It’s road trip season in America, a joyous post-graduation month of overloaded Instagrams and blatant cultural voyeurism. Kids from the city drive through rural territory in their parents worn-out cars to experience the pleasures of working class life – infrequent bathing, gas station coffee, insecure lodging, and maybe a decent view of the Milky Way. It’s about the only time that middle-class young people experience something resembling American patriotism, in no small part because the America they’re experiencing is so far apart from the pseudo-suburban America they’ve come to hate. It’s the patriotism that’s summed up in the concluding monologue to Lana Del Rey and Anthony Mandler’s 2012 Ride: “I believe in the country America used to be. I believe in the person I want to become. I believe in the freedom of the open road […] I am fucking crazy. But I am free”.
Hanna Lux Davis has volunteered the 2016 pop entry to this new American dream with the video for Ariana Grande’s soon-to-be hit Into You. Into You is almost comically imitative of Ride. Beyond the fringed jacket and the high-wasted cutoffs and the matching title cards, it fetishizes the same sloppy runaway love that’s Lana’s bread and butter. Both Ariana and Lana ride through the desert with dangerous men who are evidently below their class status. They both throw their hands up on the back of a motorcycle in the same slow-motion way. Their men wear the same bandanas and denim vests.
Stylistic imitation of Lana Del Rey is hardly a crime given the deliberate derivativeness of her entire career. Nothing about Anthony Mandler’s video for Ride could be described as ‘original’. He and Lana work only in the exploitation of bland American tropes – further exploitation and imitation seems like an intentional extension of their project. Lana was exploiting the emptiness of festival signifiers long before festival signifiers became a distinct visual culture, and it’s wryly fitting that copycatting her signature flower crown has become a central component of the Coachella look. Everyone who perpetuates the cycle of her inane brand of Americana only strengthens the deconstructive nastiness of her art.
Ariana is a perfect successor to that meta-inauthenticity. From the start she’s pumped her glossy performances full of discrepancy. Her appeal lies less in her pop star abilities than in the sense that there’s something missing from her performance. She might be a serial killer, she might be an eccentric diva, she might be a stoner with an irrepressible love of donuts. Whatever she is she’s not a canned pop star, and that’s been evident since the deer-in-the-headlights discomfort that’s bled through her videos since The Way. Like Lana, there’s more to feel in the space between the person and the performance than there is in the performance itself.
That’s not to say that a video like Into You is the same intentional postmodern clusterfuck as Ride – just that they’re functioning along the same artistic axis. There’s a reckless inauthenticity that permeates both performances. It’s one part self-aware fetishization, one part willful self-destruction, one part genuine romance. Ariana knows that Into You is a total farce. She knows that false authenticity rubs people about as wrong as condemnations of America. She knows that rolling around in cutoffs with a biker in a Southwestern motel is going to make us cringe. But she still kind of likes it, and she knows that we do too.
It’s not as if Into You doesn’t own that inauthenticity. Ariana plays a celebrity –the dangerous boy she runs away with is her bodyguard– the world she’s running from is lights and cameras. It never pretends that the working class romance that it presents is authentic. Instead it functions on an explicit escapism of downward mobility. That deliberate escapism makes it all the more relatable. Who’s gone on a road trip through the American west and not fantasized about living away from the city, drinking cheap beer and driving pick ups and shooting small animals with shotguns? The fantasy depends upon its discrepancy. It functions by exposes the possibility of breaking from the middle-class fantasy that we’ve been sold our entire lives. To engage in that break makes us feels real, grounded, anti-capitalist. It makes us want to vote for Bernie Sanders (or Donald Trump).
This is the exact prayer for authenticity that Lana Del Rey spent the first part of her career shattering. Ride disrupts its fantasy just as soon as it indulges it – you could even say that it disrupts the very indulgence. I feel gross when I watch it, mostly because it so acutely exposes the inanity of its own project, a project that I very much share. I want to feel like a real American –I want to feel free– I know at a gut level that all of these things are constructs, but I still want them anyway. Ariana’s version feels less aware, less deliberately nasty, but the underlying self-consciousness is there. This is a fantasy. This is a farce. This is a road trip with 4G mobile access. It’s a total sham – but I still want it to feel real.