When I moved into a beautiful, empty house in St. Petersburg in the early summer of 2013, I made the 40-minute drive to IKEA Tampa at least once per week. There were too many walls to fill, too much of an echo. In my effort to nest, I decorated all hours of the day, cycling through every piece of music in my library. The Great Gatsby movie had just been released, and among the many songs featured on its highly acclaimed soundtrack, Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” seemed to be toward the top of the popularity list.
Curious about Lana’s voice—and desperate for new music—I searched for YouTube playlists of her first albums to get me through another night of shoddy IKEA home construction. The plan for the evening was to assemble two bookshelves, one kitchen table, and one nightstand—only in the company of a large Dominos pizza and enough Sangria for the entire city of St. Petersburg. I was so sick of putting things together, so sick of being alone in the hell of what was supposed to be paradise. Soon enough, however, my interest piqued as I heard Lana’s first song booming from my speakers. It was “Off to the Races.”
I nearly dropped my breadstick when I heard the beginning lyrics:
My old man is a bad man, but I can’t deny the way he holds my hand
And he grabs me, he has me by my heart
He doesn’t mind I have a Las Vegas past
He doesn’t mind I have an LA crass way about me
He loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart
First I thought, “Where is the sweet girl who sings “Young and Beautiful?”
Then I thought, “Those words are fucked up, and I need to hear more.”
The next hour flew by. It’s a wonder how I built any furniture all; I couldn’t pull my focus from Lana’s lyrics:
She gives them butterflies
Bats her cartoon eyes
She laughs like God
Her mind’s like a diamond
She’s still shinin’
I hear the birds on the summer breeze,
I drive fast, I am alone in midnight
Been tryin’ hard not to get into trouble,
But I, I’ve got a war in my mind
So I just ride, just ride,
I just ride, just ride
The striking parallels weren’t lost on me. Here I was, a 22-year-old who just left his college town after an awful year of full-time teaching, pleading to the universe for something better—love, companionship, job satisfaction, anything—and I wouldn’t let myself believe the obvious truth that I still felt helpless and alone. My neighborhood with historic charm and close proximity to the beach didn’t make me feel connected to the world in the way I hoped. My natural hardwood floors were only a distraction from the fact that I was in the beginning stages of some dark mental health shit.
The shame of it all was too real—the grand scene I made of returning home, teaching at my high school alma mater, affording my own place in a great city—and I wouldn’t tell anyone about my struggle for some time. I needed to maintain my golden boy status while dealing with the pain. In the coming days, Lana’s voice never paused on my computer or my earphones; I was absorbing her world like a new book I couldn’t stop reading. I had never heard someone say so much of what’s never been said. I had never seen someone so transparently showcasing their baggage for the world to see while still maintaining a sense of pride and identity.
In essence, her flaws made her human, and she seemed to like that. This truth rocked my world.
I continued to be a Lana disciple, and as I began to make more friends in graduate school the following year, I learned that almost every gay man I knew held a degree of admiration for her. Beyond her personal values of inclusion, she sings about what many gay men can relate to: the mess of a tainted childhood, a reckless behavioral past in relentless pursuit of answers, or even the irreverence of writing about God, sex, love, and drugs as constructs rather than ultimate truths. The blunt, poetic nature of her songs (“In the land of gods and monsters, I was an angel, looking to…” —well, you know)—echoes a rupture of customary songwriting most artists won’t touch.
It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I felt I was able to fully understand and appreciate the depth, darkness, and truth of her album Ultraviolence. While living in North Carolina, I experienced a snowstorm while alone in my sister’s house. My sister and her family were away for the weekend, and with only Lillian and me to suffer through the power outage and freezing temperature drop, I lit a candle and said, “Fuck it, it’s time.” I typed in yet another YouTube playlist for her album, and first up was “Money Power Glory”:
You say that you wanna go to a land that’s far away
How are we supposed to get there with the way that we’re living today?
You talk lots about God
Freedom comes from the call
But that’s not what this bitch wants
Not what I want at all
I want money, power and glory
I want money and all your power, all your glory
Hallelujah, I wanna take you for all that you got
Hallelujah, I’m gonna take them for all that they got
I knew that in my rational mind, all three elements—money, power, and glory—were not values of mine, but in that moment of being so angry at my circumstances, it felt good to hear someone deliberately not giving a fuck. The song inspires a haunting, uncertain, lingering tone that gave validation to what my eyes were seeing: coldness, darkness, ambiguity, aloneness again. I wondered what it would mean to live with such selfishness—a quality that is not only discouraged, but actively sought against in my personal and professional circles; once again, even I know selfishness isn’t a way to live. But when you grow up being so good, you want to know what it would be like to be so bad, even if just for a moment, even if only as a thought.
At the end of that semester, I declared to the universe that Florida was home. To my surprise, it was where I needed to be again; I could and would find a job there. I missed the beautiful sunsets and the existential thrill of walking on the beach at night. My support system was there. It wasn’t cold. My drive from North Carolina to Florida felt triumphant, both literally and figuratively approaching a coveted destination. You better believe that as I crossed the Florida state line, I’d only trust one woman with the sacredness of that moment, so “Florida Kilos” began to play:
Come on down to Florida
I got something for ya
We could see the kilos or the keys, baby, oh ya
Guns in the summertime
Drink a Cherry Cola lime
Prison isn’t nothing to me if you’ll be by my side
Yayo, yayo, yayo
All of the dope fiends
Yayo, yayo, yayo
It didn’t matter that I don’t have a gun, drink cherry cola, or know any dope fiends. It mattered that the song felt so Florida; I surrendered to the truth that Florida was far from perfect, not to mention the home of some really weird shit, and yet it was still my home. How familiar was that feeling she gave me? How many times would I feel comforted by the reality that imperfection can still be valuable? That being “tainted” isn’t real if you can reframe your self-perception from victim to resilient survivor? That the truths of our lives, convenient or not, are much more interesting and important than what we care to tell people?
I fondly think of that catalyst evening in 2013, oblivious to the fact that I was about to wake up again. With pizza in one hand and a hammer in the other, I made a relationship with Lana—one-sided, perhaps, but a real one to me—based on the agreement that everything we feel is real, that there’s a wonderfully human part of all of us that wants to eat the forbidden fruit just to see what happens. In the moments of my life when I want to shed my skin, drive with loud music and my windows down, and feel something outside of my norm—rebellion, anger, sorrow, pain, fantasy—I cue up “Summertime Sadness,” “Old Money” or “Shades of Cool” and lean into this other world that exists within me. In these absurd, fucked up lyrics, I hear a message loud and clear: Even if you’ve gone through some shit, you can save your life by talking about it. And since then, I have—not because I have the most troubling story in the world, but because I have a story at all.