Ever since watching the 2013 film version of the classic novel, The Great Gatsby, the music of Lana Del Rey has made its way into my iTunes and serves as great study music. She wrote the original song for the film, and her slinky, sultry voice crooning “Will you still love me/when I’m no longer/young and beautiful” seemed to capture an essence of the characters of both Gatsby and his unattainable love, Daisy. The film (like the book) was set in the 1920s, yet its soundtrack was unexpectedly fun and modern. Del Rey’s unique auditory combination of decades and motifs makes for the perfect thematic interpretation of 1920s meets a modern era which we can relate to. Even her physical appearance is that of the idolized American woman, something akin to Marilyn Monroe or Jackie O (both of whom she imitates in her music video for “National Anthem”), and her classic beauty can easily metamorphose into the various interpretations of women and our roles in every decade.
Most of these expressions of herself, physically and in her music, may be construed as beyond anti-feminist. Many have likened her poetically dangerous and at times disturbing lyrics as springing from “daddy issues” and a troubled youth. But I don’t think we know if these are true at all. We only know her persona as she writes it; perhaps she has rebuilt herself as a character, just as an author births fictional people onto a blank page. Her true self, Elizabeth Grant, may be a different creature altogether from Lana. Sure, Brant was sent to boarding school in her early teenage years when she had an alcohol addiction. But she went on to receive her education from Fordham and learned the guitar in her late teens. She spent several years helping others through their alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Performing her own songs around NYC, she never expected it would turn into a career. But in the world of YouTube and social media, posting her song “Video Games” online sent her into the spotlight.
In addition to personifying the ideal American woman, her lyrics seem to personify the ideal American Dream, one which currently values money and glamour above all else. In my opinion, she is not upholding these superficial values; rather, I feel she is satirizing them. She uses the metaphors of national pride and ties them into interpersonal relationships which can are too often based on superficial desires and physical appearances.
Her themes extend beyond these though, and also include references to troubled lives, prostitution, and loneliness. Multiple sources say that Grant loves Nabokov’s Lolita, and many of the book’s themes are obvious in her songs. Lyrics, in fact, are at times taken straight from the pages of Lolita. “Off to the Races” could very well be about Humbert Humbert; “light of my life, fire of my loins” is the first line from the book. “Baby put on heart-shaped sunglasses” references a poster for the 1962 film version of the book. One eery but addictive track on the Born to Die album is titled “Lolita.” She even describes herself as “Lolita lost in the hood.” Multiple references to relationships between older men and young girls are seen throughout her songs. These are themes and lyrics I would not want my young daughter to be listening to, but they make for very interesting discussions about the novel’s themes and about the world we live in, sad to say.
Del Rey’s songs are a vast change from the usual lack of depth heard on the radio. I very much appreciate when modern musicians on the mainstream still write their own songs and even direct their own music videos. The tunes are catchy and I have trouble predicting what her voice will do as she makes use of several different speeds and intonations within each song. Their intriguing nature and unsettling quality make them stand out, and I feel she deserves the attention and awards she has received thus far.