By Gus Nations IV, Staff Writer
Americana. What does that word even mean anymore?
One of the more obtuse criticisms I’ve heard about the U.S. is that it lacks an overarching cultural identity.
And sure, there’s a case to be made for that belief. The U.S. is, after all, a melting pot. For some, the mixture of countless backgrounds and stories gives the country a haphazard sort of feeling. As a first or second-generation American, there’s something grounding in looking back a couple of hundred (or thousand) years and considering generations of beautiful art and tradition in a far-off home country. Michelangelo carved “David” in Florence, Italy more than 200 years before the Founding Fathers began writing the Constitution. Mozart composed his first symphony in Austria 13 years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.
But rather than fall into the easy habit of celebrating the achievements of long-passed foreigners, American culture has a way of weaving stories into a rich narrative canon. Instead of parsing through and separating the experiences of its population, the U.S. combines them.
The result is an eclectic mix of identity — there’s a little bit of everyone in everything. After all, in what other country could a woman named Elizabeth Grant change her name to Lana Del Rey and create deeply introspective music about her experiences as a wildly famous female musician?
Del Rey’s new album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard, is a case study in her dark, honest and beautiful aesthetic. This darkness is (and has always been) part of her allure. Del Rey has created a career that does not shy away from both the savory and unsavory aspects of her life in America.
Ocean Boulevard is a moving and contemplative peek into the mind of an artist who knows exactly who she is and where she’s come from.
Each of the songs on the record build upon the artist’s mythos. “A&W” is a not-so-thinly-veiled euphemism for the American fast food restaurant chain. Incidentally, the song’s title has a double meaning: “American Whore.” She sings, “I haven’t done a cartwheel since I was nine / I haven’t seen my mother in a long, long time / I mean, look at me, look at the length of my hair, my face, the shape of my body / Do you really think I give a damn / What I do after years of just hearing them talking?” Such lyrics give her songs a maddeningly enigmatic feel — but also an honest one.
Right after “A&W,” Del Rey includes an interlude by pastor Judah Smith. During the four-minute-long track, Smith colorfully pleads with his audience (now Del Rey’s) to forgo lust and to “look at the splendor of the skies.” Smith is controversial, not for his occupation, but for forcing his staff to donate money to his church. It’s lyrics like these that explore the occasionally misplaced faith in traditions accepted with certainty.
The entire album relishes in this commentary on uncertainty. The music, produced by longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, is sweeping and airy. The drums boom to emphasize a point, and the guitars back off to let Del Rey’s voice tell the story. The inflections seem to draw from classic American writers — Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Flannery O’Connor: individuals with an eloquent confidence in their worldviews.
So maybe Americana is just a fun way to characterize good storytelling and an honest narrative, but I’d hedge my bets on saying that Americana is what Del Rey tells us it is.