On "Norman Fucking Rockwell!" Lana Del Rey grapples with American disappointment, sadness, and a hope that comes from the individual art and artists who have helped build her.
“Goddamn, man child / You fucked me so good I almost said I love you,” Lana Del Rey begins her fifth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! with an immediate fuck you over a delicate piano ballad. This isn’t the constant, though. The album builds away from anger and slowly crawls toward hope.
Lana Del Rey has shaped 2010s Americana and isn’t ashamed of her femininity. Lauded by early 2010s Tumblr, she brought flower crowns to the forefront of teen girl fashion, and inspired girls to wear makeup in more a dramatic, unapologetic fashion. She reveled in her ever-present sadness, but also in her own sex appeal. She is brooding and beautiful. She leans into the aspects of femininity young girls are told to shy away from, and it makes her fan base a dedicated one. She has built herself in the image of American nostalgia. She alludes and writes herself into the most iconic staples of American imagery and history, all laced with a self-aware and unapologetic melodrama. As the decade now comes to a close, Del Rey’s most recent album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, tracks Americana into something more subdued and realistic, a reckoning with a more profound and uniquely American sadness, but one still somehow littered with hope.
Lana Del Rey’s use of American iconography shifts through her albums. Her 2012 music video for “National Anthem,” from her debut album Born To Die, is Del Rey in peak Americana. It depicts her as both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, with JFK played by A$AP Rocky. The film quality is grainy, making it looked aged, and the video ends with her reading delicate remarks about the deceased president. It is theatrical and patriotic, and she sings in the chorus “Red, white, blue is in the sky / Summer’s in the air and, baby, heaven’s in your eyes / I’m your national anthem.” There’s unironic appreciation for America and its history, and it’s the starting point that launches her trajectory. In these earlier years and albums, her love for America came with few qualifications.
Her 2017 album, Lust For Life, still roots itself in firmly in everything American, but it’s rooted very firmly in post-2016 election America, where she’s grappling with her own naiveté to what the country really stands for. In “Coachella - Woodstock In My Mind,” she talks about growing political tension while kids attend Coachella, singing, “‘Cause what about all these children / And what about all their parents? / And what about all the crowns they wear / In hair so long like mine?” There is a desperation to say something, or do something--an impulse that underlaid most art in 2017. This is also around the time that she stopped singing in front of the American flag. She was publicly bitter and angry, and that anger pushed everywhere outward.
On Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey is jaded, with a patriotism that’s rooted in America’s good and bad. She's confused by the failure of a country that’s supposed to be built for people like her. In the now-infamous 2014 Guardian article she addressed this, saying, "I think they think there's an element of sexism going on, but I feel that it's more personal. I don't see where the female part comes into it. I just can't catch that feminist angle." She believed attacks toward her were personal not general, so she built herself in the image of American idealism. There was a hope that this country was, in fact, built for her. And in many ways it is, but we watch as a curtain is being drawn back so we watch her processing the darker workings of American politics and identity politics. On this album, Del Rey builds hope from a more realistic place. We watch a woman grappling with a place she loves deeply, but she can now see its demons more clearly, and how she fits into that narrative. It’s a quiet, sprawling album that takes its time with her sadness and frustration, both internal and external.
“Venice Bitch” is Lana Del Rey’s longest song to date, and it is overflowing with lyrical and sonic allusions. In it she references Tommy James, Robert Frost, Father John Misty, Norman Rockwell, and it feels as though the listener is walking through a guided tour of her influences. The scope is limited demographically, and that's something she's not apologized for. She shows us the parts of America that she still has a deep appreciation for, and doesn’t aggrandize the nation itself, only its individual players.
She then moves into “Fuck it I love you,” where she sings “So I moved to California, but it’s just a state of mind / It turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself, that’s not a lie,” then repeats “Fuck it, I love you” 15 times, barely getting out the word "love" each time. There is resignation and frustration, but a stubborn commitment to loving something enough to see it through. The song is written so that this tumultuous love can be applied to herself, a specific you, or the country at large, and we can interchange those as we see fit.
The only upbeat song on the album that still revels in carefree American freedom is “Doin’ Time.” The song is a cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” which is a cover of Billie Holliday’s “Summertime.” Here she names more influences while calling on them to channel the carefree American spirit she seems incapable of on the rest of the album. The song is fun and upbeat, but also has some underlying darkness beneath that surface. The chorus goes, “Summertime, and the livin’s easy,” but lines like “Me and my girl, we got this relationship / I love her so bad, but she treats me like shit” pull it back to reality, and it mirrors the thesis of the rest of the album.
On this album, Lana Del Rey is turning inward. “The Next Best American Record” walks the listener through another hall of references, alluding to Led Zeppelin and The Eagles, and strives toward American classic greatness. The song was originally supposed to appear on Lust For Life with the lines, "But you were so obsessed with writing the next best American record. / But there was nothing left by the time we got to bed. / Baby that’s a shame.” It appears on Norman Fucking Rockwell! with those lyrics revised to “We were so obsessed with writing the next best American record / ‘Cause we were just that good / It was just that good.” By switching the “you” to “we,” she seems to be taking some of the responsibility for her obsession with becoming an American great. On this album, we watch Del Rey reflect on her own role in American idealism with frustration and forgiveness, but still with her signature melodrama.
Lana Del Rey has been repeatedly critically undercut and mocked for her melodrama and supposed inauthenticity. Before singing as Lana Del Rey, she sang under her real name, Lizzy Grant, and quickly rebranded following the lackluster attention her music received. Following the rebrand, and an awkward Saturday Night Live debut, the media piled on. In recent years, her reviews have been trending up, but she clearly feels wronged and critical of media portrayals of her, most recently in response to Ann Powers' review of her album for NPR. It was a nuanced and positive review, but Del Rey's defense mechanisms haven't waned since the dawn of her stardom, and her tweets in response embroiled her in another controversy. She chooses to perform to and for her loyal fanbase pretty much exclusively, and shuns any media attempts to understand her.
The image Lana Del Rey has built for herself functions as reality and fiction, with endless debate about which side it falls heavier on. The debate seems moot, however. Pop stars are all constructed to varying degrees, and the repeated hyperfixation on her authenticity devalues Del Rey’s astute and complex songwriting ability. So often female artists are expected to only create confessional music, and aren’t given space to create works of fiction that still move the audience in authentic ways. Whether or not they are a part of Del Rey’s life outside of the songs doesn’t matter; they are effective because she is an effective songwriter.
The album ends with “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it,” which was released as a single in January, and has since remained my favorite song released this year. It’s just her vocals over a soft piano, and the lyrics are dense and desperate. She alludes to Sylvia Plath and her own family. We listen to her grapple with the concept of hope, where she admits that it’s a difficult thing for her to muster, but somehow it still finds its way to her. For nearly six minutes her voice builds and breaks, and we hear twinges of anger pop up and subside. We watch her work herself up then calm herself down, singing
I've been tearing around in my fucking nightgown
24/7 Sylvia Plath
Writing in blood on your walls
'Cause the ink in my pen don't look good in my pad
They write that I'm happy, they know that I'm not
But at best, you can see I'm not sad
But hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have
Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have.
She ends with a delicate repetition of “But, I have it / Yeah, I have it / Yeah, I have it / I have” and we walk away with a little more hope, as well.