Last Exit Underclass

Lana Del Rey and the Politics of White Trash

When I discussed Lana Del Rey’s ten-minute video Ride [1] in my aesthetics seminar group there was a strong disagreement amongst the students about the quality, novelty, inventiveness, and meaning of the identity claims formulated within the video. The first impulse of several students was to regard the video as a highly commercial remix of existing clichés. They recognised echoes of road movies like Dennis Hopper’s 1969 Easy Rider and its evocation of the myth of an unrestricted biker life, and the way in which it revisits the myth of the U.S. as “the land of opportunity”.

On this basis, some of the students criticised the video in simple terms as calculated and banal. For them it seemed to fit into the common commercial rhetoric of music videos, and they thought it nothing special. In a way, I had to agree – not least because the use of images, of atmosphere, landscapes and environments seemed relatively familiar, unsurprising, since there was nothing revolutionary in the images or edits made by the director of the video, Anthony Mandler. The former Men’s Health and Entertainment Weekly photographer became famous through producing commercials with stars like David Beckham and writing and directing videos for Rihanna, Snoop Dog, Eminem, The Killers, Beyoncé and others, making him one of the most successful and most viewed directors of commercials and pop music videos.

Viewed in this light, and taking Lana Del Rey’s overall media performance into account, it comes as no surprise that the video is not ground-breaking – and this was exactly the position adopted by most of my students. But if there is a lesson to be learnt from Cultural Studies, it is that the simple identification of something as being within the mainstream does not identify whether or not a phenomenon is interesting, or complex, or provokes an in-depth analysis. Art historians and aesthetic theorists fall regularly into the trap of assuming that the attribute “mainstream” explains everything about particular qualities of a piece of music, a movie or an object – as if the label “mainstream” renders any extensive analysis superfluous. And in considering the students’ reaction, it became quite obvious that terms like “mainstream” and “kitsch” are still used as a kind of death knell for any further aesthetic discourse. The term “kitsch”, once introduced by avant-gardists like the American art critic Clement Greenberg in order to claim a clear distinction between authentic invention and second-hand emotions, the real and the fake, novelty and cliché, and so on,[2] is still used as a terminal phrase, and therefore often causes us to overlook how deeply popular culture is connected with the multi-layered practices of self-construction and the blueprints of our social life. No wonder, I explained to the participants of my course, that I did not select the video to celebrate it as an example of the aesthetic inventiveness of an individual artist or to present my own musical taste (since such an approach is highly questionable), but rather to demonstrate that this ten-minute film draws significant attention to the aesthetic manifestation of so-called under-classes, more precisely that of “white trash”[3]. And despite – or perhaps precisely because – the retro-aesthetics the video refers to this milieu in, for the moment, an irritating way, then this is worth a closer look.

Lolita got lost in the hood

To begin an analysis of the video, which I will then integrate into a broader discourse, let me start by describing the way Del Rey stages herself in the clip, since the singer is – quite conventionally for a music video – the main character. Del Rey appears in three guises: firstly, as a kind of bored and lascivious street urchin, seemingly only one step away from prostitution, then as a biker babe, and finally as a glamorous 1960s pop diva.

Within the first persona she strolls around at night, buys a soft drink at a 24 hour store, waits at a corner until, seemingly at random, a man in a car stops and she gets into the car and kisses him. In this scene she wears cut-off-denim-shorts, a baggy white T-shirt (obviously without a bra underneath), and Converse chucks.

The stocky and tattooed middle-aged man is dressed in a so-called “wife beater” and has greasy long hair. Later, we will see the two playing a pinball machine – or more precisely, we see him standing behind her, pressing his groin against her bottom while playing pinball, whereas she, lascivious and bitchy, lolls on the machine and smokes.

If we were in search of a single image to describe the American white trash lifestyle, this scenario would provide the perfect example. All gender stereotypes and attitudes, all objects and behavioural patterns point in this direction.[4] “I was a singer. Not a very popular one”, Del Rey says during the video’s three-minute prologue, which “alludes to the fact that her character might be a prostitute”, writes a blogger in The Huffington Post.[5]

One might say that this kind of slutty image is quite common in current mainstream pop videos, and even more within the hip-hop and rap genres, where glamorous ‘bitches’ in bikinis dance in dirty underground tunnels accompanied by overweight men covered with striking fake jewellery. Del Rey, however, translates this genre into lascivious naïve romantic melancholy. Her interpretation of the lower classes and the abandoned suburbs is different. She gives the white trash iconography a particular interpretation. Del Rey performs this character with a certain gloom and fatalism. Her description of herself as “Lolita got lost in the hood”, given in an interview in The Guardian[6], seems therefore an appropriate way to describe this archetype.


Easy Rider

Her second way of staging herself, that of an American biker-babe, is not easily distinguishable from the first image. She wears similar but more decorous clothes and seems to be part of a biker gang. Dressed in a studded and washed-out jean-jacket with long fringes, or a black leather jacket, again with fringes, or just a white T-shirt with a sexist print and cut-off shorts and white cowboy boots, she hangs out at a gasoline station and smokes close to the “no smoking” sign.

Some bikers on choppers pick her up after a while. Later we see them riding on long roads through the desert, Del Rey as a pillion passenger, her long hair flowing behind. In other scenes, the bikers ride through a campfire, drink alcohol and play with guns. Del Rey now wears a Native American feather headdress and holds the Star-Spangled Banner. “I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy,” says the singer in the epilogue, voiced-over images of the campfire scene, and then she ends:

“Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people, and finally, I did. On the open road. We had nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore, except to make our lives into a work of art. Live fast, die young, be wild, and have fun. I believe in the country America used to be. I believe in the person I was to become. I believe in the freedom of the open road, and my motto is the same as ever: I believe in the kindness of strangers. And when I’m at war with myself, I ride. I just ride. Who are you? Are you in touch with all of your darkest fantasies? Have you created a life for yourself where you can experience all of them? I have. I am fucking crazy, but I am free.”

Most of the biker images are connected directly to the song’s refrain, “just ride”, and, like the epilogue, are obviously reminiscent of “Easy Rider”, a tragic vision of the American Dream in which the search for freedom is corrupted and hindered by conformists and violent rednecks. The text of Del Rey’s song engages with this issue and presents her own desperate quest for identity ensnared within a retro-view on America and a dark version of freedom.



Fatal Vamp –and other identity claims

While these two identities – or should one say personalities? – appear from the very beginning of the video, the third alter ego turns up only when Del Rey starts to sing.

She stands alone on a stage and wears a white retro-style dress. Similar to her very first video for the song Video Games, Del Rey combines a glamorous retro outfit with the image of a trash-pop queen. This is how we know her. Interestingly, the camera turns outside the building to show lettering above the event venue spelling-out “Fatal Charm”, and under it “Lana Del Rey”; media commentary of Del Rey integrated in the scene.

In many critiques of Video Games it was stated how disconcerting Del Rey’s amateurishly injected “Daffy Duck lips”[7] and her obviously cheap nail design appear in combination with her vintage sixties style; glamorous, melancholic. This image gave her the reputation as a “White Trash Vamp”[8] or a “Gangster Nancy Sinatra”[9] who intermingles “film noir and nostalgia”.[10] Her eclectic mix of codes fascinated many critics and led to controversial conclusions. Some celebrate her style and claimed she asks questions about identity in such a way that they appear as answers.[11] Others think she is just a through-and-through fake.[12] At least, however – and this again is typical for a pop discourse – all efforts to decode her strange symbolism become entangled with the old question of authenticity. Is Lana Del Rey, alias Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, just an artificial figure? Questions like this frame almost any interview with her.[13] Despite Adorno’s doubts formulated in The Jargon of Authenticity[14], or Foucault‘s discursive analytical transformation of subjectivity into subjectivation[15], the concept of authenticity and the search for the real or “authentic ego” still seems to be a robust mental entity; one which has survived various efforts of deconstruction. In spite of postmodern intellectual approaches claiming that there is no such thing as a “real ego”, people continue to ask questions: Is Lana Del Rey just a pulp novel figure falling in love with the wrong men, a simple B movie character ready to absorb all kinds of cheap romantic escape fantasies, or is this just her stage persona?[16]

But we will not make much progress in exploring the phenomenon of “Lana Del Rey” in this direction. It does not help if one knows she grew up as a middle-class American girl who, after a serious identity crisis, studied philosophy, was employed as a social worker and lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of New York.[17] Even if it is true, it does not reveal secrets about the figure in the video; it only produces new layers of codes. And in the end, the old question of authenticity – if we put it in this way – will always lead to a dead end. I will therefore not evaluate the video in terms of the “commercial” or “non-commercial” or “authentic” and “fake”. The more interesting question seems to be: what kind of desires and identity claims are generated in Del Rey’s work? What constellation of symbolic worlds make-up this piece of pop culture? And finally: What does a successful work like this tell us about the aesthetics of today’s mainstream culture?


Why White Trash?

One stimulus for me to examine this piece was the interaction between the female protagonist – Lana Del Rey’s alter egos – and the overweight, greasy older men. My impression was that these scenes were more than simply a calculated provocation. With regard to Del Rey’s other videos, they seem a more obviously related reference to the American lower class and the so-called white trash milieu.

In a distinction from women in rap and hip-hop, Del Rey does not stage herself as the typical sexy it-girl or the rebellious voice of the so-called “underdog”; someone who gives the underprivileged a voice to articulate social evils or the struggles of everyday life under conditions of poverty, unemployment, desperation, drugs and violence. On the contrary, in Del Rey’s projection of them, the underprivileged seem to combine moments of bored, meaningless existence with fragile and elusive promises of freedom and happiness.

I would like to go through some elements of the video and try to demonstrate that Del Rey’s videos are not simply a mixture of vintage images with a range of references, but also a striking example of a new aesthetic interest in social sub-stratum – an interest which can also be observed in some current art practices.

My thesis is that the interest in the white trash milieu is not voyeuristic. It has, in fact, become a screen upon which to project yearnings and desires – desires for a life beyond the flexible late capitalism, in which every emotion has become a subject of the service economy. An economy in which every artistic utterance is suspected of being made to promote a career or to produce or sell a commodity, and in which all emotions have become quotes from the cultural industries, since it was, after all, through the cinema that we learned how to feel.[18] Within this “liquid modernity”, to use a term of Zygmunt Bauman[19] – the whole of everyday life, the whole process of subjectification, our emotions and social relations are not just suspect as being the subject of economic interests, but, as Eva Illouz puts it, are themselves a product of and designed by the cultural industries.[20] I would like to argue, therefore, that the present aesthetic interest in under-privileged social groups and societal outcasts results from a desire to escape the ubiquitous logic of a dominant capitalist system. A successful middle class, itself endangered by potential social decline, considers the lower class not only as a danger, but as a projection of an existential way of life. A life, reduced to basic needs and a particular emotional veracity. That, at least, would be my reading of the video.

I do not pretend to claim that this is an overall phenomenon. But it is one possible framework of interpretation; an interpretation that becomes all the more plausible the more we think of other famous figures within the current pop culture. Lady Gaga’s hyper-artificial staging, for instance, also performs a model to escape the system of late capitalist society. Her performances and videos invoke over-alienation and could be interpreted as a form of cynical enlightenment and example of a post-ideology-critical era.


The Social Substratum in the Arts

In order to substantiate my interpretation I will re-frame Del Rey’s work with a few other examples. I will argue why this video shows a search for – or maybe a reconstruction of – the written-off idea of authenticity, and that Del Rey’s pop-cultural project is to insinuate that this can be found in the milieus of the underprivileged, where people are presumed to be uncorrupted by career ambitions or the concept of permanent self-improvement. Seen from this perspective it makes sense to re-make the Easy Rider motif, and re-tell the story of outcasts and white trash bikers in search of “the true America”.

To underline my argument that this new focus on outcasts or the under- or lower-classes also plays an important role in visual arts, I would like to use some examples from the art of the nineties. These are not given to suggest imitation by Del Rey; rather to suggest that many artists borrow their content from underprivileged classes, and approach these milieus in various ways.

One example is the American photographer Nan Goldin who became famous in the 1990s with a slideshow called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Her pictures involve a circle of friends from the New York drug and drag queen scene to which the artist herself belonged.

Nan Goldin, 'Nan One Month After Being Battered', 1984. From the series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

Nan Goldin, ‘Nan One Month After Being Battered’, 1984. From the series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

A glamorous demimonde and subculture is documented in intimate moments: in the bathroom, in bed, in the shower, having sex, and so on. Goldin’s photographs oscillate between tender and fragile dreams of happiness and existential gulfs.[21]

Another example is the British artist Richard Billingham, who took a series of photographs that were, in relative terms, shocking for the art world of the 1990s. The snapshot-like photographs showed an elderly couple in dilapidated social housing: she, the woman, overweight, and always involved with food, pets or puzzles, or fighting with her husband; and he, toothless, almost always sitting next to or holding a large bottle of cider.[22]

Richard Billingham, Colour Photograph 1996. From the series Ray’s a laugh.

The photos give close insights into the private sphere of people at the bottom of society. From the first glance, Billingham’s pictures raise questions of how a photographer gained access to these people and how the interaction between photographer and his subjects must have been. It is therefore all the more surprising to learn that Billingham is the couple’s son. The series of photographs provoked a debate about social pornography.[23]

Another example is Boris Mikhailov, the Ukrainian artist, who took a series of 400 photographs entitled Case History, in which are reflected the everyday life of people in Ukraine. Within this series, his most famous group of images were about homeless people – those without any social support.[24] And a last example: The German photographer Tobias Zielony took several series of photographs of marginalized groups and youth subcultures in the UK, Germany, France and the US. Of these, in particular, the series about Trona, a stronghold of crystal-meth users in the Californian desert, brought him international fame.[25]

I will not go any further into these examples. And the differences to Lana Del Rey’s fictitious video narrative are that all these photographs are documentary works, and that the photographers are more-or-less participating observers of these milieus. They brought pictures of marginalized groups to public attention. I would call this a significant on-going trend in photographic practice. This kind of photography seems to follow a particular demand – but what is the nature of this strange demand? Is it simply an interest in society and its relations of inequality?

A cause of more irritation however, is that this sort of photography has become a luxury commodity. It seems anomalous to show pictures of socially excluded groups in the elegant surroundings of MOMA in New York. It seems inappropriate to look at kids sniffing glue and to see eczema on the ass of an unknown poor man in a dignified and reputable gallery. And what is even stranger is that these pictures are traded like Hermes handbags.

Social documentary photography has a long tradition – it is nearly as old as photography itself. But its current presence and significance in the art field is relatively new and has to do with an overall tendency: political art has become fashionable.[26] The documentation and representation of outcasts is assumed to be a political action, and is often regarded as social criticism, as an act of giving a voice to people who cannot speak for themselves. It is questionable how credible this interpretation is, but it could be understood as a parallel trend to hip-hop and rap culture in the last twenty or so years. And so what I want to make tenable is that Del Rey’s video is not only a follow-up, but a reinterpretation of this trend – from an entirely opposite position.


Reading Social Criticism Against the Grain

So to conclude, I will come back to Lana Del Rey’s Ride. Del Rey’s work is far from being social criticism. Rather it belongs to the post-ideology-critical era. Her plots are fiction; fiction which does not, in any way, document real social circumstances. What is irritating about her approach to the white trash aesthetic is that she plays with it and in doing so returns to this in search of what Sloterdijk calls “basic fictions”. In his famous critique of critical theory, Sloterdjik asks: “Can we afford to shake up the ‘basic fictions’ of privacy, personality, and identity? Be that as it may, in this question both old and new conservatives have come to the hard decision to take the ‘stance’ of defending, against all the demands of reflection, their ‘unavoidable lies for living,’ without which self-preservation would not be possible.”[27]

If we understand Del Rey’s video as a reflection about identity, it is not a naïve reflection, but one made in Sloterdijk’s sense. When Del Rey’s film ends with an epilogue, in which she postulates that her only desire is “to make our lives into a work of art”, she suggests that the only way to be free and at peace with yourself is to understand yourself as a fiction, a story, an image. This is insisting on exactly what Sloterdijk calls “basic fictions”, fictions which are informed about their own fictionality, but at the same time insist on their reality, since there is no other reality beyond this fictionality. So, on the one hand Del Rey’s film celebrates the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.

When Del Rey’s alter ego in Ride spoons with a man from the white trash milieu, this is far away from a political rap. It is clichéd idealization of the lower classes. The same applies to the scene in which a tattooed biker combs her hair: it is a gesture of protection.

The middle class girl seeks shelter and refuge from someone who clearly does not belong to mainstream late capitalist society, and is located within the white trash milieu. A milieu that, if it is addressed as such, also makes visible that “whiteness serves a sort of invisible norm“[28] or an oppressive ideological construct; since, as Newitz and Wray wrote, “making whiteness visible to whites” also uncovers and exposes the assumption that being white is a norm or a privilege.[29] Newitz and Wray go on to identify that: “White trash speaks to the hybrid and multiple nature of identities, the ways in which it comes to issues of race and class in the US: because the term foregrounds whiteness and working-class or underclass poverty, two social attributes that usually stand far apart in the minds of many Americans”[30]. Del Rey refers to white trash in a particular way. By staging herself integrally as a part of this milieu – without any criticism or rap – she also suggests that there is no privileged way of life but simply moments. And the most precious moments are those moments in which she is sheltered and protected by underprivileged men. Del Rey’s video, therefore, also reanimates Ernst Bloch’s myth of the spiritual warmth of the underclass.[31] The crucial difference is that the underclass is not an oppressed proletariat, but is staged as a new formation: a dirty-yet-free post-labour society.


[1] (last accessed 20/2/2013).

[2] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review, 6, 5 (1939), pp 34-49.

[3] Concerning the term cf. Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray “Introduction” in White Trash:  Race and Class in America, (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[4] One can find descriptions of outfits exactly like this on several webpages like the urban dictionary f.i.:; cf. also Dana Rasmussen, Things White Trash People Like: The Stereotypes of America’s Poor White Trash (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2011); for an explanation of the term Newitz and Wray, “Introduction”, p. 2 et seq.

[5] (last accessed 20/2/2013)

[6] Rosie Swash, “One to watch: Lana Del Rey. After posting one song online, this 24-year-old American singer sold out a London gig in half an hour”, in: (last accessed 20/2/2013)

[7] Jan Wehn and Timo Feldhaus, “Lana Del Rey im Interview. Sexelnde Samplequeen,” De:Bug 159 (2012); (last accessed 20/2/2013).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Edward Helmore, “Rhinestone Maiden”, (last accessed 20/2/2013).

[10] Wehn and Feldhaus, “Lana Del Rey im Interview“.

[11] Ibid.

[12]  Matthew Perpetua, “Lana Del Rey Tries to Live Up to Her Glamorous Image at New York Show. The online sensation has the voice, but not yet the stage presence”, (last accessed 20/2/2013).

[13] Paul Harris, “Lana Del Rey: The strange story of the star who rewrote her past”, (last accessed 20/2/2013).

[14] Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (London: Routledge, 1973/2003).

[15] Cf. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1975).

[16] Cf. Tim Noakes, “Lana Del Rey. Bad Girl Blues”, (last accessed 20/2/2013).

[17] Anne Waak, „Einführung in die Metaphysik der Lippen. Lana del Rey wuchs im Trailerpark auf und studierte Philosophie. Eine Begegnung mit dem Popstar der Stunde”, Welt am Sonntag (29/01/12); (last accessed 20/272013).

[18] “Kein Gefühl, das nicht bloßes Zitat eines anderen wäre. Man kennt die Liebe, schließlich war man im Kino.” (Thomas Hübener, „Lana Del Rey Video Games“, (last accessed 20/2/2013).

[19] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).

[20] Eva Illouz, Saving the Modern Soul (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008).

[21] Cf. David Amstrong and Walter Keller, Nan Goldin. The other Side (Manchester:  Lovelybooks, 1993); Karen van den Berg, “Glück in der zeitgenössischen Kunst. Wellnessübungen und Neuro-Apparaturen, Süßigkeiten und Drag Queens”, Glück. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch, ed. Dieter Thomä, Christoph Henning, Olivia Mitscherlich-Schönherr (Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler, 2011), pp. 326-334.

[22] Michael Collin and Julian Germain (ed.), Richard Billingham. Ray’s a laugh (Zürich/Berlin/New York: Scalo, 1996).

[23] Cf. Greg Fallis, „Richard Billingham“,

[24] Boris Mikhailov, Time is out of joint (Berlin: Distanz, 2012).

[25] Streetlife and Homestories, Exhibition catalogue (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012).

[26] Political artists have become the new market winners. Andrea Fraser explains the phenomenon with a joke, which goes like this: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to quote Marx.” Cf. Andrea Fraser, „Speaking of the Social World“, Texte zur Kunst, 8, (March 2011), pp. 88-94; ref. on 93.

[27] Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 60.

[28] Newitz and Wray, “Introduction”, p. 3.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid. p. 4.

[31] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, transl. N. Plaice, S. Plaice and P. Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986).

Screengrabs from ‘Ride’, Dir. Anthony Madler. Courtesy Universal.
Other images copyright the artists.

There are 6 comments

  1. Lynette

    Hi, really love your post ….
    but what about a young girl having an experience with an older (biker) man? I guess it’s like searching for new life experiences at some point, like an hedonist way of thinking… just wanted to know your point of view about that. thank you.x

  2. Karen van den Berg

    Dear Lynette,
    You are absolutely right! I left out many aspects. First of all one could write much more about Del Rays Lolita image – also given in the motive of the swing… The piece is full of borrowed identites and adapted life experiences.
    Thanks for your comment! KvdB

  3. ming on mongo

    An interesting cultural perspective, although whenever folks speak of the ‘white underclass’, at least in the U.S., I wonder whether they realize that most of that ‘identity’ basically represents the values not of underclass Italians, Poles, Jews, French, Puerto Ricans, etc….. but it’s really just about one culture, e.g. the Scots-Irish (aka ”Ulster Scots”), who mainly settled in Appalachia and the ante-bellum South. And while many of these ”sons of the south” have since spread to other parts of the country, or even inter-married with other cultures, it’s still basically the same drinkin’, fightin’, Fundamentalist white underclass, Scots-Irish culture, regardless whether they hail from Georgia, Missouri, Idaho, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, or even California, where so many of the Okies resettled after the Great Depression.

    Or as VA senator Jim Webb describes his own Ulster Scots ancestors, in ”Born Fighting, How the Scots-Irish Shaped America”, they descended from a lowland Scots warrior culture, who have always viewed the world thru the lens of conflict and fightin’ (and drinking, and that Old Time Religion, itself descended from Scottish Calvinism). And BTW, black conservative author Thomas Sowell makes a pretty persuasive argument in “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”, that even contemporary black urban culture isn’t even truly ”black” (aka, African), but is mostly just the same values that the slaves acquired from the antebellum southern white underclass. So rednecks, Harleys, tats, the cults of “respect” and the “badass”, overweight pugnacious men (and women), anti-education, anti-elites, a love of the military, a “victim” mentality, lotsa substance abuse, “trailer trash and proud”, plus no small amount of xenophobia (aka ”you ain’t from around here, are ‘ya?”)… all that’s not simply about some economically & politically disadvantaged “white underclass”, but instead those are really hard-core cultural values that go back much further, even many centuries, to the Scottish Border and Hadrian’s Wall!

  4. mikael rickardsson

    Very interesting read. Not many people ” gets ” Lana Del Rey. I think this author is the closest yet. She’s so complex that I may be wrong. I also like the ming on mongo comment. It is in my opinion very true.

Comments are closed.