The Annex
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The Annex

Lana Del Rey’s Black Bathing Suit

How the songwriter turns disorientation into irresistible, strangely comforting music

“Black Bathing Suit,” from Lana Del Rey’s latest record Blue Banisters, has always bewitched and perplexed me — not unlike Lana herself, who captivates me with her sound but so often eludes my grasp.

The song opens with seagulls squawking over a delicate piano as it slowly plays in 4/4 time. The melody is reminiscent of a music box, or maybe a carousel; it feels familiar, but out of place. The sound of an ocean wave gently advances then recedes, flowing smoothly into Lana’s soft, breathy vocals.

Out-of-balance feelings and an off-kilter beauty: “Black Bathing Suit”

“Grenadine, quarantine, I like you a lot,” she sings, her voice steadily rising and falling in a continuous pattern. At the end of each line, her voice trails off into breathlessness, her syllables extending until the final consonants are lost. Each piano chord slow and sustained, the first verse feels suspended in time, though unsteady percussive elements faintly brush in the background.

As Lana transitions into the chorus, the music swells; individual chords come together to create something much more complete. Meanwhile, the time signature shifts into a 3/4 waltz, rhythmically regular and comfortingly clear. As if to dramatize this shift, Lana’s voice becomes rounder and fuller, smooth like honey as she kisses off a former lover. “The only time you’ll ever see me is in your dreams in my black bathing suit,” she sings.

Suddenly, the song shifts again: it is back in 4/4 time, but this time, irregular rudiments and off-accents — carryovers from the earlier waltz time — create a jarring set of polyrhythms that destabilize the listener’s balance. “You said I was bad, let me show you how bad girls do,” Lana sings in the same soothing tone, but she places extra emphasis on the word “bad.” Though unsteady, this transition feels purposeful. Lana has found a way to create an off-kilter beauty, in music if not in life.

When Lana first released Blue Banisters in 2021, I played “Black Bathing Suit” on repeat without ever fully understanding why. All I knew was that I enjoyed the raw quality of Lana’s vocals; they seemed to promise access to an authentic version of her. But just as I felt her pull me in, she’d push me away. I’d realize that I didn’t know her at all, and I never really could.

Lana Del Rey has always been an enigma. Following the success of her single “Video Games,” she made a highly ridiculed appearance as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. As she stood awkwardly in a form-fitting white dress, she struggled to shift between her upper and lower registers. Pouting her lips and coyly drawing her gaze downward, she made little attempt to connect with the audience. Three weeks later, Kristen Wiig impersonated Lana on the show. “I think people thought I was stiff, distant, and weird,” Wiig said, apathetically staring off into the distance. “But there’s a perfectly good explanation for that: I’m stiff, distant, and weird.”

Lana Del Rey and A$AP Rocky for the “National Anthem” music video.

But even as Lana evaded understanding, she continued to achieve chart-topping success. On her debut album Born to Die, she presented herself as a “Gangster Nancy Sinatra,” waving an American flag and smoking with John F. Kennedy (played by none other than A$AP Rocky). Though the record spent 300 weeks on the Billboard 200 Chart for most streams, critics repeatedly pointed to a lack of authenticity, buried beneath glossy layers of retro aesthetic and glimmering platitudes.

For her sophomore album Ultraviolence, Lana traded in her bubblegum and Diet Mountain Dew for millennial noir, penning songs about cult leaders and “Beat poetry on amphetamines.” Though she touched upon themes of vital dissatisfaction and art as escape, she also received criticism for her apparent glorification of violence. “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” she repeats throughout the title track — a reference to a now-notorious 1962 single by The Crystals. Both songs are simultaneously sickening and alluring — thematically dark but easy on the ears. As Lana’s voice rings in delicate harmony, it’s difficult to determine whether she’s being subversive or sincere.

When it comes to understanding Lana Del Rey, things often get a bit messy. Interpretations of who she is and what she stands for zigzag back and forth, never landing on solid ground. Is her appeal to the ’60s and feminine submission putting women back decades? Or is she the foil to “empowerment” as an egalitarian default? Am I supposed to take her music as an honest reflection of lived experience? Or should I accept that there’s an element of artifice — an acrylic layer preventing me from getting at the thing itself? Rather than answering these questions, Lana revels in them. She exists in the odd overlap between art and life, and try as I might, I can’t discern what is real from what is false.

In the album artwork for 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the title appears in a comic book-like bubble; the allusion to a classically “Middle American” artist is undercut by the strategic placement of an expletive. Against the upper edges, the art admits to its own artifice, with individualized brushstrokes visualizing the sky and clouds in a humble attempt at impasto. But, as my eyes make their way downward, the landscape feels palpably real — and it’s on fire. Slightly off center, Del Rey reaches out with a foreshortened arm, welcoming me into this fantasy world that somehow feels so much like my own.

The album artwork for “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

On Blue Banisters, however, Lana notably shifts inward. Rather than wrapping herself in all-American pastiche, she offers up poetic reflections on her lived experiences. Whether she’s embracing sisterhood on “Blue Banisters” or re-finding herself after a failed relationship on “Violets for Roses,” she seems to come from a place of honest introspection. The first time I listened to the album, I felt drawn to Lana in a new way: I felt as though I was coming closer to a genuine understanding of who she was.

Throughout the opening verse of “Black Bathing Suit,” Lana offers a glimpse into her experience of quarantine. The lyrics are disjointed and unembellished, yet they vividly sketch the inhabited world — from Zoom to Target parking lots. As Lana looks toward an impending end, she admits that she still wants a boyfriend. It’s fatal, but honest — relatable in the midst of a pandemic.

As she transitions into the chorus, her lyrics become more cryptic:

’Cause my body is my temple, my heart is one, too

The only thing that still fits me is this black bathing suit

You don’t know me any better than they do, baby

My time is run over, so the only time you’ll ever see me

Is in your dreams, in my black bathing suit

Looking at me looking over at you, real cute

As the music dances beneath her voice, Lana invites me into a psychological dreamscape where I can mold and form the version of her that I want. But even as she beckons me in, she reminds me that all I’ll ever see is a fantasy. All the while, I become uncomfortably aware that she’s looking back — judging me as I attempt to judge her.

Through the black bathing suit, Lana presents herself as perpetually out of place — only able to wear a garment typically reserved for the beach. She seems to address the criticism over her weight gain, but she also exposes and embraces her figure. She references her sultry, “bad girl” image, but there is also a layer of vulnerability. Every strange, messy alignment becomes packed into a single metaphor, and before I can make sense of it, she begins to yell at me.

“Oh let ’em talk about me,” she shout-sings. Having never done so before in her music, Lana’s decision to yell is unexpected. The sound is harsh and uninhibited, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a purity in the way it seems to grovel at the back of her throat before being exhaled in a single breath. Her voice begins to layer over itself, disorienting as the time signature hovers between 3/4 and 4/4. The moment feels like a sonic corollary to Lana herself — hard to place, forever out of time. But far from disabling, this quality is what makes “Black Bathing Suit” so vibrant, so complex, so irresistible.

This is where the odd beauty of “Black Bathing Suit” lies — not in the promise of authenticity, but in the illusion of it. It has been argued that identity is inherently plastic and performative, making the attempt to grasp at anything “real,” especially in popular music, a futile act. Throughout “Black Bathing Suit,” Lana appears to toy with this idea: she sets up my expectations for authenticity just to show that they are faulty to begin with.

Throughout her career, Lana has shown herself to be incredibly versatile. She traverses different decades, hovers between time signatures, drapes herself in American history, and dizzies her listeners. She is not easy to pin down, and her message isn’t immediately clear — but that’s what makes her so fascinating. To pass her off as simply stiff, distant, and weird is to miss the point entirely. It’s her illegibility that makes her so dynamic. It’s what keeps me coming back for more.

Lana Del Rey on the cover of “Blue Banisters”

In the final seconds of “Black Bathing Suit,” the music gradually fades until all that is left is the sound of the music box, still playing in 4/4 time. In the relative quiet, I feel a sense of comfort, though I know when I press repeat, the strangeness will start all over again. Listening to “Black Bathing Suit,” I realize that I’ll only ever see what Lana wants me to see, and I’m okay with that. She’s a gangster Nancy Sinatra, sweet like cinnamon, forever drawing me in, forever out of reach.

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Cultural dispatches from UC Berkeley

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Lauren Harvey

Lauren Harvey

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