For those hoping that being a “superstar” producer had left Jack Antonoff no time to remember his own musical “project,” Bleachers, the media regrets to inform you that he has not forgotten at all. And after promising there would be new Bleachers music in 2022, he’s decided to deliver on that vow in late 2023…because time flies when you’re producing Midnights and Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. And, speaking of the latter, it is Lana Del Rey who joins Bleachers for their latest single, “Alma Mater.” A song title that, in fact, could swing both ways in terms of being either a Del Rey or Swift track. After all, both women still speak as though they’re fresh from their collegiate years. But Del Rey is the more suitable choice for a title like this, what with her schoolgirl fetish and actual college degree (unlike Swift, who merely has an “honorary” one from NYU).
Although her vocal contribution is minimal—in fact, little more noticeable than what she brought to Swift’s original version of “Snow on the Beach” before they re-recorded it for Midnights (The Til Dawn Edition)—Del Rey’s influence is all over the track. And that includes the fact that she co-produced it along with Antonoff and Patrik Berger. But beyond that, her lyrical stylings and habits pepper “Alma Mater” in ways that include referencing the titles of other musicians’ work (in this case, Tom Waits’ Heartattack and Vine) and painting the picture of “trashball Americana” (from the white perspective, mind you). This is patent in the lines, “Threw her t-shirt down the pike (alma mater)/Screamin’, ‘Fuck Balenciaga’/Right past the Wawa.” The part where Antonoff mentions how the girl in question screamed “fuck Balenciaga” also echoes Del Rey on “This Is What Makes Us Girls” when she sings, “Runnin’ from the cops in our black bikini tops/Screamin’, ‘Get us while we’re hot, get us while we’re hot.’” Clearly, Antonoff has been listening to (and unwittingly studying) Del Rey’s work over the years so that it has managed to affect his own.
This includes Del Rey’s obsession with talking about summer and stating the obvious about its hot temperature. A trope that also shows up in “Alma Mater,” when Antonoff sings, “Well summer’s gettin’ hotter/(Alma mater).” Similar non sequitur/“no shit Sherlock” remarks about the summer season also show up in Del Rey songs like “Without You,” when she announces, “Summertime is nice and hot.” In “Heroin,” she takes it one step further by shouting, “It’s fuckin’ hot, hot.” So perhaps for Antonoff, who sounds more like The National’s Matt Berninger than himself on this track, working with Del Rey requires mentioning the summer at least once. And, of course, anyone who wants to collab with Del Rey should be adept at metaphors. So it is that Antonoff’s gift for this literary device shines through when he says, “She’s my alma mater,” a simultaneously romantic and sexual phrase that refers to how this person is someone he’s known intimately. And presumably, “graduated from.” Which might mean that, as he talks about this woman now, he’s either reminiscing about her or speaking of her from the “friend zone” perspective they’ve now transitioned to. Antonoff certainly has experience with that…unfortunately, with Lena Dunham.
But now that he’s moved onward and upward to another nepo baby, Margaret Qualley, it appears as though it was destined to be all along. If for no other reason than it gave Del Rey inspiration to write “Margaret” and collaborate vocally with Antonoff on it. Not only in the studio, but onstage, with Antonoff joining her to perform the track during the All Things Go Festival in Columbia, Maryland (as well as “Venice Bitch”). He also showed up to play the piano on “For Free” (LDR’s preferred Joni Mitchell cover) and “Mariners Apartment Complex” when Del Rey appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. So yes, theirs has been a rich and productive musical partnership both in and out of the studio, with Antonoff doing most of the giving. Which is why Del Rey probably thought she should do him a solid by appearing on “Alma Mater.” A song during which she promises, “I’ll make it darker”—this being an overt nod to Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker.” Not to mention Del Rey’s own 2021 song, “Dark But Just A Game,” itself inspired by a phrase Antonoff said to her about fame.
Elsewhere, Antonoff channels Del Rey’s “How To Disappear” (also produced by Antonoff) when he sings, “Point the headlights, flickеr dear/Drive by the old housе, go for a beer.” It’s all very “you just crack another beer/And pretend that you’re still here.” Or even, “Back, back in the garden/We’re getting high now because we’re older.” Indeed, the overall tone of “Alma Mater” is one of millennial ennui…and the resignation to getting “old” as one performs the folly-laden things they once did in their youth with less, let’s say, joie de vivre. Incidentally, on “Margaret,” Del Rey has the audacity to say, “‘When you’re old, you’re old/Like Hollywood and me.” Perhaps Gen Z ageism has infected the millennial mind if Del Rey believes she’s “aged” at thirty-seven (this being how old she was when she wrote the song). At another point, Antonoff’s “secondary” great muse, Taylor Swift, has her lyrical influence flicker in when Antonoff notes, “2003, sad all the time”—a line that channels Swift on Midnights’ “Paris” when she says, “2003, unbearable.” Making one wonder: what the fuck was so bad about 2003?
To “spice it up” a bit, Antonoff provides a white boy version of Megan Thee Stallion rapping, “He say, ‘The way that thang move it’s a movie’” by crooning, “You’re a movie to me, the way you move around me.” Swoon, sigh, etc. These are the reactions Antonoff wants to evoke. And yet, his need to include Del Rey on the song indicates a certain lack of confidence on his part in being able to do that. Perhaps, after so many years spent behind other musicians’ shadows, Antonoff is afraid he might not ever be able to fully come out (and no, that’s not an allusion to his sexuality…though he does look a bit like a lesbian who would give bad head).
Thus, what’s most glaringly apparent about “Alma Mater” is that Antonoff would rather save his true best (e.g., Del Rey’s “A&W”) for other artists instead of allowing it for himself. For, no matter how many times you listen to the song, nothing about it truly sticks or “implants” in your mind. As though every time is like hearing it for the first time…which isn’t the mark of praise, so much as genericness and forgettability. That is, within the established framework of music Antonoff has already created with and for someone like Del Rey.