Where David Lynch and Lana Del Rey Meet

David Lynch; Lana Del Ray. Photo: Getty Images

As summer progresses, it’s becoming clear that the resurrection of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks means more than the revival of a TV show. It’s all but certain that Twin Peaks: The Return, with its countless allusions and correspondences to Lynch’s work dating as far back as Eraserhead, is meant to serve as a renewal of the entire Lynchian spirit. It’s easy to understand why: The new Twin Peaks is a golden opportunity for the director (who turned 70 this year) to possess, for quite possibly the last time, enough funding and creative freedom to transmit his vision in full.

Likewise, for critics it’s a fortunate chance to reach a more thorough understanding of Lynch and, no less important, the shock waves surrounding him. Though Lynch’s relative silence — no feature films since Inland Empire in 2006, a year predating the think piece and television-recap era by many years — once made the fact easier to ignore, with new episodes of Twin Peaks dropping every week it’s glaringly obvious: No artist in the postwar era has been more influential than David Lynch. As countless observers have noted, much of today’s television would be drastically different without the original seasons of Twin Peaks. Everything from dark paranormal dramas (The X-Files and Lost, but also Buffy) to short-form comedy (through Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim) to television ads themselves (through copywriters who watch Tim and Eric) has been transformed by Lynch’s example. In film, Lynch’s presence, as David Foster Wallace noted in a long essay for Premiere magazine in 1997, is tangible in a host of directors, Quentin Tarantino being the most prominent among them.

Wallace himself would go on to try his hand at channeling Lynch in his own literary fiction: The title story of his final collection, Oblivion (2004), with its disjointed timeline, prosperous setting, confused perspectives, and intimations of father-daughter incest, clearly echoes Twin Peaks. He wasn’t quite alone: There’s also Roberto Bolaño, some of whose characters, in Bolaño’s final book, 2666, discuss Lynch’s films or operate in a Lynchian aura of impending dread. Though primarily a visual artist, Lynch can have a profound effect on artists in less figurative fields. It’s not too surprising, given that Kafka, whose photograph hangs prominently on the office wall of Gordon Cole, the FBI boss played by Lynch on Peaks, has always been foundational for Lynch. (“The one artist that I feel could be my brother is Franz Kafka,” he has said.) Still, Lynch’s effect on literary fiction has been limited. There’s a correlation between Lynch and popularity: The more popular the art form, the greater his impact on it. TV and film, huge; video games, quite a lot; fiction, a bit; art and poetry, not much at all. To repeat Lynch’s own words, “All pop is magical.”

Pop music is no exception; in fact, nothing proves the rule so well. The influence of Lynch’s soundtracks, scores (sweepingly composed by Angelo Badalamenti), and overall sound design looms large. As with literature, the influence flows readily in both directions. The Pixies covered “In Heaven,” the song sung by Eraserhead’s radiator-dwelling woman; Lynch would cast Sting in Dune, the first of many pop musicians to serve as Lynch actors; Twin Peaks, in particular, gave rise to an entire cottage industry of metal referencing its characters and themes. Music in the key of Lynch covers a vast range of periods and styles. Jazz, blues, and early rock; grim, looming atonal industrial sounds; the ethereal translucence of dream-pop melodies — all of it slots perfectly into some aspect of Lynch’s vision. (Twin Peaks: The Return makes the fit all too evident: Most episodes feature a musical act with Lynchian resonance playing to a crowd at the Roadhouse.)

Lynch is as essential to music as music is essential to his films. The radiator song in Eraserhead; “Blue Velvet” and “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet; “Love Me” and “Love Me Tender” in Wild at Heart; the jazzy tune to which the Man From Another Place dances in Twin Peaks; Rammstein in Lost Highway; the heart-stopping Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Mulholland Drive; Nine Inch Nails on the mind-blowing eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return: There’s no surer sign in Lynch’s work of an impending transformation than the presence of a pop song. Something is about to change forever; the song announces and prepares the way. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish “Crying” is as emblematic as it gets: The language itself serves as local color (Los Angeles being originally Spanish), suggesting the return of a repressed foreign nature, and the song continues even after Del Rio passes out, a hint that, in one interpretation of the film, Naomi Watts’s character has been dreaming even after she’s dead.

This fact can be obscured by the darkness of the films themselves: You might be too confused or horror-struck by plot, image, and character to perceive the songs calmly as the catalysts they are. It’s also obscured by the increasing obscurity of the pop genres Lynch gravitates toward, most of which are hard to find through mainstream channels in the contemporary world. Much of Lynch’s formative music predates the ’60s, which means that bombastic mainstream rock, as we’ve come to know it, is absent. It’s hard to imagine less Lynchian bands than Aerosmith or Van Halen — too hollow, too worldly. For other reasons, most of the rap that supplanted rock as the central driver of pop music couldn’t be further from the Lynchian (hard to imagine less Lynchian lyricists than Tupac and Biggie) — too individual, too specific. What makes music Lynchian is a conjunction of the spiritual and the impersonal. The industrial acts serve as harbingers of descent and cruelty; blues and jazz convey a sense of mystique and initiation; rock and roll drives motions carnal and horizontal; a vanished strain of pop balladry — smooth, deep, and unnervingly sincere — enacts the soul’s elevation.

The majority of these sounds belong to genres that, buried by changing tastes, have become identical with their history, and Lynch’s revival of such songs can produce uncanny effects in an audience that wasn’t around to hear such songs in their heyday. You hear, at some level, the tones of a country that has supposedly vanished while also experiencing a bizarre continuity with the past. In an America founded on forgetting, Lynch refigures the past: Instead of history as absence, the viewer takes in history as a dark and uninvited guest. (A process made disturbingly literal in The Return’s freakish episode eight.) This isn’t just a history of dates and places, but a history written in mythic images: Though Lynch’s vision is realer than we think, it doesn’t mirror reality so much as it distills it. Music, invisible and fleeting, is an ideal vehicle for the type of history he pursues: It’s nothing if it isn’t rooted in time, yet at the same time it is literally nothing, ungraspable. Music is at once mythic memory and mythic forgetting.

Many musical artists have been inspired by David Lynch, but there’s little doubt as to who has most fully embraced his relation to myth and time. Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Blue Velvet” in 2012 was merely the most blatant indication of a sustained engagement with the director’s work and thought. Prompted by the cover, Lynch himself recognized the resonance: “Lana Del Rey, she’s got some fantastic charisma and — this is a very interesting thing — it’s like she’s born out of another time … She’s got something that’s very appealing to people. And I didn’t know that she was influenced by me!” (Sharp-eared listeners may also hear a snippet of guitar on Lana’s “Get Free” that sounds a lot like the opening theme from Twin Peaks.)

Lynch’s own substantial musical output (along with writing lyrics and other contributions to Badalamenti’s soundtracks, he’s released two solo albums, Crazy Clown Time [2011] and The Big Dream [2013]) reveals an artist captivated by suspension: Emotions are expressed less by declaring them than by holding them in place. Never fond of an excess of speech, Lynch sticks to repeating simple phrases, verbal and musical alike, that verge on the banal. The repetitions trace an orbit around an unknown subject; the objective, it seems, is to slow down time, render it physical as well as invisible. It’s no accident that Dorothy Vallens, the troubled woman at the heart of Blue Velvet, is a singer, nor that the venue she sings at should be named the Slow Club. Music, in Blue Velvet in particular, defines itself as a moment of possession. Frank Booth, the villain, keeps Dorothy in a state of slavery because he lusts for her body, but also because he lusts for her singing: Every night that Dorothy performs “Blue Velvet” at the Slow Club, Frank’s in the audience, his face spotted with tears and crumpled with tremendous feeling. Art, in Blue Velvet and in Lynch’s films generally, can be hard to distinguish from love and evil:All three are transmissions that can’t take place without a certain vulnerability.

It’s not hard, once one puts it this way, to sense the intimate bond between Del Rey’s cinematic music and Lynch’s musical films. On Born to Die and Paradise especially, and on Ultraviolence intermittently, Del Rey inhabits, more or less, the same role as Dorothy Vallens. She plays a woman in trouble, and these albums play almost as if Dorothy were directing her own film, documenting her own immersion in subjection. When Del Rey croons “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” on Ultraviolence’s title track, she’s channeling Dorothy (and Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer) every bit as much as the Crystals’ 1962 single “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss).” For Lynch and Del Rey alike, all men are criminals at heart; women — young and beautiful women in particular — are doomed to fall under their sway. Both artists, too, have taken heat for their alleged glorification of female mistreatment, and though there is a crucial distinction to be made between depicting abuses of power and advocating for them, their art, because it is powerful in its own right, necessarily leads to some confusion among those for whom forces, regardless of form and valence, are indistinguishable from one another.

To be fair, lines like Del Rey’s “Life imitates art” and “Blurring the lines between real and the fake” hardly help clear up the matter, which does deserve serious examination. Perhaps real and fake aren’t useful terms: Del Rey’s art, again similar to Lynch’s, seems to operate in a space where truth abides in the unreal. Their interest in “authentic” Americana is mediated by an awareness of the truth that Americans, by an overwhelming margin, prefer Hollywood-minted mythic images to mundane reality.

Down on the West Coast, they got their icons,
Their silver starlets, their queens of Saigon,
And you’ve got the music, you’ve got the music in you,
Don’t you?
Down on the West Coast, they love their movies,
Their golden gods and rock and roll groupies,
And you’ve got the music, you’ve got the music in you,
Don’t you?
— from Del Ray’s “West Coast”

To make pop in America is to traffic in archetypes and distortions: This much is inevitable. Realism, psychological or physical, is an aberration in pop, where characters manifest as a series of drives, and settings serve as fields of force. What makes Lana a great artist isn’t the fact that she has to deal in myths so much as the manner in which she deals with them. Like Lynch, her use of myth is untainted by the certainty of moral judgment: No matter what movie she stars in, or he directs, it’s always a film noir, defined by a tangible sense of universal moral corruption: Every man is a bad boy, and every woman is a bad girl. If they operate in the realm of American myth, they nonetheless refuse to indulge the most American legend of all, the belief that good and evil can be segregated from each other.

Though both have been charged with anti-feminism and racism, it’s important to note how, by refusing to settle on the clear definitions of fair and foul upon which all bigotry (whether of sex, race, or class) depends, their art destabilizes oppressive modes of thinking. It’s true that their narratives don’t make a lot of space for female empowerment and their protagonists are virtually always white, but their art could hardly be described as a celebration of masculinity or white identity. If everyone is bad in a universe to which whiteness is central, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that whiteness isn’t very good at all.

Seen in this light, Lynch and Lana’s well-noted attraction to an aesthetic that predates the ’60s isn’t regressive so much as discerning, representing an intuition of how little has actually changed since that decade rather than a longing for the society supposedly swept away by it. Americans do more cocaine now (way more), and Yeezus (which Lynch is on record as admiring) exists. Other than that, though, JFK and Marilyn Monroe may as well be our contemporaries.

The first episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return marked the first appearance of Darya, a woman who serves as the lover of Dale Cooper’s demonically possessed doppelgänger Mr. C. Young and beautiful, herself a criminal, Darya attempts to betray him, but C, a master of electronic surveillance, detects the subterfuge almost immediately. After a confrontation in their hotel room, he hits her, then kills her with her own gun.

Darya isn’t quite Del Rey, but the phonetics of her name and the nature of her beauty —round face, big eyes, shoulder-length reddish-brown hair — are very reminiscent of the singer’s own. (She, too, was literally “born to die.”) Like much else about Twin Peaks: The Return, it’s still an open question whether Lana herself will perform in an episode, but given all the other Lynch-affiliated artists who have appeared at the Roadhouse so far, the chances of her showing are high. Even if her face goes unseen and her voice goes unheard, her presence resonates with Twin Peaks, and with Lynch’s art in general, all the same.

Where David Lynch and Lana Del Rey Meet