Where Lana Del Rey last left us and where she lives in our memory are two different places.
For some, she will exist forever inside the grand vision of her 2019 album and its hyperbolic songs, “The Greatest,” “The Next Best American Record,” and emphasis-laden title track, “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” painting a portrait of America with the oil wet and smudged on the canvas. Or maybe she’s encased in amber alongside her torch songs spun on the radio, 2017’s “Love” and 2013’s “Young and Beautiful,” her drowsy lower register like fingertips trailing through layers of dust over a decayed gilded age. For the cohort of online, early 2010 teens like me, Del Rey’s a doll behind the glass with her soft, brushed out barrel curls, breathing air into the lifeless images of women that populated old Hollywood with her brash, hip-hop borrowing Born to Die.
Del Rey knows that music is a medium for memory. That’s why, after several increasingly acoustic albums light on digital production and percussion, her latest album feels like a deliberate callback to her Born to Die days, and all the baggage the association brings. She plays with hip-hop again in snatches, like when the churning piano/guitar piece “A&W” switches up to sizzling schoolyard trap and when the 808s kick in on “Fishtail.” On the latter, Del Rey exhales “You wanted me sadder,” echoing Leonard Cohen’s age-ripened “You want it darker,” reminding us that making music is something she does for herself first and foremost; judgment from higher powers—be they divine or online—is completely secondary. Del Rey devoted a decade of study to the iconography of white America, the myths it sells, and the way their radioactive half-lives impact 21st century consciousness. Now on her ninth studio album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, she adds her own mythos to the mix to reflect on her place in pop culture—maybe in her own mind more than ours. So just what has Lizzy Grant learned about a decade of being Lana Del Rey?
On 2012’s Born To Die, Del Rey created a world of fast cars, bad men, red dresses, rough kisses, and getting fucked hard. The character of Lolita loomed large in her early work, promising that she knew what boys wanted, that she was ready to trade skipping rope for “skippin’ heartbeats with the boys downtown.” She was a heartsick accidental seductress, all high glamor and high risk for the chance to grow up and step into her own romantic fantasies.
“And I know that love is mean and love hurts,” she sang on “Blue Jeans,” an early thesis for her art and a personal lesson she’s only recently started to unlearn, first on 2019’s “Cinnamon Girl” (“But if you hold me without hurting me / You’ll be the first who ever did”), and now further acknowledging how she’s played into it on this album’s “Fishtail” (“Maybe I’ll take my glasses off so I stop painting red flags green”).
Among the nihilistic grayscale of Tumblr’s toxic, self-harm aesthetes, and alongside the work of MARINA’s Electra Heart—a satirical concept album sung from the perspective of the beauty queen, the primadonna, the crazed housewife or, in other words, women often denied main character status—and the weaponized sexuality of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 thriller Gone Girl, Del Rey’s bored and beautiful embrace of the doomed read to me as caricature, too, even as critics derided her as anti-feminist.
But Del Rey isn’t writing under a persona, she clapped back at critic Ann Powers in 2019, a stance she reiterated in the fan-infamous “Question for the culture” Instagram post the following year. “Can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect … without being crucified or saying I’m glamorizing abuse?”
Her album Chemtrails Over the Country Club was postponed due to vinyl manufacturing delays, but the backlash to Del Rey positioning herself against almost-exclusively women of color in that post would linger. And this is still a subject she struggles with on Did you know. “I’m a different kind of woman / If you want some basic bitch, go to the Beverly Center and find her,” she sings on “Sweet,” perhaps not realizing that true freedom from basic-ness is when we stop calling each other bitches altogether. Elsewhere, on “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” she calls herself “A fallible deity” and “Regrettably, also a white woman,” though one with “good intentions”—with sometimes clunky execution.
Regardless, an animating question of Did you know is what you internalize about yourself if you are not just playing these parts—the preyed upon youth, the powerless damsel, the side chick—as she says, but also living them. What sort of humanity are you denied? She hears her critics ask her why, why, why she’s “like this” on “A&W” (previously titled “American Whore”) as she calls man after man to come over, even though she knows they don’t love her. “I don’t know,” she admits, “maybe I’m just like this.”
Del Rey set up her art to fall very hard on one side of the reductive-yet-persistent Madonna-whore complex, a label she now chafes against in song, whether as a result of renewed backlash from her 2020 controversy or a boiling-over frustration that she puts up with a lot of bullshit in love for the sake of it. “I don’t care what they say about me,” she sang, petulant-voiced back on “Lolita,” a sentiment she repeats on “A&W.” But later in the song she reveals a more sinister source for that attitude. “If I told you that I was raped,” she sings, confrontational and still swallowing the word, “Do you really think that anybody would think / I didn’t ask for it?”
Did she truly not care what people thought, or did she simply know she wouldn’t be believed? Del Rey quotes Marina’s “Teen Idle” on another track, and it’s Marina’s seething lyrics, “I Want. Back. My. Virginity,” delivered with measured fury, that resonates here. Some sense of agency has been lost. Now, Del Rey is surveying the impact of a “bein’ an American whore” on her psyche after all these years, especially as she endeavors to graduate from the virgin-whore discourse and ascend to her final form of womanhood: the mother.
Bad men and daddies of all persuasions have long proliferated in Del Rey’s discography, but the secret relationship fucking her up on this record is motherhood, both as she looks back at her own mom and forward to her child-rearing potential. It’s refreshing to hear some much-needed matrilineal kinship, sisters and grandmothers appearing to talk shop about babies and childhood or simply smile once last time on their way to heaven, squeezed as they are between knife-sharp revelations. “Caroline,” she asks her sister in the anxious, pacing vocal pattern of “Fingertips,” “What kind of mother was she to say I’d end up in institutions?” (That scar further illuminates her feverish Sylvia Plath comparisons, mental hospital name-checks, and the instilled paranoia of unfit motherhood. “Will the baby be alright? Will I have one of mine? Can I handle it even if I do?” she frets earlier in the song.)
Down on her luck in love no matter how high she climbs or low she stoops for it, on Did you know she’s circling the conclusion that marriage and motherhood may not be in the cards. No matter how many times she tries to have that conversation (“Do you want children?” she asks in “Sweet”), the question remains unanswered; but it seems as if the years of the pandemic have been steadying, recentering a relationship with her family and putting her past blasé attitude toward death to bed once and for all. Life is the all-encompassing motivator in this decade of Del Rey’s existence: bringing it into the world in the future, cherishing the ones around her, contemplating an immortal future possible through science or her own art.
In the past, America was her muse. Now, Del Rey considers herself as a subject. On Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, the smokescreen that hides the anxieties of being a woman consumed and digested by media, fans, and lovers finally clears, the light revealing the vast imagination required to survive the constrained life of Lana Del Rey.
Cyrena Touros is a critic and reporter who writes about music, culture, and digital society.