Lana Del Rey and the Quintessence of Cool

The Americana glamourist’s “Doin’ Time” has got roots

J.P. Williams
5 min readJan 2, 2024
Lana Del Rey, 2017. Photo by Aavindraa. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

There exist songs with an abundance of cool. LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Chelsea Wolfe’s “16 Psyche” . . . They’re the songs against which others pale when it comes to that particular brand of dispassionate hep our species has been craving since around the time jazz lowered its temperature, ordinary shlubs began wearing shades for fashion, and a certain mononymous Mississippian pressed play on his pelvis. One example of the genre is Hollywood sadcore diva Lana Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time,” but its cool, far from springing ex nihilo from the singer-songwriter’s genius, has wended its way to us from as far back as 1925.

LDR’s “Doin’ Time” was the fourth single off her sixth album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, released in 2019. The cool descends immediately with an ascending riff on harp, played by Gale Levant. When the mezzo-soprano comes in, she’s sizzling yet subdued, crooning lyrics about summer, partying and good love gone evil. The drums, which sound programmed, join with a slick groove, and the rest is a track as chic as any of Del Rey’s ridiculous number of chic tracks. It’s one of the few songs not co-written with the album’s other visionary, producer Jack Antonoff, and the credits drop a few hints as to its lineage, but beyond Rick Rubin, you’ll have to read on.

As many readers probably know, “Doin’ Time” is a cover of a 1997 single from ska punk band Sublime. The track appeared on the band’s third, self-titled album, and it’s one of my favorite songs from the tail end of the last century. Instead of harp, this version opens with percussion, but not drums. Those cool tones come from a vibraharp, which is, loosely speaking a kind of xylophone played by someone with the immensely cool title of vibist. Never noisy, the track manages to work in chill beat recorded by a live human being, a slinky bass line, and the healing sound of a scratchy record. On vocals is Bradley James Nowell, who died of a heroin overdose before the release of the song.¹

The roots of “Doin’ Time” don’t stop there. Sublime’s opening vibraharp is actually a sample of “Summertime” off jazz flautist Herbie Mann’s classic album Herbie Mann at the Village Gate. The Village Gate was a nightclub in New York City. The unsuspecting listener, perhaps stumbling across this track when taking some vinyl for a test drive, can’t fail to recognize that vibraharp, played by Hagood Hardy. Then comes some percussion for ambiance and a bass that lays down the line. The melody is the same as in “Doin’ Time,” but since there aren’t any vocals, it’s primarily Mann on the flute, and it’s another example of how the flute is overlooked as one of the coolest instruments ever.

Mann’s “Summertime” was originally composed by George Gershwin for the opera Porgy and Bess, which premiered at the Colonial Theater in Boston on September 30, 1935.² This is around the time that, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, “cool” arose from African-American vernacular as slang meaning “fashionable.” Later, the adjective would broaden its scope, partially through jazz vernacular, to describe anything good. The word had a long way to go when, at the premiere of Porgy and Bess, operatic soprano Abbie Mitchell sang “Summertime” in the role of Clara.³

According to JGC History on YouTube, Mitchell’s recording of “Summertime” at rehearsals for Porgy and Bess is the oldest extant rendition of what has since become a jazz standard. Leave it to opera to sound like nothing else. Gone are those opening vibes, replaced by a simple descending line on clarinet, followed by vocal passages waaay up there. After the opening line, the lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Geoge Gershwin’s brother Ira Gershwin, differ from “Doin’ Time”:

“Summer time and the livin’s easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush little baby, don’t you cry”

The lyrics evoke the world of the opera, which was an adaptation of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s play Porgy, which was based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name. It’s about Porgy, a black man living in a poor neighborhood in South Carolina in the 1920s, his tribulations, his aspirations, and his love for Bess.⁴ Writer and activist Langston Hughes wrote, “[Heyward saw] with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive,”⁵ but as Michael Cooper writes for The New York Times, the history of the play has been fraught with questions “about genre, about representation, about appropriation.” It would seem, however, that “Summertime” is above the fray.

A song as long-lasting and beloved as “Summertime” is bound to have some great versions, and thanks to YouTube, finding them is easy. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, he of the Birth of Cool, collaborated with Gil Evans on a version that jumps right in with the melody on tumpet against a gently thumping bass and faint orchestra, before breaking away for a free-ranging interpretation. Norah Jones has performed it, accompanying herself on piano, and while it doesn’t quite have the cool of some of her other recordings, it’s as lovely as anything she’s done. Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday . . . The best voices have blessed this song with their talents.

That includes Lana Del Rey. Her version of “Doin’ Time” may indirectly borrow from Gershwin’s operatic classic, but she also released a version of “Summertime” itself in 2020. It’s lush and beautiful, but it lacks the key ingredient, that opening on vibraharp that Mann’s combo added at the Village Gate, later sampled by Sublime, then transcribed so effectively to harp for LDR’s NFR! I can’t explain it to science, but I know it in my bones: Those are three recordings with the quintessence of cool.

References:
[1] Mark Kemp, “Bradley Nowell: Life After Death,” Rolling Stone, December 25, 1997: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bradley-nowell-life-after-death-250120/
[2] History.com Editors, “‘Porgy and Bess,’ the first great American opera, premieres on Broadway,” History, A&E Television Networks, last updated: November 30, 2020, date accessed: December 26, 2023: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/porgy-and-bess-the-first-great-american-opera-premieres-on-broadway
[3] “The Legendary Harlem Resident, Soprano, And The First To Sing ‘Summertime’ Abbie Mitchell, 1884–1960, Harlem World Magazine, November 7, 2022: https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/the-legendary-harlem-resident-soprano-and-the-first-to-sing-summertime-abbie-mitchell-1884-1960/
[4] Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Porgy-DuBose-Heyward-ebook/dp/B08VNN6TLN/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=porgy+dubose+heyward&qid=1703589512&s=books&sr=1-1
[5] Anthony Tusler, “Porgy’s Long Journey,” New Mobility, October 1, 2012: https://newmobility.com/porgys-long-journey/

Note: I wrote this for Medium.com. If you are reading this on another platform, it has been pirated. I quit the Medium Partner Program, so I’m not doing this for money. It is nice, however, to know someone’s reading, so please clap or comment to let me know somebody’s out there. Gladius adhuc lucet.

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J.P. Williams

I usually write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Right now, mostly lighter, shorter pieces on whatever I feel like.