Summer is cancelled.
There’s just something about summer that makes it my favorite season. Maybe it is the poolside beer and a copy of John Updike. Maybe it is the thrill of hot dogs (now plant-based for me), or the nostalgia of Coca-Cola, now something I would not touch. Maybe it was the feeling of wistful freedom, the long days fiercely becoming night, the pleasure of shade, or of the cigarette or cigar (which I no longer smoke). In fact, writing this paragraph now makes me realize that quite a bit of the material that made up the summer air for me has been cast off, but the feeling of summer, its opportunity for intellectual relaxation, still remains. Sure, summer has some dangerous habits, but we learn something all the same.
In fact, maybe the reason I became a teacher was because of summer. Time off is everything.
But now, coronavirus has cancelled summer, at least formally.
As a response, I have decided to feel summer that much more explicitly, to make sure I curse the day COVID-19 arrived on American shores and ruined barbecue cookouts and made me suffer my Lay’s Potato Chip craving alone. I have decided I need allies to fight this war on summer.
I’ve recruited Lana del Rey.
I think Lana has taken the rightful place as being my favorite artist right now. After Regina Spektor came Radiohead, after Radiohead probably Bon Iver, and after Bon Iver…here we are. I think I love Lana so much my wife gives me side glances.
I get all of Lana’s Robert Frost quotes, her T.S. Eliot references. My heart twinges when she sings about ice cream which, it turns out, is quite often. Any time she mentions summer, the beach, and even like, I don’t know, talking, I feel like I get her. She clearly understands the feeling of summer like I do, even if she probably doesn’t get much time to experience it. Lana puts out a full album every two years like clockwork, and each one feels crafted at the album level.
Which is why this playlist I’m about to make sort of runs rampant on her whole idea of music-making. Lana, I am so sorry. It’s not my fault coronavirus is changing the way I go “back to work or the coffee shop,” as you say, but please understand that you are helping me.
It’s time to make a Lana Del Rey greatest hits playlist as a way of saying thanks.
Throughout her albums, Lana has noticeably improved, though each of her pieces has standouts which make it to this playlist. My criteria for this playlist had to do with either presenting summer explicitly in the lyrics, or in the thrills and dangers of what the summer provides (the beach, sun, watching boys, etc.). If not in the first two, the song has to provide the feeling of summer, which may seem like a stretch for you, the reader. Rest assured, I will try to explain as best as I can.
A disclaimer: there are a lot of songs from her most recent album Norman Fucking Rockwell. I believe, as does Pitchfork, that this album is easily her best, as compulsively listenable as ever, while at the same time showing a great amount of maturity in her songwriting. Out of the sixteen tracks here, five of them come from that. Three are from Lust for Life, one from Ultraviolence, Three are from Born to Die, and four from Honeymoon (though “Freak” and “Art Deco” I sort of consider one song).
Let’s get started…
Out of all the starting tracks, “Love” from Lust for Life is the most incredible anthem to what it is like to feel the farthest from death. Lana’s retrospective on youth is so much a hallmark of what we love about America and its optimism. Joan Didion said in “Goodbye to All That” that New York is a city for the very young. One could extrapolate it to the entire country. America is a place for the very young.
The piano during the chorus of this song remains my favorite musical moment in perhaps all her work. Fast forward the young women in “Love” to what it feels like to grow older, perhaps have an affair, get pregnant, drive away and start a new life (at least in the mind), and you have an idea of the various shades of life. It’s in romantic flight that the ladies, growing invisible, seek solace, as they drive “to Long Beach or Newport by your side.”
3. Summertime Sadness
People either found out who Lana was either by her macabre covers of Disney classics, or through her two hits “Dark Paradise” and “Summertime Sadness.” Lana’s album Born to Die is much more a rural exploration of bohemian life compared to her later albums which feature the coast much more heavily. What better song to fight back coronavirus: the proclamation of summer’s timelessness, and the realization it is anything but.
4. White Mustang
“Packing all my things for the summer,” Lana says. Romances from summer camp or adventures without any hope of going back. What was his name? Why couldn’t he change? Oftentimes the thrill of summer is the way we can be new people. Of course the torture of summer is the realization of its unsustainable promise.
5. Venice Bitch
Combining Pink Floyd and Lana was an excellent choice. “Venice Bitch” carries so much more the feeling of summer by lulling you with a kaleidoscopic instrumental piece that stands apart from Lana’s usual voice at the forefront.
6. Happiness is a Butterfly
“Try to catch it like every night.” I’ve always loved summer for the way it forces you to distraction. Of course, whether or not you find that happiness in that distraction is difficult to ascertain. “Happiness is a Butterfly” is a painful song, the chorus hedging “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that could happen to a girl who’s already hurt.” There is no guarantee of happiness in summer, nor are we the best judges of what will make us happy, but if you start from such a low bar…
7. The Next Best American Record
In what could be substantially argued as the best song Lana has ever made, she defends the power of creative pursuit, as well as the passion for the muse as an aphrodisiac side effect. “Topanga’s alive tonight,” she sings. “There’s something that I never knew I wanted.” Summer’s passion gives us a language for this abyssal feeling we have: it gives us power to name our desires.
“Change” critiques summer. “Lately I’ve been thinking it’s just someone else’s job to care,” Lana says, fully washing herself clean of the idea that she has to be involved in political movements. Summer offers ignorance. Why bother?
The reality is that summer can also provide the distance from our own lives to see what needs to shift. Lana realizes that maybe she can be more “honest, capable.”
9. National Anthem
What is The U.S.A. without Independence Day? “National Anthem” is Lana’s ultimate critique of the monetary loop of America, its constant obsession with money and status above all qualities. “Before we go out, what’s your address?” How can we ignore, in summer, the white-haired man with a tan in a red convertible? Our visual space is co-opted by opulence during summer.
10. Cinammon Girl
“National Anthem” begins the dark underbelly of summer, its addictions and predilections. Abusive relationships and drug addictions are the norm in some of Lana’s songs, which she has taken some flak for on her Instagram posts for defending. Still I think that she has won me over to be more empathetic and open-minded about her quest for bringing to light many of the women in the United States. For a country of equal rights, plenty of our culture still misses Betty Draper from Mad Men coming out in the backyard with Heineken in green glass bottles.
11 and 12. Freak/ArtDeco
God I love how “Freak” rolls right into “Art Deco.” They feel like binary stars. Both continue the wildness and chaos of summer. Why not leave your life behind? It’ll be there when you get back? Why not join the party? Fuck sake, there’s a pandemic on the loose! Lana’s smooth and tantalizing voice beckons you to make mistakes with her.
I don’t know if you have heard of this, but summer is violent. Crime shoots up in America in summer because of rising temperatures. Police in training simulations will shoot more bullets when the room temperature is up by 15 degrees (which does not bode well given our current political climate). Lana’s reference to The Crystals and their song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” gives the darkest conclusion to making mistakes as a result of self-actualization, which is that our partner can make the mistake to the detriment of our own sanity.
14. Video Games
Love is the language of summer. Even if you are not involved with a person, still you can see that it is in the very air you breathe. When I first heard Lana, yea it was “Summertime Sadness” and “Dark Paradise” that got my attention, but it was in Lana’s morose “Video Games” that got me hooked. “They say that the world was built for two” is the goal of summer, to feel like it is just you and your partner, out conquering this desiccated place, meandering drunk (whether actual or symbolic) from “playing pool and wild darts.” “Video Games” comes out of the darkness of summer, and it rides the line of abuse, as she wants to be played by his whims, to be subjected in that way.
It’s like when Don Draper meets Joy in season two of Mad Men. There’s a crack in this perfect glass that you want me to drink, but I’ve never been offered it before.
15. High By the Beach
“High By the Beach” is an assertion. Leave me alone. I’m doing some remarkable things for myself. If you have time, I encourage you to at least take a cursory glance at this music video. Beautiful Lana shooting a helicopter is the ultimate stance for social distancing in the era of coronavirus. Lana expresses how I feel when I have to do…any chores. I’ll admit it: summer makes me somewhat of an asshole. It’s largely to do with me doing nothing, in the way that Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin fight to do nothing, at least until he grows up. It’s a mantra against American workaholics.
One of the best lyrical songs she has available, “Honeymoon” is a morose piece to end it all. It’s slow, melodic, entrancing, and the words (God the words!), they melt together.
And we could cruise to the news
Pico Boulevard in your used
Little bullet car if we choose
Mr. born to lose
Past all the mistakes, all the choices (or non-choices) of summer, we break shit and then we come back to our lives. What have we learned? “We both know,” Lana starts, “That it’s not fashionable to love me.”
The biggest realization I make each summer is how small my life is, and how in each of the struggles to change myself and grow bigger, I realize just how delusional the past year was. Am I really proving anything to anyone? If so, why? The truth is that I am “dreaming away my life,” constantly finding ways to make my life into something it is not, rather than simply being.
This fun exercise reminded me why summer is fun, what its purpose is, and how Lana can help. Summer isn’t everything, in fact it can be quite painful. It’s dark and foreboding, but it welcomes the attempt. Change wouldn’t be powerful if it weren’t a little bit dangerous.
If nothing else, please give yourself the opportunity to see what your life is like from the outside-in. And then, after that, find Lana on Spotify. She’s waiting to guide you.