The often criticized and misunderstood songwriter proves her greatness with one of the most incredible pop releases in recent memory.
Mirabella Miller ’23
Sept. 26, Vol. XXIX, Issue 1
Like the artist who serves as the namesake of her album “Norman F-cking Rockwell!” Lana Del Rey specializes in creating idyllic portraits of American life. She describes and dissects elements of it that most of us cannot quite put a finger on, drawing on themes of money, power, excess, glory, loss, freedom, transformation, and idealism to illustrate her songs. Simultaneously, she reflects an America in flux, ditching the blue-jeans-and-Springsteen representations of patriotism that characterized her earlier work for aching ballads inspired by gun violence tragedies and raging California wildfires, and no longer performs in front of the American flag, calling it “inappropriate.”
“Norman F-cking Rockwell!” (NFR) is a slight departure from her other work, yet feels monumentally stride hitting. She leaves the trap-pop and feature-heavy experimental feel of her previous album behind, trading it for stunning, stripped down folk songs with minimalist piano backdrops by acclaimed pop producer Jack Antonoff. This simplicity allows her famously wavering voice to shine brighter than it ever has, and brings the listener’s focus to the awe-inspiring poetry of her lyrics.
Del Rey almost didn’t make it this far. Trapped by her early persona as the internet’s quintessential sad girl singer, she was confined to a relatively small pool of themes and emotions to work with. Following a shaky introduction to mainstream audiences via Saturday Night Live performance in 2012, critics took aim, calling her a blip on the radar of bedroom pop. Nothing special.
Seven years later, Pitchfork described her as one of America’s greatest living songwriters. “Mariner’s Apartment Complex”, the second track on the album, opens with lines that seem to respond to a romantic partner, but could also apply to her critics. “You took my sadness out of context, at the Mariner’s Apartment Complex / I ain’t no candle in the wind.” Del Rey contends that criticism by people who fundamentally misunderstand her will not put out her flame, portraying an unflappable artist secure in herself and her talent.
“The Greatest”, which comes later in the album, concludes on a cathartic and resigned note. “If this is it, I’m signing off / Miss doing nothing, the most of all / Hawaii just missed that fireball / L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone / “Life on Mars” ain’t just a song / Oh, the live stream’s almost on.” In this final verse of musings, she captures the apathy often embodied by our generation. However, resignation and acceptance are not always equivalent, and Del Rey also identifies spaces where societal change should happen and is happening in addition to mourning cultural change and loss.
An example of an area with the potential for societal change highlighted by Del Rey are gendered expectations in hetrosexual relationships. The lyrics that open the entire album are “God damn, man child”, delivered with a bit of an exasperated sigh. It is not hard to picture Del Rey shaking her head slightly in the studio while delivering this line. This bridges to the chorus, where she sings “You’re just a man, it’s just what you do / Your head in your hands as you color me blue.” Though loving someone and simultaneously being exasperated by them is not a gendered experience, these lines echo and affirm the experiences of many women in heterosexual relationships who have spent too much precious time catering to men who, for whatever reason, lack the emotional tools to navigate their lives themselves.
Del Rey never needed acceptance from critics or mainstream audiences, but as a longtime fan of hers, watching this woman who has done so much for pop finally receive credit for her talent and influence is gratifying. In many ways, her earlier work laid the foundation for younger artists like Billie Eilish, Clairo, and Lorde, as she occupies the “cool aunt” role for a new generation of female pop stars.
Because Del Rey is a complex and unpredictable figure, her next album could very well be even more spectacular than “NFR.” Despite this uncertainty, this album is an immense feat within itself, powerful in its own right. Throwing around the title of “magnum opus” when Del Rey is seemingly still in the midst of her career may be premature, but I’d put money on “NFR” being hers.
Image Credit: Lana Del Rey