Pop

Lana Del Ray’s ‘Norman F*cking Rockwell’ Is A Disillusioned Vision Of Americana

This essay is running as part of the 2019 Uproxx Music Critics Poll. Explore the results here.

It was one month before the mid-term elections, deep in the dog days of 2018, and Lana Del Rey was upset with Kanye West. She would later step back from the precipice of an outright political stance, clarifying that her comment was a “mood” and a “vibe,” but there was little so soft and subtle in her choice of words at the time, publicly rendered on her preferred new medium, Instagram: “your support of [Donald Trump] is a loss for the culture.”

That tense dynamic — a demure, frustratingly coy public figure who constantly stumbles into flame wars — has enveloped Lana’s career since its beginning. Whether oblique references to Harvey Weinstein half a decade before allegations of sexual assault went public or blithe portrayals of the Kennedy assassination, she danced around cultural commentary with a sly smile. Shielded by the iconography of the American flag, which draped her album art, her lyrics, and her body, she could tell stories that unraveled the great American myths of exceptionalism and free-market capitalism without ruffling the feathers of the powers at be; in 2015, The Federalist even called her a “Conservative icon.”

In the promotion of her fifth album, Lust For Life, Lana heavily implied that she wanted to tackle issues bigger than a broken heart. She lamented the Trump presidency and stopped performing underneath a giant American flag. On “Coachella — Woodstock In My Mind,” the titular festival is overshadowed by international conflict: “It was Woodstock in my mind / In the next morning / They put out the warning / Tensions were rising over country lines.” And on the similarly verbose “When the World Was At War We Kept Dancing,” she bemoaned “the end of an era” — “Is it the end of America?” she murmured, awash in reverb. Lust For Life feels like a time capsule of the early days of the presidency — pussy hats, “this is not normal,” name-calling as praxis. Lana’s protests were neat, contained, and confined to a lamentation or two; the rest of the album, by contrast, was flooded in sunlight.

But where Lust For Life took unrest as an exception, a disruption, Norman F*cking Rockwell treats it as a given, its exhaustive bleakness used for mood lighting. The album title was a response to what Lana and the album’s producer, pop wunderkind Jack Antonoff, saw as the absurdity of the status quo. “This is where we’re at — Norman F*cking Rockwell. We’re going to go to Mars, and Trump is president,” she explained in an interview with Vanity Fair. By reframing discontent and deception through the lens of the album’s namesake, whose pristine illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post painted a droll and cheeky picture of Americana, Lana was suggesting that nothing could be more American than the current era.

Fittingly, then, Norman F*cking Rockwell rarely confronts political issues head-on, instead imbuing more grounded interpersonal reflections with an overwhelming sense of confusion and disillusionment. It’s one thing to lament the broad, patriarchal structures that have defined the Western canon and reproduce their hierarchies in trite, obvious, bad art. It’s another to sing, over a plaintive piano, “God damn, man child” as Lana does with a knowing sigh on the album’s opening track. “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news,” she continues, but despite his obvious narcissism, she can’t seem to stop loving him.

Lana has been scolded and dismissed for her imperfect feminism, her fascination with doomed, violent relationships. It’s an impulse that’s present on Norman F*cking Rockwell as well — on “How To Disappear,” she sings about watching men brawling “For the things that they hold dear / To forget the things they fear.” But in both of these songs, she uses her vantage point to cut through to the insecurities that underscore boorish bravado. Contrast that to music that seeks to empower through “you go girl” platitudes and the difference becomes clear: in a culture that seeks to obfuscate power dynamics, there is a satisfying tangibility to Lana’s personal poetics.

On the breathtakingly titled “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have — But I Have It,” Lana takes a step towards a more overt critique of sexism in the music industry. She sings of a revolution “born of confusion and quiet collusion of which mostly I’ve known,” perhaps a nod to “Cola,” the controversial early Lana track that made reference to Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misdeeds half a decade before the #MeToo movement began. But rather than take to the streets in a call to action, she’s traversing the town as an emotional wreck, a vision of a broken woman: “I’ve been tearing up town in my f*cking white gown / Like a goddamn near sociopath.” Her response — the desire to disturb and self-immolate, rather than, say, rally and organize — dovetails with a distinct brand of contemporary pop, the bummer bops of Billie Eilish or the languid despondency of mumble rap, both of which Lana has cited as inspirations. For a seasoned pop artist, it is a perspective remarkably in line with the nihilism of the post-millennial generation, a weariness that comes from the near-constant exposure to global catastrophe.

Lana’s contradictory impulse to at once celebrate and decry pop culture comes to a head on “The Greatest.” On its surface, the song is a send-up of the California scene that birthed the distinctly American brand of folk and protest rock in the ’60s and ’70s. But in its last moments, she nonchalantly rattles off a highlight reel of horrors: the Hawaii bomb siren scare, the forest fires that engulfed Los Angeles, the colonization of space. She also sings of Kanye West as an emblem of popular culture’s self-destruction. It feels almost too pointed, a rare acknowledgment of Lizzy Grant, the person, from the voice of Lana Del Rey, the persona.

Maybe, though, she was simply paying homage to one of her idols, the late Leonard Cohen. One of the poems included in his posthumous poetry collection The Flame was entitled “Kanye West Is Not Picasso.” It is strange and striking, bold and defiant in its critique of narcissism and god complexes. In its last few lines, Cohen also acknowledges his relative silence in the last decade of his life: “I only come alive after a war / And we have not had it yet.” On Norman F*cking Rockwell, Lana is defiantly alive; it seems the war finally came.

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