Learning and learning to learn through Lana Del Rey

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Lana Del Rey attends her "Freak" music video premiere event presented by Vevo at The Wiltern on February 9, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Interscope)
Chris Polk / Shorefire/Courtesy
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 09: Lana Del Rey attends her "Freak" music video premiere event presented by Vevo at The Wiltern on February 9, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Interscope)

The first twangs of “Blue Jeans” reverberated throughout Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Sept. 5, and Lana Del Rey — dressed in an understated outfit consisting of a black shirt and black pants — sauntered along, dancing on the dark stage before her fourth song that evening.

As she raised the microphone to her lips, the audience first encountered not the spotlit singer, but huge images of James Dean blooming across the screens, wholly appropriate considering the line in the song that goes, “It was like James Dean for sure.”

This vivid homage to the classic Hollywood heartthrob made me recall what about Del Rey had enchanted me so; that is, her frequent allusions to Americana and all it entails. In addition to the James Dean reference in “Blue Jeans,” many of the other songs from her second studio album Born to Die draw heavily from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

For instance, the first pre-chorus of the second track on the album, “Off to the Races,” contains the opening lines of Lolita: “Light of my life, fire of my loins.” And in the deluxe version of the album, she has a song titled “Lolita,” explicitly showing the influence that Nabokov’s novel seemed to have had on her work.

But the bridge between Del Rey and Nabokov can often seem tenuous for a listener of the former and reader of the latter like myself, and I have to question what her purpose in referencing Nabokov is.

“This vivid homage to the classic Hollywood heartthrob made me recall what about Del Rey had enchanted me so; that is, her frequent allusions to Americana and all it entails.”

Lolita is often thought of as “that novel that tries to justify pedophilia,” but that’s not what it does. There is a difference between justifying pedophilia and creating the illusion of a justification for pedophilia in order to try and make the readers uncomfortable.

What does it mean when we feel sympathetic towards the kidnapping, coercive and abusive Humbert Humbert? What does it mean when we find little Lolita with her greed for material goods — an attitude Del Rey encapsulates well in “Off to the Races” with the lyrics, “Gimme them gold coins / Gimme them coins” — exhaustingly irritating?

And what should we make of the specific kind of America Nabokov paints for us to act as a backdrop against which all the drama between Humbert and Lolita unfolds? For the reader who either doesn’t recall or hasn’t read the novel, I kindly remind them of the middle chunk of the novel. Here, the couple anxiously zig-zags all over the country to throw off anyone who might be pursuing Humbert for his appalling deeds — a road trip that, on the flip side, seems to inject the dull stretch of land between the two coasts with a new kind of urgency for the readers.

There is a delicious, productive irreverence for America and, more generally, humanity infused throughout Lolita that Del Rey seems to try to emulate in songs like “Gods & Monsters” with the lyrics, “In the land of gods and monsters / I was an angel, looking to get fucked hard.”

What do I mean by “delicious, productive irreverence?” I’m not quite sure, either — both Nabokov and Del Rey seem to have ambivalent feelings for this country and humankind, but they are fascinated enough by them to make them the subjects and objects of their works and to do it in a way that I can only describe as evoking the image of an overwhelmed young girl in white falling backward into a pool with a frenzied montage of clips running across the pool floor. (I’m pretty sure that’s actually part of some Del Rey music video, and I’m definitely sure it’s an image inspired by the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — another work that delves into the problems of America, and one whose most recent film adaptation Del Rey sang “Young and Beautiful” for.)

All this being said, it would be unfair to say that Del Rey is the Nabokov of our generation. The aforementioned works by Del Rey are a pastiche of Nabokov’s, so it wouldn’t be fair to equate her content and style to his genius.

“There is a difference between justifying pedophilia and creating the illusion of a justification for pedophilia in order to try and make the readers uncomfortable.”

But whether she’s aware of it or not, a criticism she has often received, she’s undoubtedly doing something interesting. She’s a contemporary pop star who appeals to the masses, to the point of being deemed “basic,” yet she draws much inspiration from a mid-20th century novel that criticizes mass culture — a paradox that I’m not sure what to make of.

At this point, I need to interject and mention that when I came across Del Rey as a junior in high school, I barely knew anything of Lolita, James Dean or the rest of Americana, and quite frankly, I had no interest in any of it.

But her simultaneously haunting and raw vocals and portrayal of America as something other than clumps of cities on the coasts with thousands of miles of dusty roads in between, an America in which things happen in that space, were compelling enough for me to develop an interest in it.

I enjoy her music at face value on a daily basis, but it’s also the kind of music that calls for me to go forth and do more. This explains my brief obsession with James Dean in senior year of high school, which prompted me to buy a collection of his movies from Amazon.

It also explains how I got to writing this piece. I probably wouldn’t have been able to provide the previous, admittedly crude, analysis of Del Rey in relation to Nabokov if the album “Born to Die” hadn’t first sparked my interest in Lolita, inspiring me to take a class on Nabokov and his works.

In addition to owing Del Rey for piquing my intellectual interests, I credit her with my approach to them. Oftentimes, I’ll find myself in classes in which we dive head-first into topics that seem to require a vast amount of prerequisite knowledge, and I’ll balk at the prospect of having to play catch-up while staying on top of the work that such classes require.

But I’ve vibed with and continue to vibe with Del Rey’s music without understanding every allusion she makes or her general intentions as an artist. The understanding comes naturally with time and active, but not aggressive, curiosity.

I’m learning to embrace this idea when it comes to academic work, as well. In as competitive a school as UC Berkeley, we often seem to forget that we’re here to learn, not judge each other on how much knowledge we had before we came here, or how much knowledge we have relative to others. We’re here to learn, and with what we’ve learned, make our contribution to the world.

This brings me back to Del Rey, who has arguably moved beyond relying on past artists in the way that she did with Nabokov. In her most recent album Lust for Life her message seems to call for more social and political activism than her past albums did.

On the ninth track of Lust for Life, “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind,” Del Rey sings, “Maybe my contribution could be as small as hoping / That words could turn to birds and birds would send my thoughts your way.”

This is a Del Rey concerned with today’s world, rather than the past’s. There is still a certain nostalgic element to her new music, but it’s a nostalgia meant to encourage people to strive for a better world together. It’s a call to action more direct and involved than the one I’ve found in her past music.

And regardless of the complexities, or lack thereof, we each attribute to Del Rey, when we consider the state of the world today, they’re a call for basic human decency that would serve us well to respond to.

Ericka Shin is the Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ericka_shin.