February 21, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Lana Del Rey's Chameleon Voice

“My mother told me I had a chameleon soul, no moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality; just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide and as wavering as the ocean.” - Ride

If the previous Dialect Dissection on Taylor Swift was a case study in how accent can be used to match genre and connect with an audience’s expectations, Lana Del Rey’s dialect dissection is going to be a case study on how accent can be used as something more personal, a palette one can draw from. Since Lana began singing in 2005, she’s explored different musical identities, trying them on and moving on as quickly as she started. Critics’ rejection of her in 2012 led to her pulling back from the mainstream, and she's stayed content hovering in the periphery of popularity. Her chameleon soul has also expressed itself via her chameleon tongue, fully inhabiting whatever aesthetic she’s trying to channel.

For the uninitiated: Lana Del Rey is the stage name of Elizabeth Grant, an alternative pop singer who was born in New York City, grew up in upstate New York, moved to New York City to start her music career, and currently resides in Los Angeles. She’s been making music since 2005, most of it never made available to the public (with a few exceptions, like an early studio album “Lana Del Ray” (sic) ). She started out with acoustic singer-songwriter material and then worked with producers and songwriters on genres from bubblegum pop to blues to urban material. A lot of this material leaked and is available through YouTube. Her major label debut, “Born To Die,” was a unique album combining hip-hop beats with cinematic strings and melancholy mood. It launched her into the public eye but also won her backlash from critics who viewed her carefully manicured aesthetic as a studio concoction. She's continued making music since, to increasing critical acclaim.

Lana’s accent shenanigans are not limited to just using distinctive features. She’s often conscious about using these features herself, someone else using them, or combining them with certain imagery. This ties together the accent with the lyrical imagery and the music. Lana is known to have a love of recurring phrasing and imagery (little red party dresses, pale moonlight, daddies), and she also likes to talk about location. Accent seems to be one of the tools she uses to craft each song universe. Instead of looking at this by period, like I did for Taylor, I’m going to look at the different uses each accent serves in the Lanaverse.

It’s the Voodoo, Mississippi South

The very first material we have from Lana is a folk album credited to "May Jailer," made in 2005. The first shock is the difference between her maximalist "Born To Die" sound and this bare bones guitar accompaniment. The second one is that she in and out of a Southern accent on these songs, something she never does on her released work. Many folk and folk-revivalist singers put on a Southern accent, with a famous example being Minnesotan folk singer Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan. Lana's motivation here seems to be genre-motivated, but unlike Taylor Swift, she's not committed to the accent. She uses a smaller range of features. It's noticeable that she uses the ai-monophthongization pretty rarely, as this is actually one of the defining features of what is called Southern American English.

After the professionally-recorded 2005-2006 era songs, we get a change in style. Some of the following songs were recorded as laptop demos and made with an extremely simple finger-picking pattern on the guitar. Others were professionally made with producers in the studio. She uses a variety of stage names, but she often goes by Lizzy Grant. What's interesting is that as her sound moves away from "singer with a guitar," her accent still lingers on Southern features.

By 2008, Lana had come up with the name "Lana" and wanted to use it. She released an EP in 2008 called "Kill Kill," but still under the name Lizzy Grant. She spent the next two years recording what would become her full-length debut album, "Lana Del Ray". This artistic period is noticeable for featuring an interest in Americana and white working class aesthetic. She talks about trailer parks and American states. Her use of a Southern accent no longer has anything to do with genre expectations and instead deals in associations with the people who actually speak it. This continues from her early themes in the "May Jailer" songs, that of problems encountered by normal people.

  • /ɪ/ 🔊 → [iə]) 🔊 : In General American, the short "i" sound like in "bit" (/bɪt/) is one vowel made with the tongue held loosely. In Southern English, it's a diphthong with the tongue held tensely. This means "bit" can sound more like "beeyit" ([biət]) (Source). This is one of Lana's most commonly used Southern features.
    • "Another night I'm waitin'." - Next To Me, Sirens (2005)
    • "The record spins." - Methamphetamines, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2006).
    • "And I will." - Oh Say Can You See, Lana Del Ray (2010).
  • /æ/ 🔊 → [ɛ(j)ə]) 🔊 : In General American, the "aa" sound like in "bad" (/bæd/) is one vowel made with the tongue flat on the bottom of the mouth. In Southern English, it's a diphthong with the tongue raised a little, so it sounds like "beh-add" ([bɛəd]) (Source).
    • "My mean daddy." - Pretty Baby, Sirens (2005)
    • "I'm in the back doin' crack." - Boarding School (live), Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
  • /ɔ/ 🔊 → /ɑɒ/ 🔊 : Words like "bought" /bɔt/ that have a low, back vowel instead have a diphthong that sounds like "baut." (If like me, you rhyme bot and bought, then ‘bought’ will probably not have the [ɔ] vowel but the [ɑ] vowel so it sounds like [bɑt] 🔊. Instead, think about the vowel used in ‘bore’, without the ‘r’.)
    • "I don't know why it is that I wanna stay." - Fordham Road, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2005)
  • /aɪ/ 🔊 → [aː] 🔊 : In General American, the "ai" sound (/aɪ/) is a diphthong, meaning it's made of two vowels. In Southern English, it's one long vowel ([a:]). This means "ride" (/raɪd/) sounds a little like "rad" ([ra:d])
    • "High Christmas lights [...] I said yes Bill, I will." - Trash Magic, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2007)
    • "You look like a Florida Native." - Elvis, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
  • Lana uses a lot of zero-morpheme forms (that is to say, they do not have the -s they would have in Standard American English).
    • "There's a place on Valentine that still charge ninety cent." - Fordham Road, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2005)
    • "Hear the way that he moan." - Money Hunny, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2005)
    • "Fifty baby doll dress for my I do. It only take two hours to Nevada." - Yayo, Lana Del Ray (2010)
  • She also uses other non-standard grammatical forms, like "done" as a past-tense marker and "was" as the past-tense conjugation of "to be" for "you."
    • "I done known a hoodlum and you don't pass the test." - My Momma, May Jailer (2005)
    • "My momma wouldn't say you was a good boy." - My Momma, May Jailer (2005)
  • She does not limit herself to just using a Southern accent, but also talks about other people who have Southern accents, and invokes Southern imagery liberally:
    • "You look like a Florida Native. 'Are you,' I said, at the rate of slow molasses, 'from the State of Vermont, with a Southern drawl?'" - Elvis, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
    • "Dance at night back in Alabama." - Pin-Up Galore, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
    • "It's the voodoo Mississippi south." - Raise Me Up (Mississippi South), Lana Del Ray (2010)

"Lana Del Ray" has a subtitle - AKA Lizzy Grant. She was beginning to transition professionally to her new stage name. After the album's short release in 2010, she was being shopped around to various producers and produced a diverse and often poppy body of work. After she committed to Lana Del Rey as a stage name, her use of Southern accents drops precipitously. She was moving from simple songs about a sweet trailer love to larger than life topics like honoring the love of your dead mafioso sugar daddy. Her Southern accent period coincided with "real" topics about "real" people trying to get by, make their relationships work, and also find meaning in a lonely universe. As her work became less grounded in a reality most people could relate to, it rejected the Southern accent.

Tawkin’ Bout My Generation

Lana also likes to use a New York City accent in her music. Now let’s clear something up - Lana Del Rey does not natively speak with a New York accent. Listen to any one of her interviews and you’ll be hard pressed to hear any of the distinguishing features associated with the region. This is unsurprising because she grew up in Lake Placid in upstate New York, not New York City. Lana certainly identified with New York City though, being that she was born there and she started her music career singing in Williamsburg and other hip locales. She didn't use this accent in the beginning of her music - she starts using it around 2010-11, which is the time when she's transitioned to going by "Lana Del Rey" as opposed to "Lizzy Grant."

One of the key elements in when Lana starts dropping "oall" into her songs is another recurring theme she talks about - gangsters. New York accents are associated with mobsters, due to the proliferation of the Italian mafia in the city. While one of her earliest songs ("For K" or "Drive-By") deals with the topic of a loved one going to prison, she starts romanticizing the idea of being in love with a gangster in 2010, around the same time she starts using these New York pronunciations and commits to calling herself "Lana Del Rey." A Southern accent would have been out of place here since there isn't any connection between the mafia and the American South, and Southern accents bring to mind images of a rural, friendly area - quite the opposite of city-smart wise-guys. For the most part, Lana still sticks to her General American accent, but she doesn't hold herself back from slipping in some features that show her character's allegiance to mobsters and big city life.

Curiously enough, she really ramps up her usage of the New York accent in Ultraviolence, which was based around the idea of a West Coast sound. "Shades of Cool," "Brooklyn Baby," and "Fucked My Way Up To The Top" all make use of it. Honeymoon uses it to a lesser extent in "High by the Beach" and "Terrence Loves You." Lust For Life, a mostly accent-free album, abandons the "doag" and "oall" in exchange for the subtler "paa-radise" in "Get Free."

  • /ɔ/ 🔊 → [ɔa] 🔊 : The sound in words like 'bought' sounds more like 'bo-at.' New Yorkers also expand this sound to appear in words that it wouldn't in other accents, like dog and boss. (If like me, you rhyme cot and caught, then ‘caught’ will probably not have the [ɔ] vowel but the [a] vowel, like 'spa'. Instead think about the vowel used in ‘bore’, without the ‘r’.)
    • “Use your one phone call on your ex-girl, boo.” - TV In Black & White, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • "You can be the boss, daddy, you can be the boss [...] sick as a dog [...]I tried to be strong but I lost it [...] a fire in his eyes, no I saw it." - You Can Be The Boss (live), Unreleased, Lana Del Rey. (2012)
    • "White bikini off with my red nail polish." - Off to the Races (live), Born To Die (2012).
    • "Caught up in the game." - Blue Jeans, Born To Die (2012).
    • "And when he calls, he calls for me [...] he calls for me" - Shades of Cool, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • "Talking 'bout that newer nation." - Brooklyn Baby, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • "Life is awesome, I confess." - Fucked my way up to the Top, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • "The truth is I never bought into your bullshit." - High by the Beach, Honeymoon (2015)
  • In British English, the sounds /ɛ/ and /æ/ remain distinct before the 'r' sound. This means words like merry, Kerry, and America [ɛr] have the same vowel as in 'met' 🔊, while marry, carry, and pharaoh [ær] have the same vowel as in 'mat' 🔊. Most Americans use /ɛ/ for all of these words. The Northeast, and especially New York, preserves this distinction wholly. Observe how she says paradise, which is the word she most uses /ær/ in.
    • “Take me down to paradise.” - Paradise, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • “It’s like a dark paradise.” - Dark Paradise, Born To Die (2012)
    • “And all my birds of paradise.” - Get Free, Lust For Life (2017)
  • Lana identifies with New York City. There is no shortage of references to New York City in her songs.
    • “Everybody knows - they call me Brooklyn baby” - True Love on the Side, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2010)
    • “I’m a Brooklyn Baby” - Brooklyn Baby, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • “I'm your little harlot, scarlet, queen of Coney Island.” - Off to the Races, Born to Die (2012)

Crazy y Cubano Como Yo

Lana has not been content to stick to English - she’s also dabbled in foreign languages. Spanish is the foreign language she uses most, probably because she seems to speak it pretty well and she claims to have done volunteering work in Spanish. She says she came up with the name "Lana Del Rey" because she was in Miami a lot and hanging out with Cubans, and the name "reminded her of the glamour of the seaside." This Cuban relation could explain why, on "West Coast," she says "he's crazy y Cubano como yo [and Cuban like me]" - although she's not Cuban, so the line is still unusual. This is another case where she may want to bring a certain city image to life - there are plenty of Spanish speakers in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. She even portrays some sort of Hispanic gang in her film Tropico.

She uses Italian in one song, "Salvatore." It appears to be about her then-boyfriend Francesco, an Italian photographer. She has French on some of her songs (though she doesn't actually say the French herself in most of them) like "Moi Je Joue" and "Carmen," and uses a French pronunciation of "Jean-Paul Gaultier, Versace" in "Breaking My Heart." A common thread in her foreign language use is that it's limited to words that are easy to decipher for English speakers, especially Americans who may have taken Spanish as a second language at some point in school. Like with her New York accent, she chooses the most recognizable features or words and peppers her songs with them.

Translations for the below will be given in brackets.

  • "Lights, camera, acción [action]." - Put Me In A Movie, Lana Del Ray (2010)
  • "I can speak Spanish, you can sing for the neighbors." - Back to the Basics, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
  • She's done the monologue from Carmen in Spanish in live shows.
  • Yo soy la princesa [I am the princess], comprende mis [understand my] white lines.” - Ultraviolence, Ultraviolence (2014)
  • “He’s crazy y Cubano como yo [and Cuban like me].” - West Coast, Ultraviolence (2014)
  • Cacciatore [hunter] [...] ciao amore [bye, love]” - Salvatore, Honeymoon (2015)
  • "Lights, camera, acción [action]." - High By The Beach, Honeymoon (2015)

Lana-isms

Lana has many features that go into her unique sound, but don't tie back neatly to a single dialect. These little ticks are affectionately referred to here as Lana-isms. Some of these are related to making sure a word fits into the song's meter. Others are trying to evoke a certain image, like hip-hop or Hollywood. Some do double duty and perform both those functions. There are also some lexical items she uses frequently, which she's become famous for (party dress, diamonds, the pale moonlight, etc.). These are interesting because they don't seem to be cribbed from one singer or style in particular, but rather have been accumulated over the years as she became exposed to new influences. They are consistent with her use of foreign languages and New York City English in that she avoids using them throughout an entire song and instead uses them at key moments. This makes them more noticeable and stand-out.

  • Inserting vowels in the middle of words, a process called Epenthesis. Lana likes to insert a neutral 'uh' sound /ə/ in the middle of words so that they can fit the meter of the song, or use a spelling pronunciation ("different") to add an extra syllable. One interesting example below is the "Hit & Run" one, where the demo is missing the 'uh' sound but the final version has it. There's a variation where she instead stresses part of a diphthong (Saigon) or adds a sound that appears in the spelling but not the pronunciation (ovation). She has more dedication to fitting the meter than she does to the standard syllable structure of a word, which shows the extent to which she is willing to "color outside the lines" to achieve a certain aesthetic effect.
    • "You got a diff-e-rent story." - Wait, May Jailer (2005)
    • "Give me a standing ov-a-ti-on." - National Anthem, Born To Die (2012)
    • "You have to live life deadly / Together we'd be dead-a-ly." - Hit & Run (Demo & Final), Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2010)
    • "Mary swaying soft-a-ly." - Body Electric, Paradise (2012)
  • Lana has a preoccupation with old-school Hollywood glamour. A lot of this is expressed in terms of reference to icons like Marilyn or California, but some of it appears in how she speaks as well. She uses a three-syllable pronunciation for 'diamonds' instead of a two-syllable pronunciation; this pronunciation is an older one and can be heard in classic Hollywood films. Her use of 'daddy' is likely influenced by old films as well - see here for further details. She even briefly fakes a Transatlantic accent in one of her songs, dropping her 'r's and using a high [ɐ] sound in words like 'love' and 'above' - all wrapped in an old-timey microphone filter. She's name-dropped Hollywood icons before 2010, but these pronunciations all appear after 2010.
    • "Do you think you'll buy me lots of diamonds?" - National Anthem (Demo & Final), Unreleased & Born to Die (2010 & 2012)
    • "If you should go before me then know that I've always loved you - there's no one above you, baby." - Hollywood's Dead, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • "Diamonds, brilliant [...] like diamonds." - Young & Beautiful, The Great Gatsby Soundtrack (2013)
  • Lana uses a lot of hip hop slang, but she does not affect an African American Vernacular dialect. Her rapped lines are instead done in her General American accent. The number of hip-hop references she makes increases after 2010, once she retired the whole Lizzy Grant aesthetic.
    • "Salvatore, you can def' be my baby boo." - Backfire, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2010)
    • "Dope... that's sick." - Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • "You're so fresh to death and sick as cancer. You were sorta punk rock, I grew up on hip-hop." - Blue Jeans, Born To Die (2012)

Out of the Black, Into the Blue

There's an interesting shift in Lana's use of accent. Her early career as a folk singer featured a more or less constant use of a type of Southern accent. She kept this accent at the start of her jazzy/surf-rock period when she went by some variation of Lizzy Grant, but it started to decline in frequency. We know "Lana" as a name was on her mind by 2008 because it comes up in a song of hers, but she starts going by Lana more in 2009. After that period, her musical style changes and is based more on electronic instrumentation and even upbeat pop sounds, while her lyrics become more cinematic. By 2010, when she's recorded demos for Born To Die, she's already started using parts of a New York accent and some Lana-isms like the hip-hop slang and the old-fashioned pronunciation of "diamonds." She made special use of the New York accent on Ultraviolence, but by the time she released Honeymoon and Lust For Life, she was starting to leave the choice accent bits out.

Lana is famous for cultivating a very particular aesthetic, one that is mostly visual and lyrical. I would argue that part of this aesthetic is also dialectal. Being that she is not from the South, did not grow up in New York, is not a native Spanish speaker, and is not a film star from the 1950s, her little appropriations would be hard to explain using the argument that she actually speaks all these variants. They only have a vague connection to genre - sure, folk music can be associated with the American South, but surf rock? What genre is a New York accent associated with, show tunes and 80s hip-hop? It's clear that she's lifting from other accents to take advantage of the existing associations they already have. In doing so, she's created a linguistically diverse oeuvre and carved out a voice for herself in a competitive market. Like Taylor, she's learned you don't have to be Southern all the time, but Lana has instead operated outside typical genre. Some people may find her schtick repetitive, but it is unmistakably hers.

3 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! Did you happen to come from Lanaboards? I got a lot of traffic from them on June 26 :)

      Delete
    2. Yeah, found this article that day and posted it there. I'm extremely grateful for all this research!

      Delete