Lana Del Rey, A$AP Rocky meddle with the JFK legacy
Give Lana Del Rey this much credit: She knows how to get press. Yet her latest ploy -- playing the roles of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy in the video for her song “National Anthem” -- is curiously naive. The clip reappropriates American symbols with the seeming belief that the visuals themselves will carry thesis-worthy meaning. But this is politics as accessory, which comes across especially slight during an election year, when artists regularly feel compelled to campaign and even those who are apolitical are granted a reprieve for speaking their mind.
Along with rapper A$AP Rocky, Del Rey and director Anthony Mandler aim to provoke but instead play with our expectations. They wind up with a nearly eight-minute clip that flirts with history and only casually nods toward making some very real and significant racial commentary. A$AP Rocky plays the role of John F. Kennedy, but it turns out to be not as much of a stretch as that would seem because he’s largely just playing A$AP Rocky.
Though there are lovingly framed shots of A$AP Rocky and Del Rey as our nation’s first interracial couple in the White House, there’s no attempt to show us the actual true-to-life ramifications of such roles in the view of some of the American public, especially with A$AP Rocky playing the part of a beloved political figure during the civil rights era. Consider it a missed opportunity for a could-have-been parable, as the tenure of our first black president, Barack Obama, has been met with a steady undercurrent of racial controversy (the “birther” movement) as well as the more recent news of a potentially racially charged “super PAC.”
What we get instead is selected iconic moments, like Del Rey reenacting Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” complete with the appraisal of Kennedy’s dealings with U.S. Steel, and then flip-flopping roles to play a distressed, depressed-looking Jacqueline, one apparently obsessed with flowers.
President Kennedy’s assassination hangs over the entirety of the video, and Mandler thankfully doesn’t overplay the tragedy, turning the moment of national crisis into a more personal loss.
The larger problem is that it all amounts to two young stars playing dress-up. Time has a way of softening even the most grave moments in history -- see Abraham Lincoln, freer of slaves, fighter of vampires -- but no one seems sure of how to handle the weight of the Kennedy story. It doesn’t help that Del Rey’s song is all camp, capturing the artist in full Jessica Rabbit mode as she humorlessly sings of the corruption of money and the twisted quest for gossip-page notoriety. “Money is the anthem of success,” Del Rey sings, delivering the line like she’s the star of the campus poetry slam.
“There’s a kind of micro-commentary of ‘This is the new royalty,’ you know, A$AP and Lana, trying to pick two people to maybe represent the next generation of something,” Mandler told MTV. “I think even with an African American president, it’s still controversial to see him sitting and playing JFK, it’s still taboo, even if it shouldn’t be.”
The point that everyone missed is that it’s not. As Del Ray and A$AP Rocky smoke, drink and party in the presidential retreat, we’re not being shown anything we haven’t seen in countless Snoop Dogg or Notorious B.I.G. videos, only this time it’s done in the presence of adorably confused children. Ultimately, the setting is pointless. They may as well be in Wayne Manor with Del Rey in a bat suit, as provoking thought isn’t as simple as wearing a costume.
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