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Music

How 'American Beauty' defined Lana Del Rey's musical aesthetic

@SamWKemp

Lana Del Rey’s evocative aesthetic is intricately bound to the world of cinema. It’s hard to listen to her albums or watch her videos without thinking of the golden age of Hollywood, of Marilyn Monroe, or Belle in A Streetcar Named Desire. Look through her catalogue and you’ll find all manner of references to cinema and cinematic icons, but there’s one film that has had a bigger influence on her career than all others: Sam Mandes’ 2000 drama, American Beauty.

Like many, it was Thomas Newman’s Academy Award-winning score that struck Lana Del Rey first and foremost. Indeed, she has often cited the influence of classic film scores on her sound, with the likes of Nino Rota (La Dulce Vita) and Giorgio Moroder (Cat People) all making a lasting impact. Newman’s score, whilst much more minimalist in scope, proved to be just as inspiring. “The score is the first thing you hear,” she once recalled, “I loved it”.

When she started putting together her debut album Born To Die, Del Rey drew from Newman’s arrangments, making a point to find a producer who would be able to help her define the sonic palette she wanted: “I started working [on Born to Die] with this kid from London, Justin Parker; he sort of wrote a lot of the chords on the record,” she once recalled. “And then I was looking for a producer to tie everything together, sonically, and Emile [Haynie] was perfect, because, musically, we’re on the same path”.

For Del Rey, the partnership was the perfect match: “He understood what I meant when I was talking about wanting a mix of a sound similar to Thomas Newman’s American Beauty score…and everything came together,” she explained. “Sonically, I always knew exactly what I wanted”. Indeed, if you listen to the title track from Del Rey’s debut you can clearly hear the sound of a heavily processed Miramba, the same instrument that opens Newman’s score, and that the inappropriateness of which immediately tells the audience that we are stepping into a slightly warped version of American.

But it would seem American Beauty influenced more than the sound of the record; I think it helped Del Rey define her entire aesthetic both visually and thematically. That idea of a warped America that Newman helped highlight has been absolutely essential to Del Rey’s overall aesthetic ever since the release of Born To Die. From her lyrics to her clothes, everything the singer does seems to be geared towards curating a slightly twisted simulation of America’s post-war golden age.

Delve deep into Del Rey’s lyrics and you’ll find a wealth of references to tragic Hollywood starlets, classic works of American literature, and musical icons from the 1950s and ’60s – take the moment in ‘Body Electric’, in which she sings: “Elvis is my Daddy, Marilyn’s my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend”. Here, she seems to hint towards the way in which American culture has often relied upon the icons of the ’50s and ’60s to manufacture a cultural image that is then packaged and sold around the world. Combined with the faintly dystopian sonic landscapes she conjures up in ‘Born To Die’, Del Rey quickly becomes so much more than a mere pop star – she embodies an entire imagined American past; one defined by opulence, tragedy, and glamour on the cusp of decline. In this way, it’s easy to see why she was drawn to American Beauty because, like Del Rey, Mendes also offers us an insight into one of the most artificial products of the US, the American dream itself.

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