The Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd: Lana Del Rey’s Attempt at Remembrance
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“I just needed two seconds to be me.” This phrase encapsulates alternative singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey’s ninth studio album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (2023). The Grammy-nominated alternative pop superstar’s career spans over a decade. Known for her influence on the mid-2010s’ “Tumblr Girl” era and “Sad Girl” aesthetic, Del Rey interweaves motifs within her albums, ranging from the femme fatale era of Born to Die (2012) and Ultraviolence (2014) to the continually popular Norman [EXPLETIVE] Rockwell! (2019) to forays into more self-reflective pieces, such as Blue Banisters (2021)—her penultimate album—and now Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. Personally, Del Rey has shown significant growth—from privating her Instagram to her weight gain, Del Rey’s current platform is a far cry from her past influence—promoting healing and self-acceptance instead of eating disorders and sadness.
From the start, the album establishes a clear focus on Del Rey’s own stories, bringing the audience not only into her world but into her family’s. In the album opener, “The Grant’s,” Del Rey describes her family’s immeasurable impact on her and the cherished memories she will carry with her from life to death, ranging from her “sister’s first-born child” to her “grandmother’s last smile.” The track begins with a soaring choir’s harmony that captures its gospel influence; Del Rey contemplates heaven, ruminating on her pastor’s reminder that when you die, all you take with you is your memories. This bittersweet ballad sets the tone for the rest of the album as a tool to dissect her own trauma and a platform to ensure her own remembrance.
Del Rey pleads for this remembrance on the album’s title track: “Don’t forget me / Like the tunnel under Ocean Boulevard.” The album’s titular nod to the tunnel under Ocean Blvd hints at Del Rey’s darkest fear—oblivion. Del Rey paints an intimate portrait of her life through nostalgic storytelling; she hopes that her music will outlive her, and she uses it as a vessel to immortalize herself. The song’s melancholic, minimalist piano backing conveys the classic timelessness Del Rey strives to achieve, creating the distinct feeling of nostalgia present throughout the entire album.
This sound is best showcased in the 10th track, “Paris, Texas,” which is melodic and lullaby-like with a simple, repetitive piano melody. The track is uplifting in contrast with the pain highlighted in the rest of the album and is a clear departure from the darker themes of her previous works. It is different and lighthearted, with Del Rey telling fantastical stories about her trip to Spain rather than bearing her tragedies. In contrast to her previous repertoire, the song’s atmosphere is one of comfort, one of home.
However, in her quest for remembrance, Del Rey reveals even the darkest aspects of her story, most notably in the ninth track, “Fingertips.” Through her slow, haunting melody, Del Rey shares her deepest insecurities—“It’s said that my mind / Is not fit, or so they said, to carry a child”—and calls out to her younger sister Caroline Grant, asking “Will you be with me?” Her vocals are crying, pleading, with sweeping instrumentals that give Del Rey a platform to express her brokenness and fear that her relationships, mind, and problems make her unlovable. With a discography defined by melancholia, this is not a new phenomena, but in this album, Del Rey delves into deeper, darker memories, evolving her pain in a way that does not necessarily fit her former “Sad Girl” aesthetic, but is instead entirely candid about the reality of her past. And yet, Del Rey convinces herself that she can heal. In the preceding song, “Kintsugi,” she proclaims that while she was cracked open, “that’s how the light gets in.” By exposing her stories and past, this album is Del Rey’s way of finding peace. In comparison to albums like Ultraviolence and Born to Die, her pain is neither glamorized nor bemoaned like in Blue Banisters; she solely accepts her pain, which is slowly being replaced with fulfillment. No longer does Del Rey’s abuse feel “like a kiss”; a healing light is finally shining through.
However, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd has already faced some backlash, most notably for Del Rey’s decision to feature pastor Judah Smith on “Judah Smith Interlude.” This track consists of one of Smith’s sermons, a controversial choice given Smith’s controversial beliefs; he advocated for conversion therapy, calling homosexuality a sin as well as referring to masturbation as a weapon. The controversy follows many of Del Rey’s former problematic actions, from blatant acts of cultural appropriation—wearing a Native American headdress in the “Ride” music video and adopting a falsified Spanish accent—to carelessness at fan events during the height of the pandemic; Del Rey is not an unproblematic individual. But in a way, Del Rey’s muddled past makes Smith the perfect featured artist. The song addresses many different daily sins—“lusting after your neighbor,” not “lov[ing your] wife anymore”—and emphasizes the presence of God despite this. Likewise, Del Rey certainly has her own flaws and mistakes, but this track emphasizes the importance of accepting them and moving forward. Despite this erroneous choice of speaker, the interlude was used as a way to address the album’s main purpose: Del Rey’s self-reflection. At the end of his sermon, Smith declares, “I’ve discovered my preaching is mostly about me,” similar to how Del Rey wrote the album for herself.
Additionally, Del Rey’s experimentation with more avant-garde music styles is a major detractor from the album. From R&B to rap to remixes, the album is a vibrant stew of different musical genres and motifs, with some working better than others. Because of the personal nature of Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, this clumsy experimentation only distracts from the true message of Del Rey’s songs. As an example, while the first section of “A&W” is a haunting examination of American culture’s twisted perception of female sexuality—“If I you told you that I was raped / Do you really think that anybody would think / I didn’t ask for it?”—the second is an immature Born to Die-era diversion that betrays the album’s depth and intensity, with Del Rey’s repeated chanting of “Jimmy, Jimmy, cocoa puff, Jimmy, Jimmy, ride.”
Despite this largely failed attempt at modernism, Del Rey’s experimentation is not without success. In “Taco Truck x VB,” for instance, Del Rey combines “Taco Truck”—a newly written song—with Norman [EXPLETIVE] Rockwell’s “Venice [EXPLETIVE].” The song begins with moody acoustic guitar plucking and Del Rey’s hypnotic vocals before transitioning into the familiar synth soundscape of “Venice [EXPLETIVE],” whose breathy vocals are elevated with an R&B twist. The combination of Del Rey’s various music styles and eras is an uncustomary use of her musical motifs but one in which the different sections blend together to form a thrilling and seamless musical number. The amalgamation is not a diversion but rather a reflection on Del Rey’s different eras and corresponding growth, a nod to her musical past that complements the album’s focus on her personal past.
Ultimately, the album is an incredibly personal one, with few inherently detracting features from Del Rey herself. From the heart wrenching chords of “Fingertips” to the nostalgic lullaby of “Paris, Texas” to the experimental remix of “Taco Truck x VB,” Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is a stunning blend of Del Rey’s memories, stories, smiles, and tears. Despite the many controversies and imperfections, the beauty of the album lies in its flaws. Del Rey is not perfect, and she does not shy away from her flaws or past experiences. With tracks ranging from piercing and heartbreaking to lullaby-esque, the album is a window into Del Rey’s life—a way for her to be remembered.