Maybe it started with Angelica of Rugrats. I’ve always liked bratty girls who know what they want. I’ve liked other girls, girls with more gentle personalities, but there has always been a part of me that gets smiley at the sound and sight of a girl slightly out of control who nonetheless wants control of the show. This girl, and parallel-universes of this girl multiplied across facing-one-another mirrors, exists in the music of Lana Del Rey.
The first song I heard by Lana, “Video Games,” is the place to start this retrospective. The opening harp sounds like it’s stringed with rainbows and being played across my sternum.
“I’m in his favorite sundress, watching me get undressed,”
Whoa. Who is this girl?
“I say, ‘You da bestest,’ lean in for a big kiss”
Oh…I’m getting aroused.
The moment I knew that I was hearing songwriting that was completely new was the line, “I heard that you like the bad girls.” While smoking weed, eating Mentos, and snorting Vyvanse at 3 a.m. during an all-nighter in college, I nodded, “Yes. I like the bad girls. You know about them?” The next line is, “Is that true?” This line transformed the song from an airy-fairy concept floating between my ears to a piece of dialog said in real-time, perhaps in a bar, basement party corner, or underneath a bed sheet blanket. Lana asked this boy (me) a question that implies, “I already know the answer is ‘Yes.’ I am, at this point, sweetly extending the moment and keeping you on a tight rope, waiting for you to realize how advanced of a girl you are speaking with.” The boy may be bigger, taller, and the one making the phone calls and driving the car but now, in the quiet, face-to-face moment, the girl intimates, “I’ve known all along who and what you are and now I’m going to hold our moment in my palm.”
My background brain thinks, “Who the hell is this girl writing these lyrics, making me feel this way?” She has the voice, instrumentation, and, most importantly, ideas (which come from the almighty brain) to do it. Wow. Next spasm of mind wonders: does she have a full project? Find it. YouTube. No? Piratebay? Yes. “Born To Die” discovered. Memories of Notorious B.I.G’s album “Ready To Die” come to mind…
The first moment of Born To Die, the song, feels like…this is the final page of a girl’s diary come to life, sung, whispered, and coaxed out by an honest movement of the heart. Does she want to make a movie out of her diary? Does she want to turn it into paper airplanes and send them into the night, landing on stars, and blackening to ashes?
“Don’t make me sad, don’t make me cry”
“Keep making me laugh — Let’s go get high”
“You like your girls insane”
Who told you that?
There is a noise at 2:50 that sounds like an echo going in reverse, like God is leaving the situation, saying, “Whatever happens from this point forward is absent of me.” Then I look at the album cover and see a serious-faced girl facing away from a paradise scene behind her. I know instantly, “This girl is something.”
Then starts the second song, “Off To The Races.” Forgive my high brain musing which tends to elaborate on reality, decorating it like a Christmas tree, but upon sober inspection this phenomenon continues to show itself: at 00:11, before the song gets off the ground, a scream can be heard which sounds like my name, Austin. Go and listen for yourself and report back. Hear it? Only Lana herself knows what function that sound has in the song. For me to have heard that at 3 a.m. while I was in the throes of a musical orgasm, was trippy. I didn’t smash the watch on my wrist or try to stop time in some other way as I wished to, having now been completely piqued sensation-wise for the rest of my life, but instead I let time elapse and music continue to ocean tide smother me.
The first chorus goes
And I’m off to the races
Cases of Bacardi chasers
Chasing me all over town
This is when I knew that Lana knew Notorious BIG in a past life, dream meeting, through a psychic, or, likely, his records. She is a rapper too. I know this.
I’m your little, scarlet starlet
Singing in the garden
Kiss me on my open mouth
This song is an apparition out of the collected wet dreams and adolescent fantasies of Austin’s mind, gathered into a girl, a girl who not only knows who she is and can articulate it but can do it over a microphone while rhyming and singing and saying that she’s in love with me while also saying that she’s aware of the dynamics of the situation, of how her love comes across and how it makes me feel. She gives me her scheduled spontaneity, her orchestrated destiny. She does this deliberately and that deliberateness is only shown in 1% of the lyrics. Most of what she says is along the lines of, “I need you, I owe you, you are my one true love.” Then she’ll end a chorus with “Gimme your coins” or a “Sorry ‘bout it” and switch her disposition from I’m-a-helpless-leaf-in-a-windy-world to I-am-the-wind-and-have-always-been-haven’t-you-caught-on-yet?
Notice how her voice changes depending on who she is talking to. Out loud, she has her normal, tempered voice. Her voice goes sunshine-high when she’s talking to her man.
White bikini off with my red nail polish
Watch me in the swimming pool
Bright blue ripples
You sitting, sipping on your Black Cristal, yeah
This is her own thoughts, her own assessment of the situation. Hear the control in the delivery?
Listen again to
I’m your little scarlet, starlet
Singing in the garden
Kiss me on my open mouth
Doesn’t that just feel like the end of The Usual Suspects? Lana Del Rey is Keyser Soze.
This is a first in musical history, a first appearance of this character, with this intelligence, this self-awareness of her own story. And it’s coming across clearly, beautifully, like the bootprint did on the Moon July 20th 1969 except instead of a lunar surface it’s my heart and instead of an astronaut it’s a girl in a bar, chuckling thoughts off to her listeners as if they’re silly-young whims just dawning on her and not the well-thought out, intentional lifestyle choices that they are. I repeat myself: she is self-knowing innocence, precocious youth. How many other characters in literature and life have yet to be made into autobiographical songs like this? Thank goodness for Lana and her artistic example set. She committed herself to dredging the character, dead or alive, from the buried imaginations of Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gatsby) and the hordes of other fantasy-fishing, high-chasing experiences of sexuality which boys and girls have played out in schoolyards and snake pits since euphoria jumped its first neuron.
Running from the cops in our black bikini tops
Screaming, “Get us while we’re hot, get us while we’re hot”
I am, so far, talking about the first few songs, the first meeting with this Lana character. The rest of the album shows the trapdoors and back alley memories of the character, how her past created her present, how her own desire to love is indeed young and not totally as above-it-all as the first few songs made it out to be. There is more to talk about.