Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Disjointed Time of Robert Frost and Lana Del Rey

At this time of the year, when coats come out of the cupboard and leaves start to crisp on the trees, it becomes easier to imagine the sort of landscape that might have inspired Robert Frost’s 1923 poem, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’, 1923, published in New Hampshire, 1924.

Of course, Frost’s poem isn’t just about autumn. Frost here mourns change itself, and it is this sentiment that Lana Del Rey echoes in her song ‘Venice Bitch’: ‘You’re in the yard, I light the fire,/And as the summer fades away,/Nothing gold can stay’.

The track is the third on Del Rey’s new album, ‘Norman F*****g Rockwell!’, and serves as a concise expression of the themes considered on the album as a whole. As she swerves between poignant depictions of addiction and depression, often pausing to dwell on the valuable support that music has offered her during these difficult periods, Del Rey remains (ironically) steadfast in her emphasis on transience: on the passing of time, and the gradual shift in cultural seasons. 

The tone here is not necessarily mournful; it is more a tone of resigned acceptance, as if Del Rey has, in true Frost style, realised that as much as she might will it otherwise, ‘nothing gold can stay’. Perhaps this is expressed most clearly in ‘The greatest’, a swirling, Bowie-esque track towards the album’s close, in which Del Rey croons: ‘The culture is lit and I had a ball,/ I guess I’m signing off after all’.

Raisa Bruner has described this as Del Rey’s ‘most millennial line yet’, and for good reason. The figure of ‘Lana Del Rey’ has always been a reminder of the past: her image is often one of classic Hollywood glamour, serving as a calculated ode to red-lipped girls dressed in blue velvet and drenched in gold. Del Rey’s luxurious drawl, too, might have been plucked straight from the fifties. Even her name is borrowed from Lana Turner, a classic ‘titan of red-lip, Old Hollywood’ charm. 

Recently, though, Del Rey’s image has become increasingly sun-soaked and ‘surf’-y, owing to an L.A. move in 2012. It is this honeyed Californian haze that dominates ‘NFR!’: in ‘Happiness is a butterfly’, for instance, Del Rey lusts after ‘Hollywood and Vine’, whilst ‘Bartender’ sees her driving a truck down the Pacific Coast Highway, and the protagonist of ‘Norman f*****g Rockwell’ is described as ‘resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all’. 

This California is a golden, seventies-era California: one of ‘ice cream’ and ‘ice queen[s]’, partying with ‘violet pills’ in Laurel Canyon, dreaming in ‘jeans and leather’. This backdrop is not simply restricted to Del Rey’s lyrics, either: she also takes her musical cues from ‘60s and ‘70s Californian folk, pop, and surf rock, nodding to The Beach Boys whilst also echoing artists such as Joni Mitchell (whose song ‘California’ seems to serve as a direct influence for Del Rey’s track of the same name), and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, (the cosily domestic ‘You’re in the yard, I light the fire’ chorus of ‘Venice Bitch’ is a clear nod to Nash’s portrait of his relationship with Mitchell in ‘Our House’).

The album relishes this imagery whilst also acknowledging its passing. ‘NFR!’ is a record drenched in nostalgia, written about an era which is now slowly fading from the American consciousness. Most of Del Rey’s lyrics are written in the past tense, offering portraits of a life lived retroactively, rather than one set in the present. In ‘Bartender’, Del Rey sings about ‘Crosby Stills & Nash’ being played at a summer party. In ‘Venice Bitch’, though, the party is clearly over: the sound of Crosby, Stills & Nash is conjured only for a brief moment by the chorus, before the track moves swiftly on with the claim that ‘as the summer fades away/ Nothing gold can stay’.

This nod to Frost is not Del Rey’s first. She also used the lyric in her 2015 track ‘Music To Watch Boys To’, in which she laments: ’Nothing gold can stay/ Like love or lemonade’. In fact, the two artists have more in common than might be expected. Like Del Rey, Frost was sometimes seen as a man slightly out of joint with his age, resisting the maxims of early twentieth century Modernism in much the same way as Del Rey now contradicts the trends of early twenty first century music. 

This was not always the case. In fact, Ezra Pound reviewed Frost’s 1914 North of Boston in almost exactly the same way as he did James Joyce’s Dubliners. Frost would gradually turn against the elitist stance of Modernism, though, realising that he could ‘never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does’. Instead, Frost wanted to be ‘a poet for all sorts of kinds’, and if that meant sticking to the traditions of his earlier, ‘sentimental’ poetry, then so be it. 

Perhaps this is why Lana Del Rey also likes to situate her music in the past. It might even be the reason for her unshakeable popularity. Wafting through the sun-drenched sounds of ‘NFR!’ is still a highly pleasurable way of spending an hour, even if the album is self-conscious in its appetite for nostalgia. Although Del Rey takes pains to remind us that ‘nothing gold can stay’, people will always find comfort in the past, and the sunny golden valleys of 1970s California aren’t such a bad place to visit for an hour, even if they can’t last forever.

Further references: https://www.lamag.com/culturefiles/lana-del-rey-norman-fucking-rockwell-la-map/. https://magazinec.com/style/siren-song/

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