Lana Del Rey has been a polarizing pop star from the start. Critics have said she’s too obsessed with outdated notions of femininity, or cringed at interviews where she’s quoted saying things like “I wish I was dead already.” Her major-label debut, Born to Die, was memorably called the “album equivalent of a faked orgasm,” simultaneously “dull, dreary, and pop-starved.” Her debut SNL performance certainly didn’t help. Amid EDM’s thudding Top 40 anthems, Lana’s take on a 2012 summer hit was one about unbearable sadness; she was practically an alien.
Since then, though, Lana hasn’t fumbled. Mining caricatures of female emptiness by cycling through different personas (the reckless biker babe on “Ride,” the depressed side chick on “Sad Girl”), but she has never strayed from her stone-cold disposition. The sangfroid holds even when she’s singing dramatically about sex, drugs, and/or violence. Her voice spans from a high, girlish Marilyn Monroe whisper replete with kiss-kiss! to the pained moans of “Pretty When You Cry,” highlighting the intense artifice in her comparably gushier vocal stylings. And when she released Honeymoon‘s “High by the Beach,” a dreary but funny ode to the exact state of being promised in the title, Lana’s typical frown morphed into more of a testy eye roll. “The truth is, I never bought into your bullshit,” she chirps. The dead-eyed withdrawal, exaggerated and aestheticized, was not just deliberate but admirably consistent across her career. She wasn’t going to change, that’s for sure. And if anyone on either side of her music could claim death from boredom, it was almost always Lana.
Over the course of her career, critics and stans have drawn parallels between Lana Del Rey and internet sad girls. Sad Girl Theory, created by artist Audrey Wollen, is the idea that girls’ sadness and destruction can be a radical act in a culture that demands they be happy. Girls post their crying selfies as art pieces; poet Melissa Broder’s Twitter persona SoSadToday chronicles her sadness with a sense of humor; and “unlikable” female characters in film, television, and beyond are lauded as heroines for not holding their feelings back. “She’s the queen of Sad Girls right now,” Wollen has said of Del Rey. “She’s doing something really radical and important, I think, she’s complicating the limits between the artificial and the emotional. She’s indulging in her own myth, her own immaterial nature as an icon.”
More often than she sounds sad, though, Lana sounds bored. “Video Games” was captivating because it expressed a universal sense of female ennui that is written in stone — the reality of being a doting girlfriend in the presence of a dude who would rather play video games than give a shit about her. Lana sings it like she’s being forced to: lines like “heaven is a place on Earth with you, tell me all the things you want to do” drip with a tired sarcasm, a quintessential pop song sentiment rendered flat and exhausted. On songs like “Cola” and “Fucked My Way Up to the Top,” she slurs her words like a girl falling asleep at the end of a long party, bragging about her gorgeous life. Nobody has ever sung the words “life is awesome, I confess” with so little enthusiasm. Even in the more dramatic of Lana’s escapades, she seems over it. “I’m singing ‘Fuck yeah, give it to me, this is Heaven, what I truly want,'” she sighs on “Gods & Monsters,” informing us in a blasé tone that she’s “an angel in the desert looking to get fucked hard.”
On her more recent albums, 2014’s Ultraviolence and 2015’s Honeymoon, she has practically abandoned the cartoonish, “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” croon of early signature songs like “National Anthem” and “Blue Jeans,” instead favoring something much darker. The majority of the songs on these records — “Ultraviolence,” “Music to Watch Boys To,” “Freak,” and more — favor breathy, almost monotone choruses, playing lyrics like “baby if you wanna leave, come to California, be a freak like me” down rather than up. The result is the sound of a woman bored with her own fantasies and trapped in her own glass coffin of a song.
It’s a vocal styling that reminds me of countless female singers who have used purposefully bored voices but are far from boring: Delta 5 on “Mind Your Own Business,” Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth on “Genius of Love,” Peaches’ restrained but filthy The Teaches of Peaches. The Waitresses’ singer Patty Donahue’s smarmy, monotone voice made the cheeky “I Know What Boys Like” a hit in the early 1980s. (“Since her vocal range was limited, I had to rely on her wit rather than her ability to belt out a song,” said songwriter Chris Butler in an interview.) Mary Timony’s smoky monotone, which she has said was inspired by Lou Reed, really made some of Helium’s best songs in the ’90s, like “Pat’s Trick.”
Boredom as an aesthetic has long had roots in art made by women. In her book Modernism, Feminism and the Culture of Boredom, Allison Pease writes that early-20th-century authors and critics like May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf used depictions of bored women to explore the misogynist limitations put on them in an era when they were legally second-class citizens. In the 1960s, Betty Friedan explored the “problem that has no name” in her classic The Feminine Mystique, in which she interviewed middle-class suburban wives who were deeply bored with homemaking. Mumblecore movies in the mid-2000s, which favored improvisational speech and plots that went nearly nowhere, launched the ascendant careers of Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig. In recent years, the pop culture phenomenon of women who are bored as hell with the banalities of male behavior has bubbled up in the form of essayist Rebecca Solnit’s writing on “mansplaining,” The Toast’s series on bored women in art, and everyday women who reserve the right have a “resting bitch face.” Asked why Siri can sound so mean, voice actress Susan Bennett said it’s because she got so bored while recording.
In her book Aftershocks of the New: Feminism and Film History, film theorist Patrice Petro writes that ennui has traditionally been seen as a sign of genius for male artists. But boredom, which is an expression of what “fails to happen,” is arguably a a subject better suited to the history of the feminine experience: relentless repetition and waiting for change to happen in a world that consistently fails you. Purposefully boring art, too, can be provocative in the ways it forces audiences to pay attention. Writing about the tedious films of Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman, Petro observes “an aesthetics of boredom [that] retains the modernist impulse of provocation and calculated assault. (How long must one watch and wait until something actually happens? How much tedium can one possibly stand?).”
“People say ‘it’s boring’ — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us,” Susan Sontag once wrote in her journals. A woman who is perpetually bored — with men, with love, and even with living — still has the power to provoke. And in the realm of pop, where women are supposed to delight us, entertain us, give us something to dream for, Lana resists. Her influence has certainly trickled across pop to artists who have cultivated sleepy sounds, including Lorde, Alessia Cara, and Banks. But while many of them have since moved on to more mainstream “engaged” pastures, Lana’s boredom has been relentless. Her catalogue of ennui can be exhausting, but her boredom seems purposeful, an exploration into the unbelievably dull corners of America, of sex, of beauty. Still, people listen to Lana and are bored. To which she might say, as she once tweeted, “You’re boring me to death and I’m already dead.”