Doin’ time with Lana

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on September 13, 2019

Messed up: Del Rey isn’t street-fighting in her songs, but she does focus on contemporary American politics   -  REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI

Singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey explores styles even as her signature voice continues to rule her music in a new album — her strongest so far

It’s summertime, and Lana Del Rey — as tall as a giant, and in a white summer dress — is walking down the streets of Los Angeles, feeling terribly hot. She uproots trees as she walks and sings, and drinks directly from building tanks. The humongous Del Rey is now on the screen in a drive-in cinema somewhere in the US, sometime in the ’80s. She walks right out of the screen to pick up a minuscule car and give its driver a good shake. He has been cheating on his lover.

With her size and her song, Del Rey dominates the video of Doin’ Time from her album Norman F**king Rockwell (NFR). The song was sung by the band Sublime back in the ’90s, and was, in turn, loosely based on George Gershwin’s Summertime, composed in the ’30s.

The Sublime ballad had compared life with a cheating partner to time in prison. Del Rey’s turned the tables on that. The much talked-about cover and video were inspired by a film called The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and the singer highlights power with the lyrics. “Goddamn, man-child, You f***ed me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you’,” the 34-year-old songwriter sings in NFR.

Ever since Del Rey’s single Video Games was discovered in the US on the alternative social media platform Tumblr in 2011, her soft style of crooning has amassed a legion of fans. So mellow is her singing in NFR (released on August 30) that she can barely be heard in songs such as “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have... but I have it”.

“I’ve been tearing around in my f**king nightgown/ 24/7 Sylvia Plath/ Writing in blood on your walls/ ‘Cause the ink in my pen don’t look good in my pad/ They write that I’m happy, they know that I’m not/ But at best, you can see I’m not sad,” she sings.

While her genre has been dismissed in the past by sections of listeners as “depressed music” or “white girl music”, her voice is certainly one of its kind. Made for heartache, it is plaintive at times, yet curiously soothing, and completely different from, say, Adele’s raw power, Miley Cyrus’s defiance, Taylor Swift’s vengeance or Rihanna’s disdain. She is also extremely and unabashedly ‘woman’ in her songs. Women admit on the internet that they sometimes cry to her songs, and find them therapeutic. Del Rey tells you it is okay. “A modern day woman with a weak constitution/ ’cause I’ve got/ monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off,” she sings.

Her references are steeped in the America of the ’60s and ’70s, from Allen Ginsberg to polka dots, and from weed to Plath. Del Rey has made this her own style — you either love it or hate it, but it’s her creation and the dominant motif that runs through her work.

It is interesting to note that Swift’s album Lover and NFR were launched at the same time. Both artistes collaborated with Jack Antonoff, a Grammy-winning musician (an honour that eludes Del Rey, who has been nominated thrice). And both refer to Rockwell — a popular painter and illustrator who had a strong influence on 20th-century American culture. The mythical and romanticised quality of Rockwell’s illustrations on American life is what made Del Rey name her album after him. Swift also represents Rockwell in the song You Need to Calm Down, where she flays the rise in intolerance and advocates an inclusive culture.

Del Rey isn’t street-fighting in her songs, but she, too, speaks up on contemporary American politics. Take The Greatest, where she sings, “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot/Kanye West is blond and gone/ ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song... ” She is not as political as her contemporaries such as Childish Gambino, who sings in his iconic Grammy-winning single from last year, This is America: “We just wanna party/ Party just for you/ We just want the money/ Money just for you”.

Del Rey has said that she feels neither like a Democrat nor a Republican, but sees herself as somewhere in the middle. But she’s also calling out gun culture and climate change denial.

She tells this story differently from the others. With Del Rey, the song is intensely personal, a diary entry that notes the changing world. “The poetry inside of me is warm like a gun,” she sings in the song Bartender: “All the ladies of the canyon” — a reference to Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who had an album of this name — are “wearing white for their tea parties/ Playing games of levitation/ Meditating in the garden”. Her restlessness is palpable. She sings, “Happiness is a butterfly/ Try to catch it like every night/ It escapes from my hands, into moonlight.”

Published on September 13, 2019

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