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Hey Lana Del Rey: JFK assassination as MTV prop? It’s been done

Lana Del Rey, top, plays both Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe in her recent video; in 1996, Al Jourgensen of Ministry dressed up as Jackie for a video that was banned by MTV.

We may disagree about how many shooters took part in the killing of John F. Kennedy, but there's no shortage of people willing to reframe the incident for a music video. The latest is Lana Del Rey, the silken, depressive singer whose new National Anthem video shows her posing both as Marilyn Monroe, in her "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" moment, and as Jackie Kennedy, lurking in the Rose Garden and riding in the fateful motorcade with a black president (rapper A$AP Rocky). It closes with her crawling over the trunk of the limo, looking more like Priscilla Presley than Jackie, with a gold suit in place of Jackie's pink Chanel. ()

The visual essence of the Kennedy assassination is itself a video: Abraham Zapruder's famous 27-second home movie, which now seems like a YouTube video avant la lettre, and a founding artifact of citizen journalism. That clip concentrates the themes of glamour, power and violent death that have come to epitomize the Kennedys, and that run overtly through popular music .

To graft JFK's death onto a three-minute music video for MTV is a risky proposition, and there's no doubt those who try are gaming for shock value. Maybe that's why they tend to zero in on Jackie's balked passage over the trunk. It's the pietà moment of the spectacle in Dealey Plaza, and may also symbolize our relationship with that footage and that event. We try to get away from it, and we can't – hence the clammy fascination of videos like Del Rey's, and of a few that preceded it. They are:

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Window Seat, Erykah Badu (2010)

Badu steps from a vintage white Lincoln, walks around Dealey Plaza stripping off clothing , and collapses naked at the sound of a gunshot, a few feet from where Kennedy was struck. Blue blood appears, spelling out "groupthink." Badu said later that, far from sensationalizing her hometown's worst moment, "Window Seat is about liberating yourself from layers and layers of skin or demons that are a hindrance to your growth or freedom or evolution." Many in Dallas weren't convinced.

Coma White, Marilyn Manson (1999)

Lord knows why Manson yoked his song about a druggy doomed woman to a video that resets the assassination in a lugubrious night-world, with Manson as JFK and Rose McGowan as Jackie, making her trip across the trunk in a pink suit. Manson also climbs on a cross to, he said later, present "a metaphor for America's obsession and worship of violence." The video was shot just before the Columbine High School killings, so he may have had a point, though he was personally vilified when the Columbine shooters turned out to be fans of his music.

Reload, Ministry (1996)

Ministry's motorcade includes a bearded Al Jourgensen as Jackie, but the band's real interest is in all the potential attackers. Not just Oswald, represented with his rifle at the window, but also a guy with a nail-gun, a charging man in a clown mask and a granny who wields a cane like an automatic weapon. Even Monroe's banana looks suspect. Do the hyper-aggressive lyrics, stuttery guitars and sarcastic visuals identify with the shooters, or caricature the violent culture they represent? MTV wasn't sure, and kept this thing off the air.

The Motorcade Sped On, Steinski (1983)

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Not a video, but a prescient and biting audio collage made up of clips from the news coverage of the Kennedy shooting, and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald two days later. Steinski edited the voices of Walter Cronkite and various reporters to make their vivid dispatches sound like spoken dance lyrics. These flow together with gunshots, sirens and clips from Kennedy's oratory, over a minimal drum beat. It's still a toe-tapper, and still shocking.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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