the ultimate lana del rey reference guide
Investigating the many inspirations behind her most iconic lyrics.
Image via Youtube.
Against all odds, the enigmatic Lana Del Rey has won over domineering critics and savage fans alike, incorporating vintage references, Californian imagery, and infusing haunting lyricism into her work throughout her ever evolving career. While most know Del Rey is infatuated with cinematic endeavors and rock-and-roll milestones, it’s not just Californian sunshine and opulent decadence.
Del Rey is a well-read scholar, and has a thirsty appetite for planting easter eggs throughout her music. For paradise’s sake, she has a tattoo that reads Nabokov Whitman. Here is a complete reference to the most significant, if not subtle, references she’s incorporated into her body of work. After all, life imitates art.
Note: While this lays the groundwork to referential Lana lyricism, all references are not included, as further revealed in her earlier work under names Lizzy Grant, May Jailer, Lana Del Rey Mar, and Sparkle Jumprope Queen. Many of her previous music video intercut plenty of imagery that has still stayed consistent throughout her career. Del Rey is a maestro of historical ghosts that linger subconsciously through the lens of what we’ve read, seen, and heard.
“Take a walk on the wild side....” ("Born to Die") — "Walk on the Wild Side," Lou Reed .
“Light of my life, fire of my loins” (“Off to the Races”) — This is the opener of Vladimir Nabokov’s most notorious work Lolita, which is also another titled track Lana has produced.
“Like to watch me in the glass room, bathroom, Chateau Marmont...” (“Off to the Races”) — The Chateau Marmont is a fixation of Del Rey’s. She’s performed at the notorious Los Angeles hotel, a place filled with multiple Hollywood scandals, deaths, and a wild past. Footage of actress Paz de la Huerta tripping in an inebriated state outside the entrance of the Chateau Marmont was used for the Video Games music video.
“One for the money, two for the show” ("Million Dollar Man") —“Blue Suede Shoes”, Elvis Presley.
“Elvis is my Daddy, Marilyn’s my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend” ("Body Electric") —The three icons are also depicted in her music video short Tropico. Elvis has appeared multiple times in her music, including the track titled “Elvis”. She has referenced Marilyn Monroe in “Children of the Bad Revolution” (an unreleased track).
“Whitman is my daddy” ("Body Electric") — Lana is referring to Walt Whitman.
“Drop it like it’s hot in the pale moonlight” ("Body Electric") —The lyrics “drop it like it’s hot” have appeared in her previous tracks “Ghetto Baby”, “Go Go Dancer”, and “Midnight Dancer Girl” from her Lizzy Grant days. “Drop it Like It’s Hot” is a track produced by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell.
“I’m on fire baby” ("Summertime Sadness") — “I’m on Fire” written by Bruce Springsteen, is about a man’s lustful fondness for a woman who gives him night sweats. This lyrics also appears on Lana’s tracks “Body Electric ”, “Baby Blue Love ”, and “Sad Girl ”.
"Relying on the kindness of strangers” ("Carmen") — Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire.
“Drinking cherry schnapps in the velvet night” ("This is What Makes Us Girls") — “Velvet night” is written in Lolita, and mentioned during the beginning of Humbert’s journey with the title character.
“Life imitates art” ("Gods and Monsters") — The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde.
“My my my, oh hell yes, honey put on that party dress” ("American") — "Last Dance With Mary Jane", Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“Harvey’s in the Sky with diamonds and he’s making me crazy” ("Cola") —“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, The Beatles. While this one is highly debatable, since speculation was stirred after Harvey Weinstein’s accusations, it may also correlate with the Jimmy Stewart picture Harvey, based on a play about a rich alcoholic who develops a kinship with a 6-foot tall bunny rabbit.
“I’ve got a burning desire for you baby” ("Burning Desire") — This lyric is a double-entendre, a Lana trademark. A burning desire is often referred in Alcoholic Anonymous as a craving to return to drinking. While the sensual phrase may be lustful, it may also be read as dark temptation.
“He hit me and it felt like a kiss” ("Ultraviolence") — “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)” by The Crystals.
“He’s got the fire and he walks with it” ("Sad Girl") — Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. “I’m on Fire”, Bruce Springsteen. This lyric is a brilliant addition to her Bruce Springsteen reference, adding a Lynchian touch. David Lynch has been a source of inspiration for Lana’s works, as seen in her Blue Velvet cover (and music video).
“And my boyfriend’s in a band, he plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed...” ("Brooklyn Baby") — Lou Reed was set to record alongside Del Rey for the track “Brooklyn Baby”. When she landed in New York on her way to record with him that same day, she was notified that he had passed two minutes later after touching down.
“You’ve got the music in you, don’t you” ("West Coast") — "You Give What You Give," New Radicals.
“Ground control to Major Tom...” ("Terrence Loves You") — “Space Oddity”, David Bowie.
“You’re my religion” ("Religion") — Catherine, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In Hemingway’s novel, the main character, Catherine, has a devout and obsessive love for Frederic that some past female literary scholars have criticized. Critic Judith Fetterly once claimed that Hemingway’s tale was misogynistic and sexist, saying that Hemingway shows that “the only good woman is a dead woman”. However, literary critic Millicent Bell approached Catherine’s character as “a sort of inflatable woman only available to the onanistic dreamer”.
“Got you where I want you, I got, I got you where I want you now...” ("The Blackest Day") — “Got You Where I Want You”, The Flys. A track that was promoted on the soundtrack for 90s film Disturbing Behavior. Del Rey has a knack for cinema, so it wouldn’t be unexpected if she snuck this one in there referring to the angsty 90s teen film.
“Drink it like tequila sunrise” ("God Knows I Tried") — “Tequila Sunrise”, The Eagles.
“We're the masters of our own fate, we're the captains of our own souls” ("Lust for Life") — Invictus (poem).
“My boyfriend’s back and he’s cooler than ever” ("Lust for Life") — “My Boyfriend’s Back”, The Angels.
“They say only the good die young” ("Lust for Life") —“Only the Good Die Young”, Billy Joel.
“Blue skies forever” ("Lust for Life") —“Blue Skies Forever”, Frankie Miller.
Apart from the album and song title "Lust for Life" referencing the Iggy Pop album from 1977, the title track (and music video) references a grim tale of young Hollywood tragedy that transpired the year of 1932. Actress Peg Entwistle, who was planned to star in director David O. Selznick’s Thirteen Women, was cut from the final cut of the film. She then took her life into her own hands by climbing up the 30-foot high ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign and jumping off. In the track’s music video, Del Rey is seen climbing a ladder and sliding off the monumental sign.
“Don’t worry baby” ("Love") — “Don’t Worry Baby”, The Beach Boys.
“I’d trade it all for a stairway to heaven...” (“Coachella - Woodstock In My Mind”) — “Stairway to Heaven’, Led Zeppelin.
“I fall to pieces when I’m with you....” ("Cherry") — “Fall to Pieces”, Patsy Cline.
“My cherries and wine, rosemary and thyme...” ("Cherry") — “Strawberries, cherries and an angels kiss in spring, my summer wine is really made of all these things” — “Summer Wine”, Nancy Sinatra. Del Rey has also done a cover of the track.
“Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” ("Cherry") — Simon and Garfunkel. Lana sang “Scarborough Fair” during her Lust for Life tour.
“Lay, lady, lay on that side of paradise in the tropic of cancer...” ("Tomorrow Never Came") — “Lay, Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan, F Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.
“Cause if I had my way, you would always stay and be my tiny dancer” ("Tomorrow Never Came") — “Tiny Dancer”, Elton John
“You said to meet me up there tomorrow but tomorrow never came” ("Tomorrow Never Came") — Sean Lennon features on this track — “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a 1966 Beatles song.
“I wanna move out of the black into the blue” ("Get Free") — “Out of the Blue”, Neil Young.
“I’m smoking while I’m running on my treadmill but I’m coming up roses” ("In My Feelings") — “Coming Up Roses”, Elliott Smith.
“National Anthem” — The music video for “National Anthem” features A$ap Rocky and Del Rey portraying a couple akin to JFK and Jackie Onassis. They play with their children at a waterside McMansion, Del Rey smokes at the dinner table, strokes Rocky’s chest on a sailboat, and drives alongside her man during a re-enactment of the 1963 assassination. In an MTV interview, director Anthony Mandler said, “There’s a kind of micro-commentary of 'This is the new royalty,' you know, A$AP and Lana, trying to pick two people to maybe represent the next generation of something. I think even with an African American president, it's still controversial to see him sitting and playing JFK, it's still taboo, even if it shouldn't be. You're kind of like 'Is this right or wrong? This feels very right, but also feels very wrong at the same time.' And I think in all of Lana's songs, and her image in general, and the person she is, it all fits in. It's kind of like there are two sides of a mirror, and you're not sure which side you're looking at."
Tropico — Lana Del Rey made a music video film titled Tropico that premiered at Arclight in Hollywood, not far from Sunset and Vine (which she references in Ultraviolence’s “Old Money”).
In the film, she recites Allen Ginberg’s Howl during a scene filled with grimy businessmen entertained by sultry strippers. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for angry fix...”.
Ginsberg once said Howl Part I (specifically) is “a lament for the lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths”. Earlier in Tropico, during the Garden of Eden sequence for “Body Electric”, in which Lana is dressed as Eve alongside model Shaun Ross playing Adam, she is seen playing with a baby lamb.
There are also cameos of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, and Jesus impersonators in the film.
"Black Beauty" — Black Beauty is a novel from 1877, written during the latter years of author Anna Sewell’s life. The song “Black Beauty” is about a man who doesn’t recognize how wonderful and beautiful life is. The 1877 novel’s themes touch upon humanity and its regard to sympathy, respect, and kind love.
"13 Beaches" — Del Rey's "13 Beaches" opens with dialogue from 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls. The film tells the story of a woman experiencing grand delusions and disturbances following a car crash. She relocates to a new town and becomes drawn to an abandoned carnival as she’s stalked by a ghoulish man lurking in the shadows.
The intro of “13 Beaches ” opens with an excerpt of dialogue the lead female recites:
“I don't belong in the world. That's what it is.
Something separates me from other people.
Everywhere. They're everywhere. They're not going to let me go. Everywhere I turn... There's something that's... Blocking my escape.”
The track explores Del Rey’s search for privacy amidst the paparazzi. In an interview with Paris Match, she said:
“I wrote the song ‘13 Beaches’ to tell how last summer I had to search 13 beaches before finding one without the paparazzi, where I could sit and read a book... But we get used to it. Maybe the game is worth the candle.”
"Queen of Coney Island" — New York born and bred, Del Rey references Coney Island as an “important place to her throughout her career”. Born to Die’s other track “Carmen ” is actually about “a doomed woman who sells her body” on the streets of Coney Island. The music video for “Carmen” ends with "Gymnopédie No.1.” by Erik Satie.
“Hotel California” — “Hotel California”, The Eagles. The Burnt Norton interlude from Honeymoon is taken from T.S Eliot's Four Quartets.
French monologue ("Carmen") — The bridge in Carmen evokes the writing style of Vladimir Nabokov, who would occasionally delve into French passages between the ongoing prose of Lolita.
Pearls, throwing pearls (riding in car during beginning of the Bel Air segment in Tropico, several performances during her Lust for Life Tour where she threw pearls into audience), emerging out of the water (“Shades of Cool”, baptism during Tropico), Jesus, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Jim, Jimmy, red dresses, beauty queens, cigarettes, Charles Manson (“Manson’s in the air...” “Heroin, Freak” music video where Father John Misty depicts Manson-like character), Coney Island, diamonds, God, Heaven, paradise, Hunter S. Thompson, James Dean, Kurt Cobain, heavy metal, Daddy, Queens (“Queen of Coney Island, “Queen of New York”, “Queen of Saigon”, “Queen of the Gas Station”, “Queen of Alchemy”), blue, curls, driving, roses, cherries, Hollywood, motels, easy riders, Guns N' Roses.