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1 August 2023

Lana Del Rey: a great American poet

She began her career as a conventional, if self-aware, pop star. Her recent records are the work of a singer-songwriter laureate.

By Hannah Williams

The corner lot of 100 E Ocean Boulevard is not mythic. It’s a small patch of scrubland, rubble and grass, graffitied wall panels, a couple of vertebral palms. Round the back, a parking lot, asphalt bleached and sickly under the Los Angeles sun, and a chain-link fence, easily scalable. It wasn’t always like this. Built in 1919, the Jergins Trust Building used to stand on the site, its square-jawed conformity tempered by the carved pillars that used to adorn the top of its ten storeys, straight-backed against the blue sky. The office block was demolished in 1988, despite the modest efforts of government officials to save it – the owners claimed a hotel would be built on the grounds and blocked all attempts to add it to the heritage register. The Jergins Trust Building exists now only in a couple of archived newspaper reports, a local history blog and the memories of some older LA residents. And that is it: a blip, an interesting anecdote, a piece of little-known local history.

But there is one remnant of its existence. Behind that nondescript fence in the parking lot is the south entrance to the Jergins Pedestrian Subway. The 181-foot-long tunnel was built in 1927 and ran the width of Ocean Boulevard, enabling pedestrians to walk safely from the arcade beneath the Jergins Trust Building to the Pike, a now-demolished theme park that clung, bubblegum-on-sole, to the Long Beach shoreline. During its prime, a lit-up sign that read “ENTRANCE TO THE BEACH”, parasol jauntily extending from the “A” in “beach”, beckoned pedestrians down below street level, where booths selling candy and 50-cent bottles of orange-blossom perfume lined the walls. The vendors left, slowly, until there were none left at all, and in 1967 the subway was closed: entrances bricked up, skylight entombed.

In “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd”, Lana Del Rey makes the tunnel an American legend. The song starts with an exhale, the kind of breath taken to subdue a panic attack, or avert the onset of tears. It’s why her voice, when it arrives, is steady. “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard?” she asks. “Mosaic ceilings, painted tiles on the walls”. A drum beats, bearing us ceaselessly back into the past, ceaselessly forward into the present. Violins call to something lost, irretrievable, something that never existed. “I can’t help but feel somewhat like my body marred my soul,” she sings. “Handmade beauty sealed up by two man-made walls/When’s it gonna be my turn?… Don’t forget me!”

It builds and builds, then there is the supernova. If, as Del Rey sings, Harry Nilsson’s voice breaks at precisely 2.05 in “Don’t Forget Me”, then hers breaks at the four-minute mark. Her voice ascends as she pleads her final “Don’t forget me!/Like the tunnel under Ocean Boulevard”, a vision of pain that sounds like ecstasy. The song circles a central enquiry: the question “did you know?” is seemingly the star that it orbits. But only at the end do we understand that it’s really a black hole – swallowing all questions, all answers, until all that remains is the inescapable gravitational pull of that desperate “Don’t forget me!”. It’s telling that the title contains no question mark. Del Rey always knew that the tunnel – and all of LA, all of America, including herself – was doomed to be forgotten. If, for Jean Baudrillard, LA was the apotheosis of “American reality”, then Del Rey is the city’s greatest poet. She understands that the story of the Jergins Trust Tunnel is part of some greater American story, one of boom and bust, of oil money and land banking and short-sighted capitalism, of pioneer spirit and metropolitan decay. And so she immortalises it, gilds it: spins it into the myth of the United States.

It’s no coincidence that, while her account was still active, Del Rey’s Twitter bio quoted Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/I am large, I contain multitudes.”

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In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman both eulogises and prophesies America, remaking it in the image of its people, in the image of himself. As he writes in the poetry collection’s preface, “The power to destroy and remould is freely used by him (the greatest poet).” In her music, Del Rey does the same. This ability to make myth elevates Del Rey to American singer-songwriter laureate, the progeny of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez and Brian Wilson. The arrival of this Whitman-esque Lana can be located in 2019, when her album Norman Fucking Rockwell! was released, announcing her emergence as the great American poet of the 21st century.

[See also: The cultural divide no one wants to talk about]

The transformation was monumental, as swift and all-encompassing as heat lightning. Prior to this, Del Rey was a much more conventional pop star, breathy voice, orchestral trap-pop beats, whose lyrics traded in self-aware stereotypes – fuck-me-daddy, glacé-cherry, Lolita-cum-Nancy-Sinatra pastiches. The singular genius of NFR! and each album released since is the mark of an artist who, after spending the early part of her career shaped by narratives of America, has decided to shape those narratives herself.

In other words, NFR! heralded the arrival of a poet: liquescent, precise, strange, making the mundane transcendent and the transcendent mundane, eternally constructing and destroying the “I”. Her influences draw from American culture across the last 150 years – Ernest Hemingway, the White Stripes, Robert Frost, rose-gold iPhones, JD Rockefeller, Slim Aarons, crypto-bros, John Denver, Kanye West, Sylvia Plath, ranches and pools and the Topanga canyon at night, ice cubes rattling in their glasses – broken down and reconstituted through the careful, confessional depiction of her relationships, her memories, her “insane” brain. It feels vast, generational, emblematic of 21st-century America.

In “The Song of Myself”, Whitman tells us “I am the man, I suffered, I was there”. The poetic force of his work, which the American poet James Wright terms his “delicacy”, arises from the exactness of his observations; Whitman’s dedication to what he called “every organ and attribute”. This commitment to specificity is vital in understanding Del Rey’s artistic evolution; in her work on NFR! and beyond, she exhibits an oblique approach to individual experience, one that places a similar emphasis on precision. An instinct for poetic specificity is most apparent on “Blue Bannisters”, “Kintsugi” and “Fingertips”, sprawling, stream-of-consciousness confessionals that speak to Jesus, her family, lovers past and present, the dead and the living and the unborn, America, the Earth and the heavens, herself. There’s a Whitman-esque delicacy to her lyrics, whether they’re about the way John Denver holds the note on “Rocky Mountain High”, her sister making birthday cake while chickens run around the yard, or dropping a location pin to her lover on a hot night in the canyon.

Her vocals, too, heighten this prosody – lines slide into each other; words elongate and shrink; syllables catch in the throat – as do her melodies. These are songs that change and flow, crest and break. They transform as we listen. The best example of this might be “Venice Bitch”, which mutates repeatedly over the course of its 9-minute, 37-second run-time. Its acoustic guitar gives way to electric psych-folk as Del Rey sings to her lover that they’re “American-made”. It’s acid-trip Americana, Pet Sounds for a world engulfed in flame.

On 21 July 2023, Del Rey visited a Waffle House in Florence, Alabama. In the photos, mostly selfies posted to social media, she is wearing a name tag and a Waffle House uniform, gifted to her by employees. The outfit is the blue of many things: as blue as the Tennessee River as it eddies across the map; as blue as old glory blue; as blue as Levi’s 501s; as blue as Joni, 1971; as blue as a Blue Razz Lemonade vape. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska: as much as she’s queen of California, Del Rey is also the poet of the flyover state, captivated by the regulars at the diner, elbows on the counter. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” wrote Whitman in his preface to Leaves of Grass. It’s something Del Rey intuitively understands. With her personal mythology of waitresses and bartenders, Bowery bums and bikers and businessmen, poets and protesters, she has a fascination with American lives, an ability to be, as Whitman put it, “commensurate with a people”. Her empathy with them and the places in which they live is part of the reason, I think, why she’s so often stereotyped as a Republican.

To paint Del Rey as conservative is to fundamentally misunderstand her work. Her interest in how seemingly small stories inform larger narratives allows her to compellingly communicate the climate crisis in a way no other artist does. Take, for instance, the ending of “The Greatest”, “Hawaii just missed a fireball/LA’s in flames, it’s getting hot/Kanye West is blonde and gone”. Here, celebrity culture exists not to distract or undermine the climate crisis, but to strengthen it: the dream of America is dead. What initially seems disaffected is replaced by the affect of somebody who knows it is too late to even grieve. These are the facts, Del Rey tells us. What else is left to say? The cover of Norman Fucking Rockwell! is at first glance so beautiful, so American-made, all gleaming yacht and Stars and Stripes and Hollywood progeny. It’s only when you look closer that you see it: the California shoreline engulfed in fire and smoke. “Blue Banisters” contains the devastating line: “Jenny was smoking by the pool, we were writing with Nikki Lane/I said, ‘I’m scared of the Santa Clarita Fires,/I wish that it would rain.’” It has the quality of a panicked interjection, a white-hot horror building in the veins. But, as with “The Greatest”, it’s simply a paean. There’s nothing to be done but bear witness.

There have been many proposals for the vacant Jergins Trust Building lot. Some of them have involved sealing off the tunnel, some have planned to incorporate it into a new project. An individual who purchased the land in the 1980s, whose plans involved destroying the structure to build a five-storey subterranean car park, didn’t even know the tunnel existed when he bought the lot. Nothing has yet been built. The tunnel is still there, mostly forgotten, and the sounds of the traffic above echo off tiles the orange of Long Beach sunsets before fading into the darkness.

In “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd”, Lana Del Rey tells us of a girl who “sings ‘Hotel California’/Not because she loves the notes or sounds that sound like Florida/It’s because she’s in a world preserved, only a few have found the door…”. Del Rey knows that narrative is the only way to truly immortalise. This is the ballad of America, and she is its poet.

[See also: Inside the “psychopathic” battle for Taylor Swift tour tickets]

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