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American Odyssey- The world building of Lana del Rey’s music

The past decade of Lana del Rey’s music has ventured  from the deserts and neon-lights of Las Vegas to the streets of New York, Hollywood, and eventually rural California. This journey through the lens of old-world Americana is enticing, and for me a huge part of what makes her music so captivating. Moulding this narrative not only through where she chooses to place herself, but also how she chooses to express it has lead to Lana del Rey filling stadiums around the world, always keeping us coming back for more. Whether it’s a cry-your-heart out ballad, 60’s inspired lullaby or an effortlessly cool hip hop piece, her world building plays such a large part in her success. However, whilst places and time scales may change, Lana’s continual reliance upon the idea of melancholy and sadness within her work shines through. It’s the melancholy and continual longing for the places she’s left and the places she’s in which makes the listener dive into another album looking for the next instalment.

If we are to think of her albums as these instalments, they feel almost confessional. They track the life of a young twenty something party girl gone wrong into a ranch owning chicken feeding country woman. NFR, her fifth studio album, expresses this metamorphosis clearly when in How to Disappear she writes “Now it’s been years since I left new York/ I’ve got a kid and two cats in the yard/ The California sun and the movie stars/ I watch the skies getting light as I write/ as I think about those years”. Infusions of the confessional into lines like this is part of what keeps us wrapped up in the story. We want to see what area of Americana she’ll lean into next. If it’s not the starlet, the old-money darling or the free-spirited hippie what could it be? In light of this, it’s possible to draw comparisons between Lana and Taylor Swift. Both rely heavily on creating set time-periods in their work or in Taylor’s case, Eras. On the sides of both del Rey and Swift this is a clever marketing tactic because why pull in only one fan-base when you could have four or five? Listeners can identify with their chosen album, infusing into it their own memories, feelings, and journey. It’s common knowledge and pretty obvious that artists are never going to stay the same, take Lorde’s transition from grunge Tumblr teen to Solar goddess. However, the difference in Lana’s take on this  sets her apart from her contemporaries, she not only builds lanscapes, she immerses us in them.

The landscapes she builds for us may drastically shift, yet there’s a distinct sense of cohesiveness to all of her projects. Just take a look at any of her lyrics, there are constant repetitions of “tears” “racing cars” “guns” “roses”  or perhaps most infamously “cola”  tie her many lives together. This kind of lyrical branding, honing in on specific words and their connotations in order to paint these landscapes are central to her brand. Immediately, when we think of them, our mind draws back to this idea of the sad-girl, bad-boy universe she plays into that it almost becomes referential to what she’s actually saying. Whilst readings such as this have drawn controversy from both the media and the songstress herself,  in a 2019 Twitter battle amidst the NFR release, Lana got back at critics by quipping: “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” Her shape shifting and reliance on specific tropes make it really easy to see why this conclusion might be drawn. However, for me, it’s always been possible to see Lana not as a persona but a commentator for our times and our culture. She references, she provokes, and she engages us in her world building. After all, who else would be able to say “pass me my vape/ I’m feeling sick/ I need a puff” after writing something as poetic as Margaret? She’s up to date on every aspect of today’s cultural milieu but isn’t afraid to look back to the past when it might seem more poetic. It’s this tongue in cheek observing and crafting of her sound which is testament to her value as an artist rather than a persona.

Lana’s sound and brand seems to be a never ending public and private journey. From listening to her first album on my iPod mini aged 9 (the consequences of unfettered access to the internet) one thing I’ve learnt is that she’s never tiring.  Even though we’re now a decade on from that release, it’s still an album I continually return to. Why? Because it’s exciting. Amongst her other works, I get to go on a journey, to sepia toned flashes of diners and parties and beaches  whilst meeting bikers , celebrities and maybe the odd gangster along the way. With her headlining of Reading this summer and release of her country album Lasso this autumn, I’m only more excited to see the new territories she’s charting. 

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