Let’s talk about Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the sixth studio album of Lana Del Rey, and the last decade in pop music. As a stan and scholar of all things Del Rey, I was looking forward to the news cycle following the 30 August 2019 album release almost as much as the album itself. Well, six months have gone and I’m happy to report that neither disappointed.
Seemingly overnight, the formerly maligned Queen of Sad Girls, Jesus of the Homosexuals was promoted to critical darling and thinking person’s artist of the hour. Pitchfork gave Norman Fucking Rockwell! an unlikely score of 9.4, calling Del Rey “one of America’s greatest living songwriters”. A few months later, it was the most frequently mentioned album in individual music publications’ year-end top ten lists.
Del Rey has obviously sold millions of records since her 2012 breakthrough album Born To Die, but the aforementioned thinking people — music critics, journalists, social commentators, bloggers and their sorts — have been slower to warm up to her cinematic baroque pop oeuvre that centers unbridled emotion, nostalgia, lusts, addiction and tragic romance.
When Del Rey sang “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you / everything I do” in Video Games, her critics accused her of glorifying toxic relationships and female victimhood. The early 2010’s were the golden era of the female empowerment anthem, with pop artists from Beyoncé to Meghan Trainor asserting their independent womanhood through performative acts of self-love, professional ambition and success. Del Rey, the seeming love child of Jessica Rabbit and Kurt Cobain with her retro aesthetic and melancholy demeanor, couldn’t have been further from the stereotype of a “modern woman”.
Though Del Rey’s image showed some signs of being rehabilitated already around the release of her 2017 album Lust For Life, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the real home run. A masterpiece of songwriting and testament to her artistic growth, the album sees her explore a new stripped-down folk sound with traces of psychedelia — the music genre equivalent of critic catnip if there ever was one. However, we’re here to talk about her lyrical universe.
While Del Rey has been on her own artistic journey, the culture around her has changed too. A new generation of female creators representing a fuller spectrum of femininity have cracked open the stereotype of the perpetually empowered modern woman and the singular notions of female self-fulfillment that dominated pop music until the mid-2010’s or so.
Reading the reviews of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, it also becomes clear that the album has resonated with audiences because of its profoundly human take on modernity, disenchantment and social collapse. While the 2010’s started on a cautiously optimistic note after the closure of the global financial crisis of 2007-08, by the end of the decade all our fears about our economic, cultural and environmental survival had again collapsed into a black hole of anxiety and confusion.
From the climate crisis to the ascension of Trump, global amplification of political extremism and erosion of human rights — and that was all before COVID-19 came and disrupted life as we know it in what felt like a few days — we’ve grown more pessimistic about our individual and collective futures. In this new cultural landscape where “crying” and “protesting” are the new status symbols, Del Rey suddenly finds herself a sought-after social commentator.
If I’m being perfectly honest, talking about Del Rey’s feminism, or the lack thereof, makes me feel like it’s 2013 and I’m eating ramen in a tiny Helsinki flat while catching up with the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars, which is still a progressive TV show. However, we can’t fully appreciate Norman Fucking Rockwell! without revisiting the debate that had everyone’s attention for a few years in the early-to-mid-2010’s, so here goes:
I believe that we once needed artists like pre-Formation Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Meghan Trainor who could inspire us to kick the patriarchy to the curb and find our own happiness. Sure, their neoliberal feminism was co-opted from 1990’s angry women rockers, especially the Riot Grrrl movement. Sure, it seemed to content itself with singing the praises of one’s own glutes, zapping unworthy suitors to ashes while bathing in gold and diamonds, perpetuating a bizarre theory about adolescent female world domination and patting oneself on the back for wearing t-shirts instead of short skirts. Sure, similar arguments, amplified through movies, television and “girls can do it” journalism, were sometimes used to shame real women (read: me, of course this is personal) for failing to possess the confidence, money and power that these quasi-imaginary women said we should all have.
Here’s why I’m not too salty, though: First, the songs were often a lot of fun, and it’s not as if pop music needs any other reason to exist. Second, they did ultimately play a role in actual feminism — not the self-help program for the “good” kind of women to reach their full potential in life — gaining a foothold in mainstream music in the way we’re seeing today. In retrospect, the change seems inevitable: when you bring feminism into the conversation, more and more women and people will ultimately show up and demand to be represented.
Allison Yarrow of The Daily Beast wrote: “Each generation might be more watered down and commodified, but the idea of Girl Power reached more girls all the same.” By the 2017 release of Del Rey’s Lust For Life, pop culture has already moved on, and Pitchfork wrote: “[All] the songs on the radio are bummers now”.
Men have, of course, always created award-winning art from the darker corners of the human experience, from mental illness to addiction to non-standard erotic desires. Del Rey wasn’t the first female artist to do the same (hello Amy Winehouse), but within the mainstream music she was one of the first.
Arguably, Del Rey had more in common with classic literary traditions that portrayed female adolescence and early adulthood as times of darkness, disillusionment and death, as exemplified by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Jeffrey Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides, than she did with most of her pop peers. It’s no surprise she has cited classic literature as one of her greatest influences and often incorporates literary references in her work.
Quinn Roberts writes about the pressures on female (and queer) artists to maintain a positive, aspirational exterior during the early years of the 2010’s:
[If] you wanted to make it [as an artist] during the Obama era of neoliberal optimism, you had to play up the stereotypes, suppressing the more unpalatable aspects of your womanhood or queerness. You smiled for the cameras and dried your eyes backstage. It’s not exactly a new phenomenon; heteropatriarchy has always asked women and gays to repress the outward expression of our identities, particularly when it comes to our erotic desires and emotional traumas.
It’s no wonder that Del Rey rubbed people the wrong way, having built her whole brand on expressing her “erotic desires and emotional traumas”. The 2012 trip hop track Off To The Races tells the story of delinquent love between a troubled young woman and her much older, coked-up gambler boyfriend. In Cola, she has a torrid affair with an older married man named Harvey (she later pulled the song from her repertoire and expressed support for the Me Too movement and no, we’re not going to speculate on the song’s backstory here). In the Ride video, she throws herself in the arms of a revolving door of older biker types while hitch-hiking in the American heartlands.
Several of her songs and videos allude to violence and even death at the hands of a partner (Born To Die, Ultraviolence, Salvatore, Ride), but none see her saving herself and walking out of the door. It was never all she sang about — she celebrated adventure, pleasure and a life on the road just as she lived and breathed darkness — but it was clear that there was an unusual pattern there.
Beyond the specific themes in her works, Del Rey’s sadness alone made her stand out in a sea of bright and bubbly pop goddesses. It wasn’t feminist per se, but it wasn’t anti-feminist either. Born To Die and her 2014 sophomore album Ultraviolence essentially kickstarted Sad Girl, “a new brand of feminism and philosophy that defined the performance of mood online, revealing both why young women are so sad and how sadness can actually be a way of releasing negative affect and protesting wrongdoing rather than wallowing in non-action”. I wonder if this is what Del Rey meant when she said that she finds her songs “happy“, a sentiment I don’t totally disagree with.
It’s worth noting that women’s mental health issues and self-harm still carried more stigma in the early 2010’s than they do today, by which I mean that literally nobody young folks could identify with except maybe Linkin Park was talking about them. There was no Demi Lovato talking about her bipolar disorder and overdose to Ellen DeGeneres, no Evan Rachel Wood discussing sexual identity and abuse in a candid YouTube upload, and scarlet women like Britney Spears and Monica Lewinsky were still routinely mocked even by respected media outlets. I’m not saying the work is done today, but clearly something has improved.
Sad Girl, an imperfect and ultimately short-lived internet phenomenon, was one of few available reference points young women and girls had for their experiences. Perhaps the same could be said about Del Rey, though the demand for her work only keeps growing.
“Del Rey’s lusts and designs were her own – pure female gaze – a hallmark of the defiant female pop stars to come”, writes Laura Snapes for The Guardian. Women and queer men in particular were drawn to her unflinching self-awareness and ability to name and contextualize the sexual power dynamics at play between her and her men even as she was emotionally consumed by them. With passion and precision, she articulated the experience of being at once the subject of her own life and an object in the lives of others. People in marginalized positions understood it intuitively, while “a lot of straight bros” were unsettled.
Interestingly, Del Rey always seemed more interested in the idea of masculinity than any particular man. Her videos tend to feature men as mostly interchangeable embodiments of an archetype rather than real human beings. Lyrics such as Cola‘s infamous “I got sweet taste for men who are older / it’s always been so there’s no surprise” hint at the possibility of her character being more into the fantasy of an all-powerful protector than Harvey as a person. He could have been just about anyone, while her thoughts and responses are fully fleshed out.
Del Rey may have glamorized a certain sexual dynamic for her own enjoyment, but she didn’t normalize it. While the female empowerment anthems of the same era gave you the idea that women were already equal to men and could “choose” to not be affected by sexism and misogyny, her music came off as a brutally honest exploration of the subtle ways in which women in male-dominated societies, through their erotic fantasies, sometimes reconcile their personal agency with their social roles. It wasn’t politically convenient or even radical, but surely that’s not the job of fantasies in the first place.
Indeed, a central theme in Del Rey’s music from Born To Die to Norman Fucking Rockwell! is making, or failing to make, lemonade out of the lemons life has dealt one with. The new album continues to dive deeper into these universal themes, especially the experience of living and loving under failed modernity. Despite its investment in the idea and iconography of “lost America”, it doesn’t come to any obvious conservative conclusions. Instead, it suggests a gentle traditionalism built on the legacy of the hippies, poets, artists and dreamers of America in the sixties and seventies.
Del Rey visions herself as a slacker, drifter and lone wolf — all cultural archetypes rarely occupied by women due to their betrayal of both conservative and pop feminist goals — pursuing her “fire for every experience” and “obsession for freedom” (Ride). She travels by land and sea, on the backs of motorcycles and at the wheels of trucks, immersing herself the dark underbelly of America and its history, culture and communities.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! takes place in latter-day California shaped by the folk mythos of the Laurel Canyon music scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It’s not Del Rey’s first foray into hippie nostalgia, but her world-building has never been more ambitious than when she conjures up a picture of the Hollywood Hills neighborhood and old stomping grounds of the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison. From the canyon to The Beach Boys‘ fictional island getaway of Kokomo to something as mundane as the Interstate 405, she draws an intricate psychogeographical map of her beloved Golden State that feels strange and familiar at once.
The album speaks of heartbreak, because of course it does, but not just the romantic kind. The micro stories of failed romance play out against the macro story of failed modernity. On the video for The Greatest, we see Del Rey wandering around an eerily empty Long Beach Harbor wearing a simple bomber jacket and denim shorts and singing for an older male audience at a rundown bar. It’s a far cry from the overt sexuality of some of her earlier works, a gentle homage to California’s maritime way of life and a moment of togetherness as the old world slips away: “I’m facing the greatest / the greatest loss of them all / the culture is lit and I had a ball / I guess I’m signing off after all”.
The character of Del Rey moves in physical and symbolic spaces — underground bars, truck stops, gambling and drug dens, desert hideouts, criminal and outcast communities — that are often thought of as unsafe for women. However, it doesn’t come off as playing the tired “one of the guys” card, because she never tries to distance herself from her femininity or act as if there are no risks involved in the lifestyle.
The wrongdoing she experiences, from heartbreak to outright abuse, becomes just one chapter (or two, or three) of her own private version of Into The Wild. It may in fact be more realistic than the actual Into The Wild, despite the latter being based on the life and death of wannabe survivalist and real person Christopher McCandless. This is because it’s willing, at least tacitly, to acknowledge the different set of standards for women and men who choose to skip conventional society. In layman terms: anybody can get eaten by a bear, but the threat of sexual abuse and mistreatment looms larger over wayward women than men.
This brings us back to the question of Del Rey’s agency, which has been one of the main talking points around Norman Fucking Rockwell!. Whether or not you think we’ve seen her express her agency before — you know by now where I stand on this — it would be hard to argue that she doesn’t do it more obviously now than ever before.
The album opens with an f-bomb for the ages: “Goddamn man-child / you fucked me so well I almost said I love you”. And then: “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news”. Del Rey describes her ambivalent feelings for her “self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all” in her usual intimate and confessional manner, but this time she exposes his humanity just as she does her own. “Why wait for the best when I can have you?” she asks. The Laurel Canyon setting and ominous mention of “news” hint at the socio-historical context of their very millennial romance.
The call-outs don’t stop there. On Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have — But I Have It, Del Rey takes back the narrative around her mental health from tabloids and gossips: “They write that I’m happy / They know that I’m not / But at least I can say I’m not sad”. She carefully takes stock of her past in what might just be my favorite few lines from the whole album: “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath / Writing in blood on my walls / ‘Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad”. I don’t think Del Rey gets nearly enough credit for her wry, self-deprecating humor, but here it shines at its brightest.
Del Rey is also fully aware how her melancholy has been sexualized by certain types of men just as it’s been vilified by her critics. In Mariners’ Apartment Complex, she scolds her lover for taking her “sadness out of context”, pointing out that she’s “no candle in the wind”. She asks to be seen for her strong and complex character and then croons the words “I’m your man”, borrowed from Leonard Cohen, as a promise of her guidance and companionship.
The shout-out to Cohen has elicited some criticism because, on the surface, it still seems to associate power (held by Del Rey) with masculinity and the position of being cared for (occupied by the lover) with femininity. However, we shouldn’t forget that Cohen’s original song is literally a power exchange fantasy written from the perspective of a submissive man. Together, the two songs make up a metatextual cake so layered with playful role reversals and negotiations of power that, to me, it’s impossible to say which gender comes out on top (har har har). I see Mariners’ Apartment Complex as painting romance as a reciprocal process where both parties must be willing to both lead and follow.
Maybe this is finally Del Rey’s feminist awakening, or maybe she, in her 30’s and with nearly a decade of pop stardom under her belt, is finally as “fresh out of fucks forever” as she sings in Venice Bitch. She hasn’t given any definitive statements on the issue — we know that Mariners’ Apartment Complex is about a one-time date who got mad when the Depressive Pixie Dream Girl of his dreams turned out just a regular happy girl, but that’s about it — and it probably wouldn’t benefit her career to do that.
Like any great pop icon, Del Rey’s career has always thrived on mystery and a blurring of lines between the artist and her persona (and that’s without getting into the whole Del Rey vs. Ann Powers kerfuffle of 2019, which still doesn’t make sense to me today). She sounds like she, or her character, or the AI that was pretending to be her all along, is finally at peace with herself on Norman Fucking Rockwell!. That’s all us audiences need to know.
When asked in 2017 by Pitchfork about the reasons for the early backlash against her, Del Rey offered this observation: “It’s because there were things I was saying that either [women] just couldn’t connect to or were maybe worried that, if they were in the same situation, it would put them in a vulnerable place”.
But today, all of culture is in a more vulnerable place. We’ve come to face the fragility of the social, political and economic systems we’ve built our individual and collective lives on, a realization that has left especially the younger generations with a common experience of “tearing around in a fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath”. Or, as Stereogum writes in their review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!: “The deluded self-obsessions and secret perversions of the powerful become a little more obvious everyday, and there’s nothing we can fucking do about it. Ocean levels are rising. The Amazon is burning. Lana Del Rey now looks like a pop seer, a prescient analyst of everything wrong.”
On the other hand, the development of open internet and social media have blessed us with the opportunity (and sometimes expectation) to share our thoughts and feelings and to organize around them. From the Me Too movement to US gun control advocacy, contemporary political life and sentiment are uniquely shaped by the ability of the individual experience to spread and become amplified through social media. Even mainstream entertainment, never slow to respond to changing audience demands, has taken to tackling real-world issues with more conviction and accountability than was customary in the painfully centrist 2000’s and early 2010’s.
Del Rey, too, has amped up the social messaging in her music, even if it remains as subtle as you would expect from an artist who says she never had an agenda. Norman Fucking Rockwell! re-asks the question first posed by Lust For Life in 2017: “Is it the end of an era? / Is it the end of America?” It doesn’t provide a systematic analysis of America’s decline — again, it’s a pop album first and foremost — but it hints at a combination of factors from the increasing complexity and disenchantment of modern life to climate change.
Disillusionment with the broken American Dream runs high throughout the album. Mixing the personal and the universal, The Greatest references the climate crisis and the 2017 Californian wildfires, pointing out their role in what Del Rey sees as the Golden State’s decline: “If this is it, I’m signing off / Miss doing nothing, the most of all / Hawaii just missed that fireball / LA is in flames, it’s getting hot”. In the meanwhile, Fuck It I Love You looks at California’s lonely, drugged-up reality behind the neon signs: “California dreamin’, I got my money on my mind / Drugs is in my veins, running out of time”.
I don’t think Del Rey is actually suggesting that life was objectively better or kinder during the hippie era (it wasn’t). As usual, she appears to be more interested in the idea of something than the thing itself; in this case, the idea of a gentler, simpler, more bohemian past. If anything, she seems to be fully aware of the constructed nature of such fantasies: “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” (Fuck It I Love You).
And yet, she isn’t ready to give up the fantasy. In Venice Bitch, she dreams of love in the time of Hallmark and Norman Rockwell, the iconic American painter known for his portrayals of an idealized American past. In California, she wishes for the return of an old lover to America so that they can visit the places they used to, drink the liquor they used to and read old issues of Vogue and Rolling Stone. To her, love is an escape, a way to re-enact what was once lost. She pursues it at once with wild abandon and crystal-clear awareness of the possible futility of the pursuit.
It’s not about right or wrong, but about the survival of the heart and soul. “Norman Fucking Rockwell! is yoga music for the apocalypse”, writes Stereogum, “It’s music for breathing deep, for coming to terms with the idea that we’re all spinning out of control and into unsustainable chaos”.
When it comes to her image, Del Rey has been both an agent and beneficiary of what Snapes calls the “destruction of the female pop role model” over the course of the 2010’s:
[Billie Eilish] and her millennial peers have grown up in a decade in which pop’s good girl/bad girl binary has collapsed into the moral void that once upheld it, resulting in a generation of young female stars savvy to how the expectation to be ‘respectable’ and conform to adult ideas of how a role model for young fans should act – by an industry not known for its moral backbone – is a con.
While peppy Girl Power feminism continues to reign supreme in marketing and corporate PR, pop music has seen the rise of more diverse and complex female voices in the form of Billie Eilish, Grimes, Sia, Lorde, FKA Twigs and Janelle Monaé and others. I would call Beyoncé’s 2016 hit Formation a watershed moment because it marked an established pop role model’s move away from mass-appealing feel-good feminism to politically potent black feminism. Her 2018 collaboration Apeshit with her husband Jay-Z was a beautiful follow-up (unsurprisingly, the two releases received more backlash from conservative America than anything she had done before). Del Rey herself spoke of pop culture’s “major sonic shift” toward more complex themes and sounds already in 2017.
In other areas of pop culture, complex and even unlikable female characters from Annaliese Keating to Harley Quinn to Fleabag to the ladies of Orange Is The New Black are having a full-on moment. Post-Me Too literary phenomena like The New Yorker‘s Cat Person and Lisa Taddeo‘s Three Women have explored the subtlety of women’s desire and consent under the patriarchy. Hell, even Disney almost gave us a gay princess. Though there is always more work to be done, sometimes I can’t believe the difference just a few years have made. (Thus spoke the millennial elder.)
When our deepest fears and wildest fantasies enter the public domain, things that would once scandalize us will acquire new meanings. Norman Fucking Rockwell! won the title of the best album of 2019 from several major music publications not in spite but because of its soft and sentimental beauty laced with an invigorating dose of snark.
The album imagines a world where we can be lovers, not fighters. It knows there’s always danger in trusting another person, especially if that person happens to be a strapping fellow: he might hurt you (Cinnamon Girl) or turn out to be an actual serial killer (Happiness Is A Butterfly). It remains agnostic about the possibility of a happy ending, but at the end of the day, it’s more afraid of not playing than losing.