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Ultraviolence as quick lit

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JULY 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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An artist known for songs titled “Video Games,” “Diet Mountain Dew,” and “I F… My Way Up to the Top” may not appear to be well-read, but Lana Del Rey is trying hard to prove you wrong.

With the release of her album Ultraviolence two weeks ago, the 28-year-old alternative-rock artist Elizabeth Grant — known by her sumptuous stage name Lana Del Rey — manages to mingle literary references with descriptions of her promiscuous, drug-fueled adolescence.

The singer/songwriter is a self-proclaimed connoisseur of beat poetry (see the song “Brooklyn Baby”) and an avid fan of Russian/American novelist Vladimir Nabokov (she even describes her music style as “Lolita got lost in the hood”). In short, Del Rey is more than the Jim-Morrison-worshipping, Marilyn Monroe wannabe that some of her records suggest.

Here is a list of the singer’s most prominent lyrical allusions. You can decide for yourself whether Del Rey’s literary prowess is worthy of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Lolita, Vladmir Nabokov

The controversial 1950s novel about a man who is attracted to his 12-year-old stepdaughter is apparently a source of endless fascination for Del Rey. The singer embodies the fictional “nymphet” in several tunes from her 2012 album, Born to Die.

The track “Carmen” follows a teenage streetwalker, named for a song about “Charmin’ Carmen,” sung by the protagonists of Lolita. The angst-filled Off to the Races features the line, “light of my life, fire of my loins,” taken directly from Nabokov’s novel.

References from Lolita and the 1962 film adaptation — including the iconic heart-shaped sunglasses — also appear in the lyrics and music videos for “Diet Mountain Dew,” “Ride,” and, not surprisingly, the song “Lolita.”

Despite this excess of Lolita love, Del Rey seems to miss the moral of Nabokov’s story, particularly that sexualizing young girls is damaging, not glamorous. Still, seeing as Del Rey continues singing about cherry red lips and domineering men in her new number, “Black Beauty,” it’s unlikely the “Coney Island Queen” will drop her Lolita act anytime soon.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

Del Rey’s newest album, Ultraviolence, which came out June 17, takes on a much slower, hypnotic tone than Born to Die — despite its title being inspired by one of the most explosive stories of the 20th century.

Anthony Burgess coined the term “ultra-violence” in his 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange, which follows teenage gangster Alex as he wreaks havoc in a dystopian future London before being viciously reformed by the state. “Ultra-violence” is one of many words in the fictional future slang Nadsat and describes acts of rape, robbery, and violent assault.

“Ultraviolence” the song, however, is far more subdued. In it, Del Rey describes an unhealthy romantic relationship — “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” — rather than the random acts of violence committed by Burgess’ protagonist.

This loose connection aside, Lana’s repeated lyric “I can hear violins, violins” does echo the psyche of Alex, who associates ultraviolence with the orchestral melodies of Beethoven. A Clockwork Orange, however, seems largely absent from the rest of Del Rey’s sophomore album.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Perhaps it is cheating to say Del Rey draws inspiration from the famous ’20s classic, given that she was paid to do so by the makers of the 2013 Great Gatsby film. Still, “Young and Beautiful” succeeds in encompassing the bitterly romantic, after-party melancholy of both Fitzgerald’s novel and Del Rey’s former work.

Del Rey also can’t resist an homage to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass poem “I Sing the Body Electric” — which is referenced, if not emulated, in the song “Body Electric” — with her “Young and Beautiful” character admiring Jay Gatsby’s “electric soul.”

Gatsby themes seem to echo in the New York City native’s new song, “Old Money,” as the line “Will you still love me/When I’m no longer young and beautiful?” evolves into “Will you still love me when I shine/From words but not from beauty?.” If Del Rey is any indication, New York dating culture hasn’t changed much since the 1920s.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

It is not so surprising that an artist obsessed with scarred, superficial women has taken a shine to Blanche DuBois, the ill-fated heroine of one of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play.

Blanche’s famous final line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” has been adapted to Del Rey’s songs “Carmen” and “Ride.” Both tunes deal with a loss of youthful innocence and a reliance on strange men to survive a booze- and blues-soaked lifestyle — themes very much at work in Williams’ classic.

Let’s just hope Del Rey’s white Pontiac leads her down safer roads than Blanche’s “rattle-trap” streetcar.


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