“Lolita is a burlesque of the confessional mode, the literary diary.”
—Alfred Appel Jr., in his introduction to The Annotated Lolita
“Baby put on heart-shaped sunglasses ‘cause we’re gonna take a ride.”
—Lana Del Rey
I moved to Los Angeles at the end of last summer to sell my soul to the internet. When my job opportunity in new-media listicle construction fell through, I searched for sublets on Craigslist to borrow time. My first roommate was offering a room in an Echo Park bungalow-cum-rapper crash pad. He was an indie hip-hop producer who is, in his own way, pretty famous; I’d wake up to find rappers on the couch, rappers on the living room floor, rappers in the shower or using the microwave.
One week, my roommate and his girlfriend went to Humboldt County in Northern California to camp and cut marijuana. I enjoyed having the house to myself for maybe twelve hours, wandering around in my underwear and watching my roommate’s VHS tapes. Then Josh, a rapper, showed up; he had come from San Diego to spend a week mastering his new album. Josh is a funny, gentle weirdo with Kramer haircut and a tattoo of Emilio Zapata. “In San Diego they call me EPM,” he told me, “Epiphanies Per Minute.” One night when Josh was there, my friend Justin texted me an audio file of a poem called “Drizzy,” named for the rapper Drake. I placed my phone on the kitchen table and Josh and I gathered around it. “Why why why am I crying alone on my bed,” Justin read, “with Xbox Live home screen glow.” It continued, “I am for everyone to smile bigger than any city they fell in love with after college.” Josh buried his head in his hands. “Let’s listen to it again,” he said. A few days later, when my roommate came back from the wilderness, he told me that a rapper friend had just gotten to town from Chicago and he was going to stay in my room. I packed up my stuff and left on October 1st.
A few weeks later, defeated by a day of work, I was driving on Union Street, leaving downtown LA, when I first heard “American Girl” by Bonnie McKee on a new music show on Top 40 radio. It’s a juicy pop jam structured around guitar riffs brazenly ripping off “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” I later learned that it was not properly “new music” at all—it had been released in July in a bid for the title of Summer Anthem, reached number eighty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts, and fallen back below the radar. “American Girl” reminded me of another underrated single from summer 2013: “Made in the USA” by Demi Lovato is a hybrid country-dance pop track featuring both acoustic guitars and a throbbing drum machine beat. “I know that we will never break/Because our love was made in the USA” goes the crucial line in the song’s chorus, evoking a love with as much integrity as an American factory.
The fact that the height of American patriotism coincides with the height of the summer—and the mega-success of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”—might explain the popular gambit of namedropping America in your summer pop single. But what makes “American Girl” remarkable is how laced it is with pop cliché irony. Her vision of the American includes the United States’ prodigious tackiness. “I fell in love in a 7-11 parking lot,” the song begins, “Sat on the curb drinking Slurpees we mixed with alcohol.” She also touches on even more problematic aspects of the national character, as in the best line in the track’s chorus: “I was raised by a television./Every day is a competition.” The picture she paints of an American girl is someone ambitious, independent, rebellious, and trashy. “I am an American girl,” she sings over and over, “And I’m loving taking over the world.” The “American Girl” music video is even cheekier and more frenetic than the song: McKee and her gang do porny dances in 7-11 and in front of a vending machine; they play the retro board game Girl Talk and hang out at the mall; McKee chills by a pool wearing American flag-print Lolita sunglasses; and they drive a red Mustang to Inn-N-Out, then out past the Hollywood sign to the canyons surrounding Los Angeles. At the end, the Mustang inexplicably explodes into flames, so McKee and her friends roast marshmallows. McKee illustrates Los Angeles’ special boredom—there is nothing to do, but so much to get into. She’s not the only one who has believed the essential invocation of the American—and more specifically Californian—spirit is the bored, sexually mature suburban teenager.
My second roommate in Los Angeles was a twenty-one-year-old who had a cat named after Joan Didion; that was the main reason I moved in with her. She was offering a two-month sublet in her apartment on the far western edge of Echo Park. She had gotten the apartment with her best friend who ended up never moving in. The complex raked up from the crowded street in a series of rose-filled terraces. My roommate showed me sheepishly how the place seemed to be made out of styrofoam and cardboard. “I got drunk, fell down, and kicked a hole in the wall,” she said, pointing out an opening in the thin plaster. The first night I moved in, ants came out from cracks in the closet and swarmed my backpack. My roommate gave me Lysol, which I sprayed over the entire surface of the floor and on many of my belongings. I had no furniture. A few days after I moved in, the bulb in the overhead light burned out. My roommate told me hers had stopped working months before, and she had been using candles ever since. I was at my waitressing job seven miles away in Century City from 10am to 9pm most days, and when I got home, I watched Dateline and ate hot sauce-flavored potato chips by the light of my laptop. I slept on the floor the whole time I lived there.
“Something bad happened to me today,” my roommate told me one night when I came home. She had put a bottle of white wine in the freezer and forgotten about it, and it exploded. She carefully hoarded the hunks of frozen wine in our Tupperware. “Aren’t you afraid of drinking glass?” I said. “I made an IndieGogo page to fund a new bottle of wine,” she said. Three weeks in, she told me that her best friend wanted to move in after all, and I would have to move out after one month instead of two. My clothes and books were still in the milk crates I had moved them in.
Bonnie McKee was born in 1984 and raised in Seattle. She released a teen pop album in 2004 that failed to chart and was dropped from her label, then became addicted to crystal meth. In 2009, she was introduced to mega-producer Dr. Luke, with whom she wrote eight number one singles for artists like Britney Spears and Katy Perry. The question is whether she will ever be known as anything other than a songwriter—whether she can shift her public image from hit-deliverer to star. Her second full-length album was set to be released in Spring 2014, but she hasn’t dropped another single.
Demi Lovato was born in 1992 and began her entertainment career as a child actor on Barney & Friends. Starting in 2007, she was indentured to the Disney Channel for three years, starring in the Camp Rock movies and the TV series Sonny with a Chance. Lovato is famous for her struggles with mental health issues; she said that she first experienced suicidal thoughts at the age of seven. In 2011 she entered rehab to get treatment for bulimia, cocaine addiction, and bipolar disorder. This ended her relationship with the Disney Channel, but it also helped her graduate from “tween star” to “serious artist.” “Ms. Lovato is twice the rebel Ms. Gomez is,” the New York Times said after the release of Lovato’s fourth album, Demi, comparing her to her former Disney Channel colleague, Selena Gomez, “and four times the singer.”
Lana Del Rey was born Lizzy Grant in 1986. She went to rehab for alcoholism when she was fifteen, and she studied philosophy at Fordham. In 2008, she released an album as Lizzy Grant before rebranding herself as Lana Del Rey, a “self-styled gangster Nancy Sinatra.” Because it was unclear whether she or her management were behind the shift in her persona, people wondered whether the moody, retro sound of her popular lead single, 2011’s “Video Games,” was a craven corporate attempt to manipulate the indie audience, the Plan B of an artist who couldn’t succeed by being herself. Lana Del Rey’s first album, Born to Die has sold over five million copies; her second album, Ultra Violence, debuted at number one.
Halfway through Lana Del Rey’s 2012 Paradise EP, she breaks out a lugubrious cover of the fifties standard “Blue Velvet,” and no one is surprised. She has always shared filmmaker David Lynch’s fetish for fifties culture, singing about looking for her James Dean and the “fifties babydoll dress” she would wear to her wedding. With Lynch’s twisted fifties aesthetic as a guiding standard, Del Rey’s music is an odd and innovative mix of trip hop and cabaret, featuring both echo-y drum beats and cinematic strings, sometimes stripped down, fuzzy, washed out, other times lush and retro. She has developed a fully imagined persona that goes way beyond the concept album, something like a freaky Connie Francis with a death wish.
In the United States, the nineteen fifties is remembered as the most nostalgically, wholesomely American decade, riding the pride of winning World War II into the paranoid patriotism of the Cold War. Precisely because of this wholesomeness, nineteen fifties America is a trope that is easily, and enjoyably, perverted. Del Rey’s music is overtly about America, with song titles like “American” and “National Anthem.” She displays an almost Freudian interest in her cultural origins—who begot her, who formed her vision of herself. Maybe this is why she displays an obviously, kinkily Freudian interest in fucking her dad.
“I gots a taste for men who are older,” Del Rey sings on “Cola,” a sentiment that, taken with the rest of her catalogue, is laughably obvious. Most of the relationships she describes have a creepy daddy-daughter dynamic. “God I’m so crazy, baby,” she sings on “Off to the Races,” “I’m sorry that I’m misbehaving.” Most stunning is another line on “Cola”: “I fall asleep in an American Flag./I pledge allegiance to my dad.”
“Light of my life,/Fire of my loins,/Be a good baby, do what I want,” Del Rey sings on “Off to the Races,” and doesn’t that sound familiar. Not only does that song audaciously quote from the first chapter of Lolita, elsewhere on Born to Die, there’s a track called “Lolita.” Her song “Carmen”—”it’s alarming honestly how charming she can be”—recalls a popular song Humbert quotes in Lolita. “O my Carmen, my little Carmen,” Humbert half-remembers. “Something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen.”
“Is ‘mask’ the keyword?” Humbert Humbert asks in Lolita. Alfred Appel Jr., tireless annotator of Lolita, directs us to a moment where Humbert’s narrative mask slips. In the novel’s shortest chapter, we get a vision of Humbert in jail, despairing, “Have written more than a hundred pages and not got anywhere yet.” In his 1967 interview with The Paris Review, Vladimir Nabokov said:
Another project I have been nursing for some time is the publication of the complete screenplay of Lolita that I made for Kubrick […] The film is only a blurred skimpy glimpse of the marvelous picture I imagined and set down scene by scene during the six months I worked in a Los Angeles villa. I do not wish to imply that Kubrick’s film is mediocre; in its own right, it is first-rate, but it is not what I wrote. A tinge of poshlost is often given by the cinema to the novel it distorts and coarsens in its crooked glass.
This strikes me as a very Los Angeles story. Los Angeles is a land of iterations, versions of versions, a swimming pool’s endless refractions, a city that sprawls forever. “Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” Humbert says. Is it obvious I don’t know what I’m doing here? I have no sense of Los Angeles; with this diary I build a collection of things I have authority to speak on. Light of my Lana, fire of my Lana. My song, my sort of.
Lolita is a twisted vision of fifties America too, a charming road novel about a pedophile and his kidnapped stepdaughter. Lolita’s power is in how it demonstrates the lure of evil and the banality of innocence, with its slick, seductive narrator, Humbert Humbert, and his repulsively ordinary victim, Dolores. In the novel, Humbert’s attractiveness cannot be separated from his European identity, and Dolores’ crassness can’t be separated from her American identity. If the American spirit is a bored, sexually mature suburban teenager, then Del Rey does everything she can to embody her.
Nabokov famously inserted himself in Lolita by using anagrams of his own name, most notably “Vivian Darkbloom.” Del Rey hides in plain sight too, but sometimes it’s not clear whether her Lolita burlesque is actually the disguise. “Like a groupie incognito posing as a real singer,” she sings on “Gods and Monsters,” “life imitates art.” Is mask the keyword? It’s a feat to make yourself disappear while actually being straightforward, honest, even autobiographical.
My third roommate in Los Angeles was an actor in his early forties. His apartment was in a strange old row house in the heart of Koreatown. “Ok, I’m just going to be honest with you,” he said the first time I met him. He told me the landlords were elderly and apparently insane. He had convinced them that his friend who lived in the apartment for fifteen years had never moved out, so that he could maintain rent control. “If you lived here, you would have to pretend to be my girlfriend,” he said. “And the hot water doesn’t work in the kitchen.” I moved in five days later.
A few weeks after I moved in, I passed my roommate in the kitchen. “I forgot to tell you. There’s a homeless man named Gary who lives in our carport. I give him five dollars a week,” he told me. “The landlords know about him,” he added to ease my mind. I continued boiling spaghetti in my hot pot. “Gary might call you ‘you guys,’ even though there’s only one of you,” he said. “He hasn’t been looking good. I don’t think he’ll live much longer.” One day when I was home alone the landlords shoved a piece of paper between the front door and its frame saying they would be visiting the apartment later that week. As I left for work on Friday, I came face to face with an ancient man with charcoal hair oiled back like Jimmy Stewart’s. He looked at me with obscure suspicion, but he didn’t say anything.
Alice Bolin is a writer living in Los Angeles.