Arts, Column

Pender: Lana Del Rey’s Lyrics Reach Levels of Songwriting Royalty

With her larger-than-life persona and genre-bending music, Lana Del Rey is one of the most well-known artists of the current music scene with over 43 million listeners on Spotify. Beneath her cult-like following and mesh mask controversy, however, lie deeply philosophical and thoughtful lyrics. Del Rey, whose real name is Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, was called the greatest songwriter of the 21st century by Rolling Stone, a sentiment echoed by Bruce Springsteen, who has also been lauded by Rolling Stone for his own songwriting. 

Del Rey’s songwriting has evolved over the years. Her songs range from those from her first album Born to Die, which she described in her Rolling Stone interview as “for the boys,” to her most recent album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, which is incredibly personal and conversational.

On Born to Die, Del Rey explores money, sex, and love, and the power each of these has on a person. In “National Anthem,” the narrator describes the trajectory of a relationship she enters into for money.

“Money is the anthem of success / So before we go out, what’s your address?” Del Rey sings. 

Del Rey weaves references to old money families, Americana, and Old Hollywood into much of her music, but especially on Born to Die. She idealizes a fast lifestyle and a relationship that can provide this for her. 

“Take me to the Hamptons, Bugatti Veyron / He loves to romance ’em / Reckless abandon / Holdin’ me for ransom, upper echelon / He says to be cool, but I don’t know how yet,” Del Rey sings. 

Her relationship with this man has introduced her to how the top one percent lives. She is entranced by this kind of life, and desperately wants to fit in, but does not yet know how to do so. The shift in her attitude as the relationship progresses and as she becomes more comfortable being among the social elite.

“See what you’ve done to me, King of Chevron? / He said to be cool, but I’m already coolest / I said to get real, don’t you know who you’re dealing with? / Um, do you think you’ll buy me lots of diamonds?” Dey Rey continues on “National Anthem.” 

Del Rey’s persona has taken her place among the elite and now holds her boyfriend to the standard of providing her with all of the perks of that life.

Del Rey’s second album Ultraviolence builds off the cinematic vibe she established with Born to Die. “Brooklyn Baby” focuses on a character who, like in “National Anthem,” has learned the ways of the elite and feels comfortable moving among them. But now she has developed the ego to go along with that confidence. The beginning of the song establishes the state of the narrator’s relationship with an older man.

“They say I’m too young to love you / I don’t know what I need / They think I don’t understand / The freedom land of the seventies / I think I’m too cool to know ya / You say I’m like the ice, I freeze / I’m churning out novels like / Beat poetry on amphetamines,” Del Rey sings. 

Del Rey knows she’s cool, and despite disapproval from others, she knows who she is. She does not give any weight to people’s negative opinions, but instead remarks that she is in touch with the artistic and free world of the ’50s and the ’70s. The song is full of references to the communities of musicians that were prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s, and the lifestyle associated with those artists. 

“Well, my boyfriend’s in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed / I’ve got feathers in my hair/I get down to Beat poetry /And my jazz collection’s rare / I can play most anything / I’m a Brooklyn baby / I’m a Brooklyn baby,” Del Rey sings. 

Del Rey connects her artistry and coolness to the city where she was born: New York City. Her mentions of Lou Reed, Beat poetry, and jazz harken back to New York’s role as a center for the arts and for music. Brooklyn, in particular, is the birthplace and home of many notable artists and movements. By the end of the song, Del Rey has successfully argued that her status is well above others, including her boyfriend. 

“Yeah, my boyfriend’s pretty cool / But he’s not as cool as me / ’Cause I’m a Brooklyn baby / I’m a Brooklyn baby” Del Rey sings. 

Del Rey’s lyrics have become somewhat more reflective over the years, and she uses stories to explore her own feelings and motivations as well as those of the people around her. “Love,” from her album Lust for Life, sounds like a movie. It turns the lens outward. Del Rey focuses on young people, perhaps reflecting on her own teenage years while looking at those of others. “Love” is a reflection on what it means to be young and to be in love as well as the confusion that comes with figuring out one’s identity. 

“Look at you, kids, with your vintage music / Comin’ through satellites while cruisin’/ You’re part of the past, but now you’re the future / Signals crossing can get confusin’ / It’s enough just to make you feel crazy, crazy, crazy / Sometimes it’s enough just to make you feel crazy” Del Rey sings. 

The chorus is evidence of Del Rey’s degree in metaphysics and philosophy from Fordham University, as she muses on the seeming insignificance of regular life.

“You get ready, you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular / Back to work or the coffee shop / Doesn’t matter ‘cause it’s enough / To be young and in love / To be young and in love” Del Rey sings.  

Del Rey reflects on the power of emotions here. Despite the seeming insignificance of going to a coffee shop, being in love with a person or with life is more than enough to make it significant.

Norman F—king Rockwell! continues Del Rey’s exploration of emotional power. It is certainly Del Rey’s best album and perhaps one of the greatest albums ever written. Del Rey masterfully paints stories in her music and challenges her listeners to reflect on their own lives and loves. On the title track of the album, she tells the story of a painful relationship that she can’t bear to tear herself away from.

“You’re fun and you’re wild / But you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through / Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news / But I can’t change that, and I can’t change your mood  / ’Cause you’re just a man / It’s just what you do / Your head in your hands / As you color me blue,” Del Rey sings.

The namesake of the album and song is Norman Rockwell, a famous American painter whose work is associated with depictions of American culture. Del Rey seems to view her lover as some kind of version of Rockwell, coloring her and her relationship in blue with his childish behavior.

“Goddamn, man-child / You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two / Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all / You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you / But I don’t get bored, I just see it through / Why wait for the best when I could have you? You?” Del Rey sings. 

Del Rey characterizes her boyfriend as being egotistical, pretentious, and loquacious, but for some reason, she cannot or will not look for someone else.

Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is Del Rey’s most recent album, released on March 24. It continues the trajectory of somewhat softer and mellower instrumentation that began with Norman F—king Rockwell! Del Rey’s lyrics are as poignant as ever, inspiring introspection in her listeners. One song with standout lyrics—though many on this album are beautifully written, including “Taco Truck x VB,” which samples “Venice B—h” from Norman F—king Rockwell!—is “Fishtail.” Del Rey reflects on a relationship in which her partner expected her to be constantly melancholic, like many of her songs.

“Don’t you dare say that you’ll braid my hair, babe / If you don’t really care / You wanted me sadder, you wanted me sadder / Fishtail, what’s the matter with that?” Del Rey sings.  

Del Rey realizes that her lover does not really care as much about her as he may have said, or maybe as he used to. His refusal to “braid my hair” demonstrates his loss of love for her. One particularly heartfelt line is when Del Rey sings, “not that smart, but I’ve got things to say,” which is a reference to negative criticisms of her intelligence. Instead of giving in, Del Rey says that she will continue to speak out and express herself through her music.

Lana Del Rey has cemented herself in the upper reaches of songwriting royalty. Through her lyrics, Del Rey has crafted a larger-than-life old Hollywood persona but is still able to connect with real life people with themes of love, heartbreak, and loneliness. The introspective and philosophical musings in her songs are timeless.   

Her poignant and beautiful explorations of life and love have only become more thoughtful over the years, and listeners can expect her lyrical genius to be discussed and enjoyed for years to come.

April 16, 2023