a kind of faded notion of “Americana”, one that concerns Route 66, diners, freak rock formations, and the like” – it’s this “roadside attraction” version of America which forms the basis for both Del Rey and Swift’s depictions of America. This bygone vision of America is, for a lot of people, connotative of a world prior to the Civil Rights Act (passed in 1964) and the women’s movement (the Equal Rights Amendment, designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex, has still not been ratified by a minority of state legislatures, although it was first introduced in Congress in 1923). It’s not irrelevant that Del Rey and Swift are both white and middle class – especially Swift, whose father is a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch; Del Rey’s family finances are more obscure, although she too has been dogged by rumours that her father’s money is behind her success – and that the kind of America they envision is also frequently invoked by conservative “family values” politicians. While they would have had fewer rights in the fifties than they do now, neither would be subjected to the same conditions as working class women or women of colour. This makes Del Rey’s comments about feminism all the more galling – for most of its history, feminism in the West has exclusively catered to “women who look like [her]”.
The recent controversy surrounding Del Rey stems from criticism over her portrayal of abusive and violent relationships – she has been accused of glamourising violence against women with lyrics like “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” (Ultraviolence (2014)). She resists this criticism; she said to Pitchfork in 2017 that she no longer sings that line, but that “Having someone be aggressive in a relationship was the only relationship I knew […] what I was used to was a difficult, tumultuous relationship.” In her recent Instagram posts, Del Rey wrote that she is just being honest about relationships she’s been through while being “a glamourous person”, rather than glamourising abusive relationships – the implication being that she is therefore above criticism, because her intention is not to glamourise her subjects. It’s true that her work often has an ironic bent, going back to Born To Die: National Anthem opens, “Money is the anthem of success / So before we go out, what’s your address?” The song’s lyrics are peppered with references to expensive and high-status: “Um, do you think you’ll buy me lots of diamonds?” she asks her lover, who takes her to the Hamptons in a Bugatti Veyron. Del Rey’s description of this excessively luxurious lifestyle culminates, in the bridge, in a rapid-fire list of verbs: “We’re on a quick, sick rampage / Winin’ and dinin’, drinkin’ and drivin’, excessive buyin’ / Overdose and dyin’ on our drugs and our love and our dreams and our rage.” Music critic Bill Lamb wrote that “‘National Anthem’ seems lost in a messy blend of money, sex, and corporate greed, but it is the rousing yet graceful arrangement that solidifies the song’s point of view as a clever critique of […] society,” arguing that the theme of Born To Die as a whole is “bitter, albeit narcotized, criticism of all the wealth and emotional artifice Lana Del Rey is accused of embracing”. Norman Fucking Rockwell! was described as “a tour of sordid American dreams, going deep cover in all our nation’s most twisted fantasies of glamour and danger”, but some critics called for Del Rey to shift gears: Neil McCormick called Del Rey “something of a one-trick pony” in his review of the album. She maintains her ironic outlook, but this isn’t developed further than it was on Born To Die.
Not included on Norman Fucking Rockwell! was Del Rey’s recent standalone release Looking For America (2019), which was written in response to the Dayton and El Paso shootings in August 2019. The song describes Del Rey’s fears of gun violence: “We used to only worry about [children] after dark […] I used to go to drive-ins and listen to the blues / So many things that I think twice about before I do now,” she sings, reducing the threat of gun violence – which disproportionately effects ethnic minorities – to something that stops her from going to the movies. While Looking For America is, ostensibly, a political song, its protagonist is firmly Del Rey: it speaks to her relationships with her hobbies, with a lover, and with America itself. Its politics are rooted in patriotism: “I’m still looking for my own version of America / One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly.” Del Rey’s version of America, she seems to be telling us, is not one without inequality; it is one without violence, specifically violence which intrudes on her own life. Although Del Rey’s music does, as she claims, often offer intentional – and, sometimes, explicit – social critique, it’s not always clear where the satire comes in; she is, after all, continually deploying the very visuals she claims to be critiquing. It’s evident that America itself is not the target.
Lana Del Rey, “Looking for America”, Universal
Swift, by contrast, has only recently become politically outspoken. The “good girl” image she stuck to throughout her early career meant that her first attempt at social commentary was on 1989, the platitudinous “You can want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls” (Welcome to New York). The 1989 era saw Swift’s feminist awakening, which struck many as insincere or undermined by her gang of model girlfriends, nicknamed “The Squad”. And while she started speaking more about feminism at this point, it wasn’t until 2019 that Swift started singing earnestly about social issues. Lover sees her at her most political: The Man imagines how Swift’s life would be different (read: better) if she were a man – much like Del Rey’s vision of a gun-less America, Swift doesn’t envision a world without sexism; just one where she has the power. You Need To Calm Down is a bombastic anthem for LGBT rights whose music video features over twenty celebrities, most of whom are LGBT; the video garnered criticism for its appropriation of a trailer park lifestyle, the portrayal of homophobic protesters as poorly educated and ugly, and the idea that bigotry can be simply dismissed as negativity. Swift also drew attention for seemingly queerbaiting – in the video her hair is dyed the colours of the bi pride flag. Like Del Rey, Swift’s approach to politics is self-centred; despite insisting that she isn’t queer herself, she is the protagonist of the video. And again like Del Rey, Swift’s vision of a better future is rooted in patriotism – Swift initiated a Change.org petition for Senate support of the Equality Act, and wrote to her senator (Lamar Alexander of Tennessee) asking him to support the act. In her letter she argues that, “For American citizens to be denied jobs or housing based on who they love or how they identify is un-American and cruel,” and adds that Tennessee will lose out on big business investments due to its failure to protect LGBT citizens. Swift’s argument is not that no-one should be discriminated against for basic ethical reasons; it’s that no American citizen should be, because discrimination is not, in Swift’s eyes, an “American” value.
In addition to these in-your-face pop “anthems” for social justice, Lover also features the more sophisticated – and obscure – ballad, Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince. The song plays on Swift’s early persona as a dramatic lovestruck teenager, firmly located in the realm of high school fantasy: “They whisper in the hallway, ‘She’s a bad, bad girl’ [...] Voted most likely to run away with you.” The heart of the song, though, is Swift’s disillusionment with the Trump administration: Variety’s Chris Willman describes it as a song about “how Swift grew up as an unblinking patriot and has had to reluctantly leave behind her naiveté in the age of Trump.” The high school allegory is interesting; as well as critiquing contemporary American politics, is Swift skewering her own oeuvre? On an album which sees Swift at her most mature, both politicly and artistically, we also see her regress to her roots as a teen girl singing about high school drama – in her own words, “I never grew up / It’s getting so old” (The Archer” from Lover). While Miss Americana... was praised by some critics as “a great protest song”, its politics are perhaps not obvious enough – if its virtues (lyrical sophistication) come at the expense of its legibility, then what? Miss Americana is also the name given to Swift’s documentary, released on Netflix in January 2020. The film details Swift’s political awakening, leaving behind her “self-described ‘good girl’ fixation.” It also showcases the writing of another political song, Only The Young, which Swift wrote in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections. Like Miss Americana, the song is unspecific: the only obvious verse takes school shootings as its subject. Swift – like Del Rey – chooses a political stance that appeals to a broad audience: “a majority of Americans say they are dissatisfied with US gun laws and policies, and most of those who are unhappy want stricter legislation.” Both Miss Americana... and Only The Young are more concerned with generic “fights” and “games” than the particular political landscape they purport to be about; although Swift’s new-found freedom to speak her mind is something to be celebrated, her criticisms are still couched in adolescent metaphor, easy to overlook. Both songs, too, are concerned with preserving, not dismantling, America itself: “American glory / Faded before me [...] American stories / Burning before me”, Swift sings on Miss Americana..., looking forward to the day when her “team” will win again.
The criticisms levelled by both Swift and Del Rey are not critiques of America or its institutions; only the players they dislike. Their political activism is calculated to have a wide appeal – while LGBT rights, feminism, and gun control are all prevalent social issues in contemporary America, they are relatively palatable (especially packaged in patriotism as they are in these songs). Del Rey and Swift don’t risk alienating their bases by critiquing America itself; they undercut their activism with nationalism, fighting for the resurgence of “American glory”, looking forward to the day when “the flag can freely fly.” Given their shared investment in their public images, it’s clear that both artists are savvy enough to be making calculated choices in the way they go about voicing their political opinions: Swift’s release of “protest song[s]”, in particular, seems to be a successful ploy to appease those who criticised her in 2016 for her apoliticism. While both Swift and Del Rey seem, on the surface, to interrogate their own use of Americana aesthetics, their work doesn’t quite merit the label “subversive”. Instead, both artists continue to not only deploy but capitalise on these aesthetics, very literally profiting from the capitalist institutions they profess to critique. By dismissing certain facets of contemporary American life as “un-American”, both in fact contribute to the perpetuation of America’s self-fetishisation, without interrogating what “America” and “Americanness” actually mean.
Nicky is a cultural critic who also writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and drama. She can usually be found on Twitter writing long threads about Taylor Swift and Caroline Calloway. Find out more at Nicky’s website.