Death Wish: On Lana del Rey and the Enduring Appeal of the Death Drive

I Wish I Were Dead Already: On Lana del Rey and the Death Drive of the Artist

Last week, in an interview with the Guardian, Lana del Rey said, “I wish I was dead already. I do! I don’t want to, like, have to keep doing this. But I am… That’s just how I feel. If it wasn’t that way, I wouldn’t say it.” Del Rey—who has been vocal about her love for and idolization of musicians who died young, like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Jimi Hendrix—was quickly and widely condemned for her comments, which many saw as flippant or offensive or desperate or, you know, all of the above. One of the people who responded negatively was Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt Cobain’s daughter, who tweeted: “the death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticise… I’ll never know my father because he died young and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s ‘cool’… Well, it’s fucking not. Embrace life, because you only get one life.” Del Ray apologized for the remarks, or rather, blamed journalist Tim Jonze for asking leading questions and having “sinister ambitions and angles,” to which Frances Bean replied, “I have no animosity towards Lana, I was just trying to put things in perspective from personal experience.”

For Frances Bean Cobain, the personal experience of living in a world in which the father she never really knew is idolized in part for the very act which prevented her from knowing him gives her a singular perspective on del Rey’s comments, and so her initial outrage is not only understandable, but is perhaps necessary in order to remember that deaths like Kurt Cobain’s do not happen in some sort of fame vacuum—real people are affected in ways that transcend what legions of fans might feel. And beyond Frances Bean, there is little doubt that the romanticization of death—especially when it comes in the form of a preternaturally talented artist like Cobain—offends many people who have been personally touched by the suicides or early deaths of loved ones. Indeed, the glorification of any death is a sometimes sordid, always complicated phenomenon, one which makes many people almost instinctively think, You don’t really mean thatYou don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t want people to love death. We want them to love the dead, but we don’t want to celebrate the means to this particular—this ultimate—end. So we feel outrage, yes, but also concern for Lana del Rey and for anyone who glorifies death. They just don’t know, we think. They can’t  understand.

And yet.

The deification of artists who died young did not start with Kurt Cobain or Janis Joplin or, for that matter, James Dean or Sylvia Plath or Jean-Michel Basquiat or Francesca Woodman or countless others—and it won’t end with Amy Winehouse or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a tradition that stretches back not just centuries, but millennia; it is as much a part of the human condition as is the celebration of life. The drives for death and life (or love) go hand in hand; Thanatos and Eros, as the death and life/love force, are inseparable—every new love marks the death of an old one, and every death serves as a reminder of what it means to love and live. And it is in our public figures—many of whom are artists—that we most clearly see the crystallization of not only our human frailties, but also our potential strength. We see the intensity of the life force, the possibilities that we want to believe are inherent in each and every one of us. We also, sometimes, see how that life force can go awry and careen out of control. Embracing the lives most fervently lived, as it turns out, also means embracing the most devastating types of death. And, in effect, seeing these public figures pursue death and embrace life is a way of making our own realities a little more real. Their lives matter, we tell ourselves. Their deaths matter, we console ourselves. And so will ours.

What’s so hard to understand about that?

Whether through music or painting, poetry or prose, an artist depicts a distorted version of the world (or some aspect of it) and, if the artist is especially good, this new version of the world reaches the level of the sublime. The specifics of the sublime are simple: beauty, terror, transformation, and awe. And for some artists, not only is the sublime evident in their art, but it is evident in them. They radiate. They dazzle. They captivate. They make it next to impossible not to romanticize their creations, and it is not rare that they themselves are also their own creation. In fact, most (if not all) of the dead, young artists who del Rey and so many others fetishize seemed to be as much persona as person, creation as well as creative—lives serving as extensions of art. And it’s hard for those of us with more conventional lives (which is most people, let’s face it) not to admire these human lightning bolts, even though we know that to be them is to risk self-immolation. So we look at the sublime from a distance, appreciate the way a dark sky can be transformed by a single streak of light and take some comfort in the fact that the light will fade, and normalcy—dark though it is—will resume.

But for others, there is no normalcy—there is only the sublime. Lana del Rey says, “I wish I was dead already.” That is a thing people say when they don’t understand what death is, we think. But del Rey most definitely does understand death, or, at least, the death drive. She is the embodiment of someone who has become more persona than person. She is pure creation, the epitome of self-invention; her public mask has long since subsumed her private face. For del Rey, the death she wishes for isn’t necessarily literal (she has, after all, been saying for years that she wants to “kill herself” and return to “normal” and her first album is titled Born to Die, concern-trolling her now is disingenuous at best, grotesque at worst), but can be seen more as a desire to dismantle the narrative she has constructed, one with which other people are consumed, but which only del Rey could potentially be consumed by.

It would be easy enough (and others have done it) to simply dismiss del Rey’s comments as lacking in either the gravity or empathy that we tend to demand when discussing death. But to only focus on that angle is to ignore our collective attraction to the dichotomy of the death drive and the life force, and our desire to find some kind of balance between them. There is nothing essentially perverse or even that dramatic about wanting to die. It is a thing children wish for, even if they don’t quite know what they are saying, or even if they do. What is perverse is condemning someone like del Rey for expressing a sentiment that has been felt almost universally, and treating her words as if they’re incomprehensible. The appeal of the death drive is as much about life as it is death; it’s about reconciling ecstasy and terror in order to transform into something else, something sublime. And while there is no need to glorify the deaths of others, neither is it helpful to treat them like aberrations. Rather, a better thing—a more human thing—would be to acknowledge the enduring appeal of the death drive, and recognize that denying its existence is, in effect, marginalizing an important part of life, and muting the complexities inherent to being human.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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