By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Video Games’ is one of Lana Del Rey’s best-known songs. But what is the meaning of this downtempo ballad? The lyrics, which were written by Del Rey and Justin Parker, invite two possible, somewhat conflicting, interpretations. Let’s take a closer look at the song’s lyrics and analyse their ambiguous meaning.
‘Video Games’: meaning
Here at What Songs Mean we like to approach song lyrics rather as literary critics approach poems. That is to say, most songs, like most poems, are lyrics, or examples of the lyric mode. This means that they are sung by a ‘speaker’ who tells us their thoughts and feelings.
With that in mind, the speaker of ‘Video Games’ addresses the man she loves. She tells him she is wearing his ‘favourite’ sun dress – that is, the one he most enjoys seeing her in. She is also wearing the perfume he likes her to wear.
In summary, then, she is trying to please him. But is he as ‘into’ her as she appears to be into him?
This is where the title becomes significant. Although the ‘video games’ mentioned in the song’s lyrics at first appear to be tangential to the main ‘thrust’ of the song’s meaning (girl in love with boy; boy being indifferent to girl), the choice of title does, in fact, neatly encapsulate the heartache at the core of the song.
For although the singer (or ‘speaker’) wants to be loved by her boyfriend, he is more interested in his video games than he is in paying attention to her. Her attempts to please him – nay, to get him even to notice her – by wearing the dress and perfume he said he liked her in (back when, presumably, he was still trying to woo her and thus took more of an interest in her), are doomed to failure.
The female speaker is keen to please him. In the chorus, she tells him that everything she does is for him, to try to please him (so she can be loved by him). For her, being with him is heaven on earth. She asks him to tell her everything he wants to do. Unfortunately for her, what he most wants to do, it would seem, is play his video games, without her being involved.
(Note the use of the pronoun ‘your’ before ‘video game’: he is playing alone, and the video games are presumably not a shared activity. The speaker may sing that the world was built for two, but the game he is playing is clearly not a two-player game.)
Indeed, Lana Del Rey’s comment on the meaning of the song confirms that the chorus is about how she wished a past relationship had been, whereas the verses are about how it actually was. She wanted the relationship to be ‘heaven on earth’, as it were, with the two of them sharing everything, but the reality fell short of this dream.
‘Video Games’: analysis
The song, in short, is about a woman’s attempts to keep her apathetic boyfriend interested in her. But he would rather play his video games. The verses matter-of-factly list the things that she and her boyfriend did together, some of which – namely his interest in playing his video games while with her – hint at a potential rift in the relationship, with her being more invested in him than he is in her. The chorus then sharply contrasts this matter-of-fact reality with the ideal of a relationship.
This, then, is the tragic heart of ‘Video Games’, and Del Rey’s choice of title only intensifies the gulf between her feelings towards the relationship (or, rather, her speaker’s feelings) and her inattentive boyfriend’s. We are witnessing a doomed relationship, but the speaker, heartbreakingly, cannot realise what we, as outsiders, can realise.
This is an example of dramatic irony, whereby the audience is aware of something (usually in a play, or sometimes a film or TV show) that a character is unaware of. But whereas this is often used to great comic effect in plays, in Lana Del Rey’s song it is a source of great sadness – and emotional power.
At least, that’s one interpretation of the song’s meaning. But one of the great axioms here at What Songs Mean is borrowed from the fantasy author Gene Wolfe, who once argued that ‘almost any interesting work of art comes close to saying the opposite of what it really says.’
And an alternative interpretation of ‘Video Games’ would view the singer/speaker as more aware of her own role in a doomed relationship: hence the melancholic and even sombre tone of the song, those haunting pianos, and that dreamy use of a harp (harp arpeggios used to be a rather clichéd way of signalling the segue from reality into a dream or flashback in films and TV shows, of course). Deep down, perhaps she knows it’s doomed, but she cannot simply walk away. She is too emotionally invested in him to give up.
So she will go to some lengths to (try to) please him. The reference in the chorus to the boy liking bad girls suggests not video games but sex games, roleplaying in the bedroom, being ‘bad’ or naughty with each other. But even this cannot save their romance, even temporarily. ‘I tell you all the time’, she urges in the song’s chorus. Perhaps she has had to remind him so often because he has never listened.