The Lana Del Rey Summertime Sadness Syllabus

Lana Del Rey’s albums are lush soundtracks that immerse us in glamorous worlds of the past—a Jazz Age party, a Beat club, musicians holed up in the Chateau Marmont in the seventies. Del Rey’s work often references the work of other artists, including filmmakers, poets, or musicians, whose themes are similar to her own. She drops literary references like they’re hot. Her references and name-drops are encyclopedic, running the gamut from T. S. Eliot, Bruce Springsteen, and Pabst Blue Ribbon to JFK, Lolita, and David Lynch, but almost always concerned with what sadness and loss lies beneath that which appears to be perfect, especially in America.

Below is a (not complete!) syllabus of Del Rey’s references and inspirations.


1. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)

“Whitman is my daddy,” Del Rey sings on “Body Electric,” the song title itself a reference to the poem “I Sing The Body Electric.” Leaves of Grass is Whitman’s seminal work and it expanded during his lifetime from 12 to almost 400 poems at the time of his death.

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The elusive chanteuse sang on the soundtrack of the 2013 Baz Luhrmann film adaptation of the novel. Her song “Young and Beautiful,” captures the novel’s mourning for the fading glitz and glamour of old money.

3. Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot (1943)

Burnt Norton

Burnt Norton is the first of four interlinked poems by Eliot, the Four Quartets, that explore the human relationship with time and the divine. On Honeymoon, Del Rey reads from the poem in the minute-and-a-half long “Burnt Norton - Interlude,” just long enough to be enigmatically mysterious.

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)


Lolita gets her own eponymous song on Born To Die, Del Rey’s first album, and lyrics in another song on the album, “Off To The Races,” are also pulled from the novel.

5. Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (1956)

Del Rey reads from the classic Ginsberg poem in her 2013 (NSFW) short film Tropico.

6. Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday (1956)

Billie Holiday

On “The Blackest Day,” a ballad from Honeymoon, Del Rey sings, “Ever since my baby went away / It’s been the Blackest Day / All I hear is Billie Holiday / It’s all that I play.” Dive into the autobiography of the singer whose sadness and blues will resonate forever.

7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

Clockwork Orange

Del Rey took the title of her second album, Ultraviolence, from the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. In the novel, Alex, a disturbed British teenager, leads his friends in randomly and viciously assaulting strangers, doing what he calls “ultra-violence.”

8. Carnival of Souls (1962)

After a car accident, Mary keeps seeing the reflection of a strange, scary man instead of her own and finds herself drawn to an abandoned structure that used to be the site of a carnival. Del Rey sampled dialogue from the horror film in the song “13 Beaches” on her newest album, Lust For Life.

9. Blue Velvet (1986)

If there is any other famous artist working in Del Rey’s dark American milieu, it’s director David Lynch. Del Rey references the Lynch series Twin Peaks in the Ultraviolence song “Sad Girl” (“He’s got the fire, and walks with it”) and covered the Bobby Vinton song “Blue Velvet” in a Lynchian commercial for H&M, later included in a re-release of Born To Die. Watch the film to see where some of the suburban terrors Del Rey’s work explores originated.

10. Cocaine Cowboys (2006)

Cocaine Cowboys

Del Rey has said that her song “Florida Kilos” was inspired by Cocaine Cowboys, a documentary about cocaine and the Miami Drug War in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

11. The Road to Woodstock by Michael Lang (2009)

Woodstock, the four-day music festival held in upstate New York in 1969, is one of the main reference points in Lust For Life. In “Coachella - Woodstock In My Mind,” Del Rey likens the youthful exuberance and hope at the Indio, California music festival to that at Woodstock while reflecting on the possibility of Trump bringing the United States closer to world war. In “When The World Was At War, We Kept Dancing,” Del Rey alludes to the similarity between 2017 and the countercultural hippie movement present at Woodstock. Read The Road to Woodstock and find out what the famous festival was really like.

12. Life at the Marmont by Raymond Sarlot & Fred E. Basten (2013)

Del Rey frequently references the Chateau Marmont, the famed Sunset Strip hotel to the stars. Lots of Del Rey’s faves have produced work at the hotel, including Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as Dorothy Parker and Annie Leibovitz. Life at the Marmont dishes decades of Chateau Hollywood history and celebrity gossip.

13. Big Eyes: The Film, The Art by Leah Gallo (2015)

Big Eyes

Del Rey wrote and performed two songs for the 2015 Tim Burton film Big Eyes, including the film’s theme. Big Eyes is a study of the relationship and art of Margaret and Walter Keane, most famous for their 1950’s paintings of big-eyed girls. Big Eyes: The Film, The Art shines a spotlight on Margaret Keane’s work and the process of bringing her life story to the big screen.

14. The Girls by Emma Cline (2016)

“Topanga’s hot today, Manson’s in the air,” Del Rey sings on “Heroin.” The Girls is a fictional retelling of the cult Charles Manson built in the hills of California in the late 1960’s from the point of view of Evie, a teen who doesn’t yet know what she’s become a part of.

15. The Love Witch (2016)                                                                                                                                

In the album trailer for Lust For Life, Del Rey is a witch living in the H of the Hollywood sign, cooking up spells and tunes for her fans. Some mind-melding must have happened between Del Rey and The Love Witch’s writer-director Anna Biller, whose campy horror film seems to fully embody Del Rey’s spirit and style.

Plus, remember when Del Rey cast a hex on Trump?

by Dahlia Balcazar
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Dahlia Balcazar was a senior editor at Bitch Media, the co-host of the podcast Backtalk, and the host of the live show Feminist Snack Break. She’s passionate about horror films, ’90s music, girl gangs, and Shirley Jackson. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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