Watch them dance, and you’ll understand. Everything you need to know about the differences between Taylor Swift and Lana del Rey can be gleaned from the way these two move when they’re up on the stage, standing in the spotlight. How to describe Swift’s flailing, slender limbs—sometimes keeping the rhythm (or a rhythm—any rhythm), though more often not? Is she Bambi-like—all doe eyes, downward-pointing chin, knock-knees? Or is it that she’s more colt-like, an animal whose appeal is best understood by the same demographic that most relates to Swift, namely, adolescent girls? No matter really, because klutzy moves aside, Swift is compelling on stage, not in spite but because of the immense effort she puts into each and every movement she makes, the only effortless thing about her being her desperation to please, to be loved. Is this why Swift, despite being objectively lovely, is so devoid of sex appeal*? Perhaps. Because whatever else she is, Swift is almost defiantly unsexy.
And then there’s Lana del Rey.
In direct contrast to Swift’s manic movements, del Rey’s dancing is trance-like. And it’s not just that she seems to be in a trance herself—each motion she makes more subtle than the last, so that at times it seems like she is not so much moving as she is being moved—it’s also that her dancing leaves us in a trance, something akin to an altered state. Her movements are an extension of del Rey herself—dreamy and perverse. None of which is to say that del Rey’s dancing is in any way naturalistic, or uncontrived, rather that what it is that del Rey has created is deliriously, blatantly compelling, fueled as it is by those three universally appealing things: sex, drugs, rock and roll. And it is the effort that del Rey has put into her constructed persona that makes its pull so powerful and undeniable. Del Rey knows we will be attracted to her, but she is the one who determines how. We want her, but she gives herself to us on her own terms and we have to go along for the ride. And it takes an enormous amount of control on the part of del Rey to pull that off. Everything about del Rey is a construct: those lips, that hair, her name. Not everyone was lucky enough to be born with a name like Taylor Swift.
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by Swift in which she revealed her belief that the “future of music is a love story.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Swift reveals herself as “an enthusiastic optimist,” demonstrates a rather simplistic understanding of art (“music is art, and art is important and rare… important, rare things are valuable”), and advocates for artists who want to be commercially viable to be true to their emotions so that their work hits people “like an arrow through the heart.” Swift also reveals that her habit of surprising her concert-going audiences with famous musical guest stars is a way of keeping her shows fresh, and her fans “caught off guard, delighted, left in awe.” Swift’s earnestness is palpable; her belief that she knows the path to success and that (shockingly!) it happens to coincide exactly with what it is that she’s always done—what she’ll always do—is about as endearing as her dancing is, which, highly and everything, but “endearing” is not really enough, you know? Swift’s optimism is so clearly predicated on a philosophy which dictates that everything will be ok if you try your best and believe in yourself and in the goodness of others and, I don’t know, love and kittens and America and Instagram. It’s also an optimism that works especially well if you already happen to be Taylor Swift, which most of us—for better or for worse—aren’t.
And, of course, one person who is decidedly not Taylor Swift and who couldn’t be Swift if she tried, is Lana del Rey. Del Rey never talks about how she plans to one day “just be sitting back and growing old, watching all of this happen or not happen, all the while trying to maintain a life rooted in this same optimism.” Del Rey doesn’t say anything about wanting “a nice garden.” No, del Rey says things like: “I wish I was dead already. I do! I don’t want to, like, have to keep doing this.” Del Rey doesn’t shame other women for stealing her boyfriend. Del Rey is the other woman, unabashed in that status, though cognizant of its inherent tragedy. And, in fact, this is what makes del Rey the antithesis of Swift. Despite the fact that both have attained an inordinate amount of success, del Rey recognizes the futility of it all, the reality that even real-life happy endings—filled with gardens and kittens and needlepoint—don’t guarantee happiness for every person. The fallacy of Swift’s optimism is that it pretends to be universal—Swift genuinely thinks that the answer to all problems is to try your best and be a good person and that everything then will turn out just fine. Swift can think this because it’s what happened to her. But that kind of optimism is reductive, of course, in that it ignores the fact that many people’s “best” will never approach Taylor Swift’s worst.
More than that, though, its false cheeriness can’t stand up to the existence of someone like del Rey, who is also an artist and also successful, but who fails to share Swift’s optimism and instead embraces nihilism and—most importantly—is better and more seductive for her pathos. And seductiveness (or sexiness or desire or whatever you want to call it) is not only the essence of art, but also of life because it is a demonstration of power. Swift’s power is a facade, it’s as much of a superficial game as the coded puzzles she includes in her liner notes. It’s not that there’s nothing real there, it’s that what’s real is banal and adolescent. Del Rey’s power is carefully constructed, and it’s a mantle she wears lightly, though the tremendous weight of it is clear. While Swift’s bright world view can be a respite from the complexities that most of us recognize (at least, those of us who are adults) as being part of life, it also softens and mutes the sometimes harsh realities that make the world real, that make the world interesting. And it’s easy to think that maybe Swift can afford to be optimistic because she already has everything. But the truth is that “having it all” (as any woman can tell you) is not the end game of anything. That even after you have it all, or pretty damn close to it, darkness and anxiety and bad choices can still plague you. And that’s why Del Rey’s importance lies in her clear opposition to Swift’s brand of optimism—her insistence that the world is a dark and troubled place, even for those who have everything, makes all of us who can’t quite quiet the demons inside feel a little less alone. Swift might think that music—and life—is “a love story,” but del Rey knows that both are just about getting fucked.
*Not that desperation or, rather, need is necessarily antithetical to sexiness, though it doesn’t always help.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen