Lana Del Rey has always been drawn to history, and what interests her the most is how history is drawn. How cultures in the present make sense of their past is the question at the heart of her work. This sense of connection is especially pronounced on the single she released last night, “Coachella — Woodstock in My Mind.” It’s right there in the title: Del Rey narrates her synoptic vision of the two music festivals. One’s neo-hipster in rural California in 2017, the other’s old-school hippie in rural New York in 1969, but such superficial contrasts pale before deep comparisons. Lana Del Rey deals in images and memories, not things and facts, and her genius consists of delivering impressions of a shared identity between past and present so absolutely that the listener sees and hears nothing else.
In keeping with the new age, the music on “Coachella” has altered. The usual sweeping Del Rey sonics are cut through with ominous, persistent low tones, a correlation to the darkened horizons imposed by current events. There’s a change of emphasis too: Instead of being fully in the spotlight, she’s watching from the side, addressing a woman whose husband — it seems like she’s talking about Father John Misty — is playing onstage in Indio. The countryside setting coincides with her receiving dire international news — “tension rising over country lines,” though the phrasing leaves room to be read as country music verses.
Father John isn’t the only Father in the song, though: In fact, he exists mostly as an emanation of a divinity who Del Rey identifies as male. “I’d trade the fame and the fortune and the legend / I’d give it all away if you give me just one day to ask Him one question,” she sings. There’s something strange afoot: Since God is already referred to in third-person, who is “you”? Since neither humans nor demons control access to God, “you,” presumably, is a member of His entourage: an angel, or at the very least a saint. A very Catholic perspective (extending certain symbols in Honeymoon) is at work: The new song is marked by a sustained sense of intercession. With whom must you commune first to speak with the ultimate power?
Though Led Zeppelin didn’t actually play either titular festival, they’re playing both in the only venue that counts, Del Rey’s imagination: Her chorus reimagines their “Stairway to Heaven” as an actual passage to empyrean realms. Though their formation post-dates the birth of the hippie movement, Zeppelin was clearly a band whose optimistic, open spirit was influenced by the flower children. As peaceful, positive rock gods, they’re the ideal bridge between heaven and Earth, past and present. When Del Rey’s citing flowers in the lyrics and wearing flowers in her hair on the cover of her forthcoming (May 26) album Lust for Life, of which “Coachella” is part, it’s not at all by accident: By presenting herself as a flower child, she’s hoping to resurrect, in her fans, the innocent pacifism of the ’60s. For her, the drive toward war between nations, prevalent during the youth of boomers and millennials alike, has to be fought by setting a peaceful example.
Like everything else her words and music touch, it makes perfect sense in mythical terms. But history — which isn’t just culture — can’t be so readily compressed into a myth. The hippies burned out, sold out, and got savaged for a reason (pre-punk is a very useful way of viewing Del Rey’s aesthetic, not to say pre-Altamont), Led Zeppelin were as depraved as they were awesome, and, in 2017, the internet casts a spell over reality far more than music does. Meanwhile, the president whose saber rattles helped give rise to the song is nothing if not a myth of his own. It was hard, first hearing the line about wanting to “ask Him one question,” not to momentarily mistake the head of state for the Father above: They both depend so heavily on intercessors. Art, even when socially resonant, as Del Rey’s has been, tends to make an unreliable guide to political action. But all confusion aside, “Coachella — Woodstock in My Mind” remains a lovely song from a superb and thoughtful singer. It really does rewrite the past successfully, albeit in only a small way: Now, when Robert Plant refers to the May Queen on “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s clear that he means Lana.