An analysis of the music and poetics of a pop-star
From Leonard Cohen to Patti Smith, Lana Del Rey follows an impressive legacy of musicians who have crossed-over into poetry. Has she done so successfully? I was very interested to find out. The six-time Grammy nominated singer / songwriter, released her first book of poetry last week entitled Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (the audiobook is included at the end of the post). In deciding to try my hand at reviewing and analyzing an entire collection of a poetic oeuvre, I found it difficult to separate Lana’s poetry from her work as a musician: her cultural influence, her eccentric aesthetic, and her evolution both personally and as a writer. I realized her poetry is best appreciated and understood with closer examination of her artistry as a whole.
Music and Influence
As an artist, I have had an appreciation for and curiosity about Lana’s music since I first listened to her 2012 album, Born to Die, in college. She got her start on YouTube with her self-produced love ballad “Video Games.” The lyrics spoke of happiness, yet the way she sang them was a haunting contrast. The music video presented what could be described as a reflection of a psychologically disturbed and distorted American pop culture with a collage of idyllic home video footage, voyeuristic paparazzi shots, and a fading Hollywood sign. The music on her debut album spoke of or alluded to the subjects of depression, romance, fame, American patriotism and capitalism, sexual freedom, and death. The instrumentation was dense with cinematic orchestration and hip-hop beats, and her lyricism was creatively catchy, but also cliché. In the public eye, Lana sang her jazzy, melodramatic vocals while she maintained a blank, sad-eyed, and retro-glamorous image. This odd and contradictory persona seemed to welcome confusion, polarization, and endless criticism: some critics seeing her as a fake and not self-aware and others seeing her as a genius. In a society paradoxically obsessed with both social media and the idea of authenticity, people wanted to know who Lana Del Rey was and what her music’s intent was, but a satisfying answer never seemed to arise — and besides, why did she need to explain herself or her art? Shouldn’t real art be up to the interpretation of the viewer? These were just a few of the questions the celebrity elicited. One thing for certain was Lana Del Rey was fascinating.
While reacquainting myself with her work this summer and her newest acclaimed album, Norman F*cking Rockwell! (NFR!), released in 2019, I found myself asking what it was I originally liked about her music. Though I enjoyed the orchestration and some of her quirky and imaginative songwriting, it was not that I personally connected with her lyrics. Rather, I was drawn to how she was playing with her lyrics: going between tender expressiveness and detachment with her sultry contralto voice. Her vocal performance seemed to be saying something more poetic than the actual words she was singing. Her sound could capture the emotions of sorrow, hope, longing, and numbness all at once. Somehow, even her clichés could have a raw and confessional depth to them, and her nostalgic character image added an eerie allure. It was as though she was giving some kind of commentary on post-millennial pop culture by mirroring its loss of innocence and the dark side of the American dream. Perhaps she was trying to get at a deeper truth and creating something altogether different than what her pop music peers were portraying at the time. Whether this was her intent, I am not sure… but I saw an intriguing potential in the growth of her artistry, which she has been cultivating throughout the course of her career. Despite the backlash on her image and Lana’s demure behavior, she has persevered, proven to be able to hold her place in the music industry, and always followed her evolving vision, even when it has lead her to the wrong places for her career.
Lana’s music and unmistakable ‘Lana aesthetic:’ combining the styles of 1940’s old Hollywood Americana noir and 1960’s Woodstock hippie, has had the staying power to create an entire brand in fashion and internet culture, as well as an ardent fan following. Stemming from her troubled history with addiction as Elizabeth Grant (Lana’s birth name), her self-destructive tendencies, and unhealthy love relationships, Lana’s art originally seemed to come from a place of suffering and tragedy as beauty — undoubtedly stirring up controversy for the singer, (most notably with her track, “Ultraviolence,” where Lana sings from the perspective of a woman rationalizing domestic abuse). Her work and image has inspired trends like the ‘sad girl’ poetry movement most active on Instagram. Lana’s popularity has opened the door for other primarily melancholic vocal artists like Lorde and Billie Eilish whose work is prominent in the music industry today.
Many of Lana’s songs like “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans,” and “Born to Die” from Born to Die, “Young and Beautiful” from the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and “Shades of Cool” and “Brooklyn Baby” from Ultraviolence have been career defining in demonstrating her talents. However, it is her newest album, NFR!, co-produced by Lana and the brilliant songwriter and musician, Jack Antonoff, showing the biggest breakthroughs in her potential as a writer coming into fruition. The last track on the album, “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it,” is a prime example of Lana’s most developed and revealing poetic artistry in her music. The piece sounds like she is writing for herself from a place of compassion as she reflects on her career: her complex relationship with her Hollywood dreams and faith in humanity, the trauma she relives repeatedly by singing songs about her past, and how she has continually reinvented herself — clawing her way toward artistic and personal contentment. She departs from her muses of lovers and Americana nostalgia and becomes her own muse. The result is more immersive and heartbreakingly beautiful than anything she has created before.
“Mariners Apartment Complex” in NFR! is another example of how far Lana’s writing has come in her ability to express her innermost insecurities about being misunderstood and owning up to her past mistakes. She takes on a more empowered and optimistic tone in both her writing and her voice.
In other songs, Lana’s storytelling can start off in one solid place and then give way to a vague sketch of a message. This technique sometimes loses me mid-way through the song — leaving me to think she intended the song to feel unfinished / unfocused and up to the listener’s interpretation. This approach in her songwriting feels like a mix of vulnerability and mystery. In songs like “13 Beaches” and “Get Free” in Lust for Life, and “Cinnamon Girl” in NFR! I find this style most successful.
From a musical perspective, Lana’s songs have undergone an instrumental transformation over the past ten years — reflective of her more mature writing. She has slowly left the heavily stringed orchestration and pop sound for a stripped-down alternative tone while still maintaining her atmospherically surreal, nostalgic quality vocals, and memorable melodic lines. This same shedding effect has been happening in her image as her sad girl act is less prominent outside of her music.
Lana’s love for poetry is apparent in her songwriting and has played an important role in inspiring her — the most obvious examples being her references to Sylvia Plath in the song “Hope is a dangerous thing” in NFR! and to Walt Whitman in the song “Body Electric” in Born to Die. Many of her lyrics also allude to inspirations from poetic music artists like Tupac Shakur, Eminem, Lou Reed, Elton John and Leonard Cohen, and poems by Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg.
For the entirety of Lana’s music career, her fans have referred to her music as poetry. Whether or not songwriters are poets has been a long time debatable subject, but music and poetry certainly play off one another, and Lana’s music is a compelling example of that.
Going into Lana’s poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, I had some preconceived notions based on what I know of her music and image, which I have detailed above. I thought her work would include creative rhythm, rhyme, and metaphor with nods to other poets she admires, but I wasn’t sure how she would translate on paper without her music. There was also a chance she could venture to extremes: going into the overly avant-garde side of her image — not letting too much of her humanity in, and losing her reader in a vague mood sketch, or following the influences of popular trends currently happening in Instagram poetry — making her work too readable to have more depth than a Hallmark card. I thought her subject matter would be mainly sad, elusive love poems with a few self-reflective pieces. However, I was pleased to read her with more balance, versatility, polish, and, dare I say, authenticity than I expected.
Lana presents her collection with a very autobiographical portrayal, ranging from her childhood, “7 years old with dandelions grasped” to the present. It feels like an extension of her most recent album, NFR! as she is further examining and solidifying many of the thoughts and philosophies she touched upon in several songs. I think it is safe to say the “I” in her poetry is referring to herself. Whether this “self” is Lana Del Rey or Elizabeth Grant is up for interpretation.
I first listened to the audiobook version of this collection, spoken by Lana, when it was released in July 2020 (you can listen at the bottom of this post). The audiobook includes 14 of the 30 poems contained in the print copy. I am glad to have listened to her speak these poems prior to reading them on the page. Hearing the lines expressed as she intended really brought the pieces to life for me. Accompanying her spoken word is instrumental and atmospheric music by her key collaborator, Jack Antonoff, whose sounds further add to the depth and possible interpretations of the pieces.
Like her music, Lana uses a lot of rhyming and alliteration in her skillful word crafting. Most of her choices read as tasteful and unique (though some rhymes are a little too predictable). Her free verse flow rhythmically varies between pieces and within each piece, especially in her longer works, where she often breaks from rhythm entirely to add emphasis and emotion to certain lines. As I expected, she makes direct reference to poets like Plath and adds in musicians who have also attempted to cross over into poetry like Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan. Her poetry feels mainly based in the same nostalgic California place of her music.
I was most taken by her longer works, “Never to Heaven” and “SportCruiser.” These pieces come across as unguarded, and soulful: having inspirational messages where Lana examines the human condition through her personal struggles of finding her place in the world, cultivating self-love, trust in herself and in her relationships with others. In “Never to Heaven” she admits to having “faith in man as strange as that seems in times like these:” an underlying hopeful theme in a lot of her music and poetry.
In “SportCruiser” Lana tells a beautiful and relatable prose story using the metaphors of flying and sailing lessons as her insecurities and indecisiveness. She repeats “I don’t trust myself” as she journeys through new learning experiences, both in the external world and in her internal landscape. The discoveries she makes inspire her “poetry to arise.” The end result is quite captivating.
There are elements of humor in Lana’s writing that are refreshing and bring more depth to her as an already complex artist. In the poem “Salamander,” she uses the image of a salamander to describe what seems to be a demon she cannot exorcise out of her psyche no matter how hard she tries. At one point in the poem she mentions her attempts to “SoulCycle” the salamander to death, bringing a deeper meaning to the popular fitness class — a comedic and clever image. In “Quiet Waiter Blue Forever” she describes herself as a “quiet crustacean sunbathing on paper moon” — an adorable line and maybe my favorite of the entire collection.
Lana’s poetry shines when she delves into a space of self reflection in poems like “happy,” “My bedroom is a sacred space – there are children at the foot of my bed,” and the title poem, “Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass.” She also tries tackling more universal topics like climate change, politics, and sexism in the poem “Paradise is Very Fragile.” This piece has a different tone than her others and goes to some odd places. I suspect she will try to improve on writing subjects like these for her next poetry collection, as they are becoming important topics in her music. A few of her poems were more forgettable (as is to be expected from most any collection), but there were still memorable lines in each one.
Some of her pieces have the same unfortunate cliché pitfalls her music can fall into with lines like: “live your life like no one’s listening” and “my life is my poetry.” There are also some clunky rhymes in poems like “Quiet Waiter Blue Forever” when she opens with: “You move like water sweet baby sweet waiter. / Making the night smile to no one you cater. / Silent wood worker from midnight till later. / My lover my laughter my armour my maker…” but when she departs from those lines to “…inside of my stomach the cosmos are baking / a universe hung like a mobile / the alignment of these planets unique / in me the earth moves around the sun / no land / all sea / water world” she takes the reader somewhere interesting and I end up enjoying the poem for what it is, like I do her music.
I was very interested to see how Lana would format her poems in print after enjoying the audiobook. The hardcover copy that hit shelves on Sept. 30th, selling for $24.99, does not disappoint. The poems are presented as original and final manuscript drafts scanned from a typewriter on high-quality linen paper, alongside full color photography by Lana. I liked her choice to include the first drafts with her notes to see how she edited her work. Her photography mirrors the nostalgia she creates in her music and writing. Each of her pieces varies in length from short quotes and haikus to seven-minute prose poetry reads.
Although there is nothing too interesting happening with the format of her poems on the page, her line breaks and enjambments work nicely, and correspond with the way she reads the poems. Her decisions in punctuation vary between poems. With the exception of “SportCruiser,” her poetry uses little to no punctuation outside of the occasional period or question mark.
Lana has undoubtedly put an immense amount of work into this intimate collection to insure she makes a terrific debut into written poetry. Overall, this collection comes across as being a mature, authentic, and hopeful extension of her beautiful music, and maintains her eccentric creativity. Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass demonstrates her growth as an artist and showcases the potential I recognized early on in her music career. Although I do not expect Lana’s collection to make too much of an impact in the academic poetry community, it certainly is a monumental step for her artistic and personal development, and I am sure it will be cherished by her fans. I am excited to see where this collection will take her music and poetry in the future.
I hope you enjoyed this poetry review!
All writing and views are my own. Photos in music section are from Pinterest and poetry book photos are by me.