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‘I Sing The Body Electric’: A Literary Guide To Lana Del Rey

Lana’s lyrical library is vast, and close reading uncovers her complex concerns with time, being, and identity.

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Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA

If one artist speaks to the affinity between music and literature, it’s Lana Del Rey. Even before the release of her 2020 poetry collection Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, she wove great works of poetry, prose, drama, and philosophy into her eclectic catalog. From Sylvia Plath to Walt Whitman, Lana’s lyrical library is vast, and close reading uncovers her complex concerns with time, being, and identity.

To dig deeper into Lana’s literary interests, we’ve created a guide to the writers who inspire her, covering both clear references and more subtle interpolations.

Listen to the best Lana Del Rey Songs on Apple Music and Spotify.

Sylvia Plath

Leading up to the release of Ocean Blvd, Lana wrote on her Instagram: “This was the evening of blue banisters reviews, Beverly Wilshire. . . They called it diaristic . . . And I thought of you @jenstith and the poem, you love about the fig tree? – and how she was trying to figure out which fig to choose, but they all sort of looked alright and she never had the time to choose just one. And then I wrote this album, and I picked one.”

The passage in question comes from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the only novel published by the confessional poet before her death in 1963. Esther – a semi autobiographical version of Plath – compares choosing a life path to sitting at the bottom of a fig tree, starving as a result of her indecision. “I wanted each and every one of them,” Plath writes, “but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Similar to Plath, Lana has shared her belief that one must choose a single path and pursue it wholeheartedly. “I’m a big believer in you have to close the door, lock it, throw away the key, and that’s when the good stuff moves in . . . Sometimes I’m reaching for one thing, but I’m still all the way in this other place, and it doesn’t really work like that,” Lana said in an interview with PNC Live Studio, reflecting on her decision to pursue music.

Lana has often been compared to Plath for the sadness in her poetry, lyrics, and delivery, and she even describes herself as a “24/7 Sylvia Plath” during “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it.” But, as both the song title and The Bell Jar passage suggest, Lana also calls upon Plath in moments of hope. Rather than sitting at the bottom of the metaphorical fig tree, stilled by sadness and indecision, Lana reaches for the branch she desires most.

hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but i have it (Official Audio)

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Vladimir Nabokov

Lana’s love for Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov is well-documented, from her song “Lolita” to the cursive “Nabokov” tattoo on her right arm. She especially took inspiration from his polarizing novel Lolita in her Born to Die and Paradise eras.

“Light of my life, fire of my loins,” Lana sings on “Off to the Races,” pulling directly from the opening lines of Lolita. The phrase “Velvet night” in “This Is What Makes Us Girls” is another line borrowed from the novel, and one that stands out for its striking, descriptive quality. Fans also speculate that “Carmen” may be a reference to the scene in the novel when Humbert Humbert and Lolita sing, “Oh my Carmen, my little Carmen.” Even the song’s French monologue portion has Nabokov written all over it: The author grew up speaking French and often dipped in and out of the language in his work.

Walt Whitman

Next to Lana’s “Nabokov” tattoo is another in the same cursive font: “Whitman.” Walt Whitman, a 19th century American poet, was known for his sensual verse and mythology of self – qualities that appear in Lana’s lyrics and poetry as well. Specifically, Lana borrows the title and chorus of “Body Electric” from Whitman’s poem “I Sing The Body Electric,” a celebration of the human body and its individual parts. In addition to name-dropping Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Lana sings, “Whitman is my daddy,” including the poet in her aesthetic of subversive, vintage Americana.

You can also hear Lana reciting an excerpt from “I Sing The Body Electric” in her Tropico short film: “Womanhood, and all that is woman – and the man that comes from woman . . . Oh I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, / but of the Soul / Oh I say now, these are the soul!”

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The Bible and John Milton

Before she was penning hit songs, Lana studied philosophy and metaphysics at Fordham University, expressing a deep interest in “how and why we ended up on Earth,” according to a 2017 interview with Vogue. It makes sense, then, that Lana references Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, and the one that tells of Earth’s creation.

During the “Body Electric” portion of Tropico, Lana presents herself as Eve and actor Shaun Ross as Adam in an off-kilter Garden of Eden. The short film opens with a voice reading, “And the spirit of John moved upon the face of the waters; And John said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light; And John saw that it was good.” The opening lines echo the Book of Genesis, but instead of God, there’s John Wayne – and Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Jesus soon appear by his side.

At the end of “Body Electric,” Lana eats the forbidden fruit, just as Eve does in Genesis, and the two characters soon find themselves in a postlapsarian Los Angeles, AKA “the garden of evil” and “the land of gods and monsters.” But, as the Adam and Eve figures are expelled from Paradise, Lana reads “I Sing The Body Electric,” celebrating rather than condemning the physicality and sensuality of the human body.

Lana’s retelling of Genesis calls back to the model established by 17th Century English writer John Milton, whose Paradise Lost reimagined the Fall of Adam and Eve through subversive poetic devices and classical modes of storytelling. During the “Gods & Monsters” portion of Tropico, Lana sings, “It’s innocence lost,” echoing the title of Milton’s great Christian epic. At the end of the song, Lana says of Los Angeles: “Some poets called it the entrance to the Underworld, but on some summer nights, it could feel like Paradise, Paradise Lost.”

Later, on the Honeymoon track “God Knows I Tried,” Lana returns to Genesis yet again, singing “Let there be light / Light up my life.” As she details her struggles with fame and the scrutiny that comes along with it, she looks for the light — a motif that appears again in Ocean Blvd tracks “Kintsugi” and “Let The Light In (feat. Father John Misty).”

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Oscar Wilde

“I had a vision of making my life a work of art,” Lana Del Rey said during one of her first interviews. Throughout her Born to Die era, Lana faced criticism for creating what many thought to be a manufactured character, and while her statement may be interpreted as playing into this narrative, it also engages with the work of 19th century writer Oscar Wilde.

Wilde spent much of his career interested in the conflation of art and life, most famously in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which tells the story of a man who wishes to have the eternal beauty of his portrait and loses his soul in the process. A similar theme runs through “Gods & Monsters” as Lana struggles to hold onto her soul in Los Angeles. She even quotes Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying,” singing, “life imitates art.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

“God’s dead. I said, ‘Baby that’s alright with me,’” Lana sings on “Gods & Monsters.” Lana’s early career was saturated in fatal, nihilistic themes, but this is the only time she directly quotes philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. However, it should be noted that she took a more optimistic turn in 2017 with the release of Lust for Life, even opting to smile on the album cover.

Allen Ginsberg

“I’m churning out novels like Beat poetry on amphetamines,” Lana sings on the dark, nostalgic “Brooklyn Baby.” The Beat subculture of the 40s and 50s embraced new literary forms inspired by jazz, drug use, spirituality, and a desire to defy the norm. Poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” – written in Berkeley, California in the mid-1950s – has proven particularly influential on Lana, and she even includes an excerpt in Tropico.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” Lana reads at the film’s climax. Rather than condemning lawlessness and immorality, “Howl” indicts society for its treatment of those at the margins. By reading the poem at what might be seen as the height of her protagonists’ moral decay, Lana draws attention to their suffering in a world that has proven unkind.

In a 2014 interview with NPR, Lana discusses her infatuation with the Beat poet: “I think the thing I really got from Ginsberg was that you can tell a story through kind of painting pictures with words. And when I found out that you could have a profession doing that, it was thrilling to me. It just became my passion immediately, playing with words and poetry.”

Lana Del Rey - Brooklyn Baby (Official Audio)

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lana’s “Young and Beautiful” remains one of the most memorable tracks from Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Capturing the novel’s themes of outward beauty and deep nostalgia, the song soundtracks Daisy and Gatsby’s reunion. Later, in the Ultraviolence track “Old Money,” Lana revisits these subjects as she sings to an old lover: “But if you send for me, you know I’ll come / And if you call for me, you know I’ll run.”

Though “Old Money” remains a Lana deep cut, some have caught onto its “Young and Beautiful” similarities, with lines such as “Will you still love me when I shine / From words but not from beauty?” In her review of Ultraviolence, Sasha Geffen from Consequence of Sound even writes that it “sounds like it’s sung through Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s lost love whose story was only ever told by the men around her.”

Echoes of Gatsby reverberate through “Art Deco” from Honeymoon as well. Not only was Art Deco a popular style in the 20s and used heavily throughout Luhrmann’s film, but Lana sings, “A little party never hurt no one” – a seeming nod to “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie, GoonRock, and Q-Tip on the movie soundtrack. The jazzy trumpet woven through the trip-hop synths also evokes the sound of the 20s with a modern touch.

Finally, Lana appears to return to Fitzgerald in “Tomorrow Never Came,” with the line “on that side of paradise.” The title for Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise actually comes from the poem Tiare Tahiti by Rupert Brooke, and it means to be on the other side of heaven.

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Henry Miller

The “on that side of paradise” line on “Tomorrow Never Came” finishes with another speculated literary reference: “In the tropic of cancer.” It’s possible that Lana is referencing the latitude where the sun is most directly overhead, which is arguably its own kind of paradise. However, fans have also theorized that this is a call out to Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, which is “notorious for its candid sexuality.” If they’re correct, this wouldn’t be the first time Lana has referenced a controversial piece of literature, as both Tropic of Cancer and Howl have both been at the center of famous obscenity trials.

T.S. Eliot

Between Honeymoon’s “Art Deco” and “Religion,” Lana recites an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” remarking, “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.”

Through this particular excerpt, Lana explores the flattening of time and its ever-present passage. Compared with the nostalgia of “Old Money,” “Young and Beautiful,” and “Brooklyn Baby,” this cyclical description offers a more complex look into Lana’s relationship with time.

Burnt Norton (Interlude)

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Ernest Hemingway

Though Ernest Hemingway never met T.S. Eliot (and actually expressed quite a bit of distaste for the poet’s work), they are often brought into dialogue with one another – including on Lana’s Honeymoon. Following “Burnt Norton,” Lana croons, “You’re my religion,” a line presumably taken from A Farewell to Arms. On “Money Power Glory” from Ultraviolence, Lana also subtly nods to The Sun Also Rises, singing, “The sun also rises / On those who fail the call.”

Mary Shelley and Victorian Literature

On the incredibly wordy “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing,” Lana reflects on how critics have responded to her career over the years. Referring to claims that she’s simply a product of her record label, she sings, “I know they think that it took thousands of people / To put me together again like an experiment / Some big men behind the scenes / Sewing Frankenstein black dreams into my songs / But they’re wrong.”

By singing about “Frankenstein black dreams” — a reference to Mary Shelley’s famous novel — Lana also appears to comment on the Gothic themes that appear in her early music, especially on Ultraviolence. The dark, brooding love interests she sings about could very well be taken from the pages of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, another standout from 1800s England, though Lana updates them to fit her own artistic vision.

In her song “Fishtail,” Lana seems to address her semi-Victorian aesthetic again: “Swingin’ in a nightgown underneath the old oak tree / Almost Victorian with you.” However, she continues to push back against a reductive interpretation of her music, claiming that her former lover wants her to be sadder than she actually is. Over the years, Lana has begun to let the light in and move out of the black and into the blue. As she said in her Billboard Visionary Award acceptance speech, “I feel like being happy is the ultimate goal, so I did it.”

Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he's deep-sea fishing

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Robert Frost

Lana sings, “Nothing gold can stay” on two very different tracks: Honeymoon’s “Music To Watch The Boys To” and NFR!’s “Venice Bitch.” The repetition of this lyric is just one example of Lana referencing herself, but many have also pointed out that the line is likely a nod to Robert Frost’s  poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Through this poem, Frost explores the transient nature of beauty, and Lana’s use of the line operates in much the same way. Additionally, Frost writes in the poem, “So Eden sank to grief,” an allusion to the Fall of Adam and Eve. In turn, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” engages with many of the themes that emerge in Lana’s music, from the decay of beauty in “Old Money” to the loss of innocence in “Gods & Monsters.”

Anna Sewell

“Black Beauty” describes a relationship with a man whose darkness threatens to eclipse his lover. While many believe the title and chorus to be a reference to Jeff Buckley’s “Mojo Pin,” it may also be a reference to Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty, which tells the story of a young horse who is beaten down by a cruel owner before eventually retiring to the countryside.

Tennessee Williams

On “Carmen,” Lana sings that her protagonist is “relying on the kindness of strangers,” echoing Blanche’s last line in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. However, while Blanche says that she “depends” on such kindness, Lana swaps the word for “rely,” leaning into the line’s ironic tinge. But like Blanche, Lana’s Carmen character “doesn’t have a problem lying to herself,” or presenting a version of reality as she wants to see it. At the end of the “Ride” music video, Lana returns to the line again, saying, “I believe in the kindness of strangers.”

LANA DEL REY - CARMEN

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William Ernest Henley

In their duet “Lust For Life,” Lana and The Weeknd interpolate William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” singing, “We’re the masters of our own fate / We’re the captains of our own souls.” It makes sense that “invictus” means “unconquered” in Latin, as Lana and The Weeknd sing about taking charge of their own lives. This is a notable departure from their 2015 collaboration “Prisoner,” during which they sing, “I’m a prisoner to my addiction.”

Anthony Burgess

Speaking with Complex about her decision to title her sophomore album Ultraviolence, Lana said, “I like that luxe sound of the word ‘ultra’ and the mean sound of the word ‘violence’ together. I think that two worlds can live in one.” However, the term was first coined in Anthony Burgess’ satirical black comedy A Clockwork Orange, summarizing the novel’s repulsive and gratuitous depiction of violence. While it may not be clear whether or not Lana meant to borrow from the book, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation expressed excitement at her use of the word: “It’s fantastic that A Clockwork Orange is still providing inspiration to such diverse range of artists around the world over 50 years since its original publication,” Clare Preston-Pollitt told MTV News.

Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

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Hunter S. Thompson

“You’ve been trying to write a novel about your cheap thrills / You think you’re Hunter S. Thompson,” Lana sings on the Ultraviolence bonus track “Is This Happiness?” Thompson, best known as the founder of the gonzo journalism movement, was known for blending fact and fiction. Outside of his titillating works, he lived a truly fascinating life, from setting a yacht on fire to running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. But while some may consider the Thompson comparison a compliment, Lana follows the statement with her own opinion: “I think you’re f***ing crazy as the day’s long.”

Listen to the best Lana Del Rey Songs on Apple Music and Spotify.

Discover how words on the page become words in song, and vice versa, through uDiscover’s Music and Literature series. Much like literature, music is a medium for storytelling and world-building, and songwriters often look to poetry, drama, and prose to inspire their work. Similarly, music has gone on to shape new literary styles and even entire movements. Spanning genres and time periods, the series celebrates the relationship between these two artistic forms and digs into little-known facts about some of the most literary artists and songs.

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