'norman fucking rockwell!' is lana del rey's portrait of a fractured america

We dissect her fifth album, out today.

by Alim Kheraj
|
30 August 2019, 5:25pm

No other artist in the last decade has so fully embedded their work with the concept of America more than Lana Del Rey. Her palate for Americana was, initially, kitchy; fetishised archetypal American iconography presented through an Instagram filter: the femme fatale, faded Hollywood glamour, sweaty and sexed up bikers, troubled artists with a propensity for danger, freedom, denim and automobiles, all draped with a star-spangled banner. This was the America of fiction -- beautiful and fatalistic and full of opportunities to be squandered. And at its heart was Lana Del Rey, a character that amalgamated it all, a person of pure fantasy.

That fantasy cracked on her last album, 2017’s Lust For Life. While there were winks here (in a promo video she joked about living inside the “H” of the Hollywood sign and there was a song unironically titled “White Mustang”), the curated veneer of America that Lana projected fell away. “Coachella (Woodstock In My Mind)”, “God Bless America And All the Beautiful Women In It” and “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” had agency; protest songs that felt like urgent commentary on the state of her beloved nation, despite their nostalgic sonic makeup. Similarly, the cloak of melancholia that shrouded albums like 2014’s Ultraviolence and it’s sequel Honeymoon, was shrugged off. “Finally, I'm crossing the threshold,” she sang on “Get Free”. “From the ordinary world / To the reveal of my heart.”

But put in context of Lana’s new album, the ironically titled Norman Fucking Rockwell, that migration “out of the black” and “into the blue” that she repeatedly willed on “Get Free” doesn’t seem fully realised. Instead, America got in the way and, by the sounds of it, the allure is beginning to fade.

Take, first, the album’s title. Norman Rockwell, an author, painter and illustrator most known for his idyllic scenes of American life (Boy Scouts, Thanksgiving dinners, blue collar workers) has had his name crudely interrupted. It feels more like something out of exasperation than anything else, an expletive to highlight how much America has shifted, as if the name has been taken out of context -- “This country isn’t a Norman fucking Rockwell painting,” she seems to be saying.

The record’s opening line, the killer “Goddamn manchild / You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you,” feels less directed at a singular individual, more the United States itself. The American Dream, now bastardised under the Trump administration, has become a perilous method of seduction.

Lyrically, Lana’s music has always been fatalistic. But Norman Fucking Rockwell’s resignation is less moon-eyed and subservient than before. On “Fuck It I love You”, she’s almost reckless with it, her suffering flowing into hedonism. Here fuckwittery is no longer a barrier as she begs for the affection of a lover, any concept of escaping the the pitfalls of bad men and poor politics now mute: “It turns out everywhere you go,” she sings, “you take yourself, that’s not a lie.” Even the saccharinely titled “Love Song” doesn’t permit itself tawdry romance. Instead, Lana is “a mess”, a man’s lover only when she’s hidden away in his car. It brings to mind her cover of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman” as she sings, “Would like to think that you would stick around”.

The vision of a good man vanishes entirely on “Cinnamon Girl” and “Happiness is a Butterfly”. On the former, while Lana finds herself inevitably sucked (or gaslit) into toxicity, she wishes for a man to “hold [her] without hurting me”, before sighing, “Hold me, love me, touch me, honey”. The latter, meanwhile, sees her accepting her fate of a life in pain. Still, though, she just wants to dance with a man: “If he's a serial killer then what's the worst that could happen to a girl who's already hurt?”

Nihilism comes with a sardonic laugh on the Bowie-esque “The greatest”. The America of Lana past has vanished, as she laments the loss of Long Beach, the Beach Boys, rock ’n’ roll and New York. “The culture is lit and if this is it / I had a ball,” she sings before signing off. “L.A. is in flames‚ it's getting hot / Kanye West is blonde and gone / ’Life on Mars’ ain't just a song.”

Unlike Lust for Life, and even her own posts on social media, Norman Fucking Rockwell rarely veers into political commentary dressed up as pop. In fact, it’s more like one of its namesakes paintings, a portrait of what it feels like to living in America today. The production is dirgy and sparse, as though it was filtered through a ghost town, which gives the album a feeling of timelessness that rides close to apocalyptic. Likewise, the love songs -- if you can call them that -- feel more like cautionary tales about the frightening implications of four more years of a Trump presidency and the continued reign of predatory masculinity.

Nevertheless, if the thrust of Norman Fucking Rockwell! is heavy and defeated, its storm clouds do part for a glimmer of respite. And it’s not thanks to the men in her life that this recess occurs, but instead in the cementation of self. “I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus / Can't a girl just do the best she can?” Lana asks on the sunlit “Mariner’s Apartment Complex”, before asserting herself more fully with the statement: “I’m your man”.

Still, as she worries on the album’s closer, “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman to have”, and in among the chaos, this solidification of self is precarious, easily tipped or diminished. As she says at the album's close, she does have hope, but this feels like a hope born from the death of the past; of an America that has lost it’s stars and stripes. The question is, as she puts it on “Mariner’s Apartment Complex”: are you ready for it?