Pop

‘Norman F*cking Rockwell’ And The Very Brief History Of Profanity In Grammy-Nominated Titles

Eight years ago this month, Lana Del Rey outraged primetime viewers with a raw, shaky performance on Saturday Night Live. Many concluded that the 26-year-old singer, who materialized on televisions clad in an elegant white gown, was merely a poser, or a flash-in-the-pan internet sensation. (This was during that brief, strange period after “Video Games” became a viral hit but before Del Rey was taken seriously by critics.) Watching at home, Juliette Lewis compared her to “a 12 yearold [sic] in their bedroom when they’re pretending to sing and perform”; Gawker mocked her as a “perpetually pouty Instagrammed pout monster.”

Del Rey has long since proved those skeptics wrong, but on Sunday, at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, she’ll once again scandalize unsuspecting primetime viewers. Even if the singer doesn’t win big — or perform — she will have made history: Her latest album, 2019’s much-lauded Norman F*cking Rockwell, is the first album with “f*ck” in the title ever to be nominated for Album Of The Year. Outside of the Best Comedy Album category (more on that below), it’s the first album with substantial profanity in the title ever to receive any Grammy nomination. (The operative word here is “album,” not song.)

Let’s unpack this claim. The only word resembling profanity that has appeared in the title of a previous (non-standup) Grammy-nominated album is “damn” (as in, the 2017 Kendrick Lamar album), which I suppose is still considered a swear word by certain youth pastors and stern grandmothers. Other Grammy-nominated album titles that might seem profane if you squint hard enough include Chaka Khan’s Funk This (2007), the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication (1999), and Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) — edgy, maybe, but nothing that falls within the parameters of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” And nothing that would prevent those albums from being stocked at Walmart (whose website obliquely lists Lana Del Rey’s album as “NFR”).

I am excluding from this analysis the Grammy prize for Best Comedy Album, both because it’s rarely televised during the award ceremony and because comedy — unlike mainstream pop — is expected to stretch the limits of good taste. Still, it should be noted that the comedy category has been thoroughly declassing the Grammys since well before Lana Del Rey was born. In fact, David Cross won the award in 2004 for a standup album titled Shut Up, You F*cking Baby!, which is the only reason I can’t categorically say Norman F*cking Rockwell is the first “f*ck”-titled album to get a Grammy nomination. (That album cover was censored and sold in stores as Shut Up, You [lift flap for dirty word] Baby!)

In fact, the full list of Best Comedy Album nominees from years past includes such NSFW titles as Richard Pryor’s That N*****’s Crazy (which won in 1975), Pryor’s Bicentennial N***** (which won two years later), Judy Tenuta’s Attention Butt Pirates And Lesbetarians, and Kathy Griffin’s Suckin’ It For The Holidays. And before Bill Cosby was exposed as a rapist, I have to assume some listeners were startled by the title of his Grammy-winning 1968 album: To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.

But Del Rey’s album is not a joke. It’s the soft-rock-tinted culmination of her career-long obsessions with pop history, myth, and twentieth-century vintage Americana, rife with references to tragic American icons like Sylvia Plath and Dennis Wilson. And Norman F*cking Rockwell is the right title for it: subversive, evocative, attention-grabbing, profane. At first blush, it seems like a bold bit of sacrilegious ingenuity: sullying up an American icon with an unprintable expletive. But Rockwell, contrary to his kitschy New England reputation, also made room for protest and subversion in his own artworks, particularly during the Civil Rights era.

Del Rey’s unorthodox tribute is meant to reflect the surreality of a different American era. “It was kind of an exclamation mark: so this is the American dream, right now,” she told Vanity Fair in February. “This is where we’re at — Norman f*cking Rockwell. We’re going to go to Mars, and Trump is president, all right.”

In a separate interview with radio personality JoJo Wright, she expanded on the title’s origin story and said that it emerged from a lyric in the nine-minute “Venice Bitch,” where she sings, “Paint me happy in blue / Norman Rockwell.” “Then it got me thinking about Norman Rockwell,” Del Rey told Wright, “and how so many of his paintings in the ’50s summed up where the American dream was at. I was thinking about where the American dream is at now, today. And I just thought, ‘Norman effing Rockwell! What would he think? What would everyone think?’”

She could have titled the album Norman Rockwell. But it’s the well-deployed F-bomb that injects some exuberance and mischief into the name, and wreaks havoc on family-friendly newspapers. Thus we get the amusing spectacle of publications like the Los Angeles Times crowning NFR one of the year’s best albums while referring to it as “Norman F— Rockwell!

You do not need to scour Grammy history to know that the word “f*ck” rarely appears in album titles, particularly pop music albums released on a major label. I have around 1,500 albums in my iTunes library. Precisely two of them have “f*ck” in the title: Songs About F*cking by Big Black and F*ckbook by Condo F*cks (a Yo La Tengo alter ego). Songs About F*cking, a veritable noise-rock classic, came out in 1987, at the height of Reagan-era moral panic, which makes its title doubly noteworthy.

I emailed Steve Albini, the former Big Black frontman and legendary producer-slash-engineer, to ask what he thought of an album with “f*ck” in its title being nominated for a Grammy, and whether he had received any pushback in 1987 regarding his own title. I also asked if he had heard Lana Del Rey’s album.

Albini sent me a brief and quintessentially Albini-esque response. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. “I don’t give a fiddler’s f*ck about the Grammys.”

So how will the Grammy ceremony — which is subject to FCC regulations — handle an album with an unpronounceable title?

Very gingerly. The exclusive nominations announcement on CBS This Morning was probably a good indication: The announcer, singer Bebe Rexha, read Del Rey’s title track (which is nominated for Song Of The Year) as “Norman Effin’ Rockwell.” (“I was wondering if you were going to say that,” Gayle King joked, to which Rexha replied: “I got yelled at backstage already. They were like, ‘Don’t you dare.’”)

That is probably how the title will be pronounced during the award ceremony: either “Norman Effin’ Rockwell” or “Norman Freaking Rockwell,” depending on the presenter’s preference. According to a Recording Academy representative, should Del Rey win either award, the gramophone trophy will display the full title, expletive and all. But when the title is displayed onscreen, it will be censored with asterisks, the representative says. That’s consistent with the official Grammy website, where Del Rey’s album is listed as “Norman F***ing Rockwell” (I reached out to Ken Ehrlich, the longtime Grammy executive producer, for formal comment on all this; he did not respond.)

Naturally, this could pose a stressful situation for the presenters, who risk accidentally uttering the album’s real title into the microphone, prompting mass panic and hysteria at the Staples Center. But there’s an analogous scenario from the semi-recent past: In 2011, CeeLo Green’s megahit “F*ck You” was nominated for numerous Grammys, including Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year.

When CeeLo performed that evening, he played the clean version, “Forget You.” When the aforementioned awards were presented, the track was hilariously referred to as “(The Song Otherwise Known As ‘Forget You.’)” (And yes, those parentheses appeared onscreen, as you can see in this clip of Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez presenting Record Of The Year.) Norman F*cking Rockwell, however, doesn’t have an alternate title. That’s it; that’s the title.

What does it all mean? Does it matter that a major, Grammy-nominated pop album — one that has already been crowned album of the year by a range of Important Publications — has a big, gleaming F-bomb in its title? And how will the rest of the pop world respond? I don’t know, though I have to imagine that Taylor Swift, who would never in a million years risk alienating Middle America with an unprintable album title, may be somewhat peeved that Del Rey’s record nabbed an Album Of The Year nomination and Lover didn’t.

The fact that both CeeLo’s song and Del Rey’s album have achieved mainstream success in recent years does seem to suggest a loosening of cultural mores surrounding profanity in pop. We’re a long way from the 1970s, when Harry Nilsson’s label forbid him from naming an album God’s Greatest Hits, or from the ’80s, when songs like Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Prince’s “Darling Nikki” touched off a political crusade against dirty lyrics. The Recording Academy, too, is loosening. It’s difficult to imagine the Grammys nominating a profanely titled album for the top prize in the ’90s, when era-defining acts like Nirvana and Soundgarden were routinely shut out of the category in favor of Boomer-friendly schlock like Eric Clapton’s Unplugged.

There’s also the Trump factor, an unavoidable presence in the current pop moment, which Del Rey specifically evoked while explaining her album title to Vanity Fair. When you have a foul-mouthed president who freely uses words like “poor bastard” or “pompous ass” to insult his political enemies, and whose racism manifests in describing Haiti and various African nations as “sh*thole countries,” it’s hard to be shocked by four-letter words in pop music.

Or maybe I’m overthinking this. Perhaps Del Rey, to quote “Venice Bitch,” is simply fresh out of f*cks forever.

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