“Don’t you know a singer can still be a side-piece at 33?” Lana Del Rey purrs on ‘A&W’, her half-eye-rolled question making me smirk as it whooshes through my headphones. It’s just over a month before her ninth album, ‘Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd’ is released and, with only that song and the title track available, my phone loops back to the latter as I try to block out the din of the Tube carriage around me. As it does so, it causes a kind of whiplash – ‘A&W’’s brazen, bold attitude, Lana coldly sharing “the experience of the American whore”, at violent odds with the yearning of the title track. As she sighs, “When’s it gonna be my turn?”, I have to fight to keep the tears that have filled my eyes from streaming down my face.
Weeks later, at a media playback of the whole album, that battle begins again, each time Del Rey asks a big question about life, her future, womanhood and society’s expectations of what that should look like. ‘…Ocean Blvd’ asks a lot of them, and it feels almost shocking – how many other albums examine the pressures of being a woman in her thirties?
Music’s youth obsession might keep these narratives largely on the sidelines in records, but they are thoughts and feelings that permeate everyday life. They’re centred in TV storylines, in conversations with friends as they wonder if they should freeze their eggs, every pointed remark my mother makes about not letting her be a grandma. They’re even in the haze of intoxicated nights out when, suddenly, the wildest party animal you know is giving what they’d do if they got pregnant a second thought, a third, a fourth…
I am 33 and pretty confident in the decisions I’ve made in my life. I don’t care if I get married, I have no desire to have children. I’ve felt this way since I was a kid myself and proudly told my parents I would never get married because “boys are stupid” – so perceptive at such a young age. But, in the last year or so, doubts have crept into my mind, an unfamiliar but persuasive little voice making me challenge myself. My unshakeable belief that not getting married doesn’t mean I’m unloved or alone wobbling, Lana’s “When’s it gonna be my turn?” Mirroring the pangs – blink-and-you’ll-miss-em, but pangs all the same – I’ve felt as friends’ wedding invitations roll in. My non-existent yearn for kids becoming a lightning rod for guilt, as if I’m not doing something I’m supposed to do.
Later on the same day, I fought back tears on the tube, I was making small talk with an artist manager I’d just met after a gig. “Do you have kids?” he inquired after telling me about his family. “Oh no, no, no,” I replied, an undercurrent of horror in my voice that someone could think I, baby-faced and feeling like I’m still in my early twenties even if my birth certificate says otherwise, could possibly be a mother. It was an entirely valid question, but it felt so absurd.
Listening to ‘…Ocean Blvd’ in full feels like Del Rey deep diving into my own feelings on the battle with the biological clock. ‘Sweet’ teeters through nonchalance and curiosity, casually telling a partner “If you want someone, then just call me up”, but also wondering what their end goals are: “Do you want children? / Do you wanna marry me? / Do you wanna run marathons in Long Beach by the sea?”
‘A&W’ swaps yearning for the things we’re told are the be-all and end-all, deciding: “It’s not about having someone to love me any more.” In isolation, that line is almost a declaration of independence; of embracing a promiscuous lifestyle in the face of the world demanding that you settle down. In my mind, it becomes permission to continue racking up outrageous stories and adventures that you likely wouldn’t be able to have if you had the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. Life is too short not to.
But, on some days, anxiety still pierces through. ‘Fingertips’ is tinged with it as Lana murmurs through a list of questions: “Will the baby be alright? / Will I have one of mine? / Can I handle it even if I do? / It’s said that my mind / Is not fit, or so they said, to carry a child / I guess I’ll be fine.” Sometimes my mind wanders and I think about what I’d do if I did get married and that man wanted kids. Would I acquiesce and, if so, what would that mean for any potential future baby? Would they inherit my depression and the trauma that comes with that? Would they feel as distant and disconnected from me as I do with my own parents, unable to talk about anything of real substance together? Could I do it – be a mother, put someone else completely before me and get them ready for their own life?
In interviews around this album, Del Rey has referred to a passage in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story,” she wrote. “From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America…”
Plath envisions herself sitting beneath the tree trying to decide which fig to choose, feeling that if she picked one, she’d lose all the rest. She takes so long to choose one that she ends up losing them all; the reverse of the modern idea of “having it all”.
To me, listening to ‘…Ocean Blvd’ is like looking up at that fig tree, trying to make your own decision. There’s a line in ‘Margaret’, the song about Jack Antonoff and Margaret Qualley’s romance, that feels like an answer. “So if you don’t know, don’t give up,” Del Rey says cheerfully. “Cos you never know what the new day might bring.” Sometimes it stings – as if she’s reinforcing the idea that life is only complete if you fulfil society’s expectations – but sometimes, it’s reassuring. All questions and doubts aside, life isn’t predictable and there’s no one right path I, or anyone else, needs to take.
READ MORE: A who’s who guide to the collaborators on Lana Del Rey’s ‘Ocean Blvd’