“Light of my life, fire of my loins”: the first words of both Nabokov’s masterful novel Lolita and the hook of Lana Del Rey’s track ‘Off to the Races’. This is just one example of the influence the magnum-opus of Russian-born, English writing Nabokov has had on the songs of Lana Del Rey.
Del Rey’s tracks are scattered with literary references: Whitman in ‘Body Electric’, Burgess in ‘Ultraviolence’, Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg in ‘Brooklyn Baby’. But the most powerful inspiration seems to have come from the infamous Lolita, a story of unrequited love for the pubescent ‘nymphet’ Lolita by middle-aged European Humbert Humbert. The novel has met with countless band and obscenity charges, but the slightly uncomfortable older men / young seductress vibe is one prevalent in much of Lana Del Rey’s work.
‘Off to the Races’ describes how Lana’s “old man is a bad man” – mirroring Humbert and Lolita’s relationship, as he later becomes her stepfather. The song’s grasping lyric of “gimme them coins” also represents Lolita, who later begins to demand payment from Humbert for her “basic obligations” – “she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist”. This idea of prostitution is revisited in some later music videos, such as that for ‘Gods and Monsters’, where Del Rey deliberately – and graphically – portrays herself as a stripper. The fact that she seems to embrace this image has lead to uncomfortable reception in the exact same way as Lolita, and has undeniably become a quintessential feature of her tracks.
The most loosely veiled parody is the song ‘Lolita’, appropriately titled. Humbert’s agonising distress when he begins to suspect his teenage nymphet of deceiving him and meeting boys in the park is vividly described in the book, beside the challenging theme of him banning her from any fraternisation. The lyric “Kiss me in the p-a-r-k park tonight” shows Lolita’s enjoyment of her ability to tease and manipulate men, “knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth”. Ultimately, this ability (exacerbated by Humbert’s domineering and possessive behaviour) leads to her downfall and the destruction of her innocence, even if it was partly caused by her.
The lesser-known EP Lana Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant also contains Nabokov references, though they are slightly more thin on the ground here. While her image was still mostly pop-based and she was “playing plunky little acoustic guitar… a very cute young woman”, to quote producer David Nichtern, song titles included ‘Queen of the Gas Station’ and ‘Mermaid Motel’. These glamorisations of the seedy motels and road trip havens are performed equally well by Nabokov; we as the reader find ourselves tricked into accepting and even condoning Humbert’s immoral behaviour due to the lulling effect of the beautifully crafted prose. But such is the charm of the novel: it shows how language can trick us into acceding to what we never thought we would.
In the novel, Carmen is the nickname given to Lolita by her stepfather, a product of the rhyme depicting “the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen” – gritty but glamorous old-school Americana. Del Rey’s song of the same name perfectly depicts Lolita’s conflicting innocence and allure – “It’s alarming / Honestly, how charming she can be” – with the idea of deep cracks existing beneath a perfect mirror surface. The Cedric Gervais remix of ‘Summertime Sadness’ is another instance of this rushed, pressured perfection.
“Baby put on heart-shaped sunglasses / Cos we gonna take a ride” evokes the eponymous 1962 film poster. Whilst Lolita is surely aware of how wrong the situation is, she throws herself into it anyway and embraces the infantile image projected onto her by Humbert. As an unreliable narrator, his comment that “it was she who seduced me” is taken with a pinch of salt. But there is credibility to the notion that Lolita is inefficaciously using Humbert for her own gains.
Finally, to the title track of her most recent album, ‘Honeymoon’: The Lolita references have become more sparse as her albums have progressed, but “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me / But you don’t go cause truly there’s nobody for you but me” truly captures Humbert’s obsession with the child even though it is undeniable paedophilia. The road trip, another common theme in Lana Del Rey’s music, is Lolita’s honeymoon. Her wedding night is drugged rape in a hotel, and the dust of the American highway is her confetti.
Words by Annabelle Fuller