Music

Lana Del Rey and the Gaslighting of American Culture

The singer has defied critics and graduated summa cum laude from the pop pantheon into the hall of legends. Her latest album proves she deserves the respect of legends like Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

Lana Del Rey (photo by Harmony Gerber/Flickr)

Who has Elizabeth Grant become in the near-decade since rechristening herself as the singer Lana Del Rey? Internet phenomenon turned Saturday Night Live laughing stock, her sustained popularity has perplexed those who would prefer to see brilliant women fail. She has defied critics and graduated summa cum laude from the pop pantheon into the hall of legends; based on her new album, she deserves comparison to the heavyweights of American mythology like Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway and Bob Dylan, Silvia Plath and Carole King.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! slaps in all the right places. Del Rey’s latest album is a culmination of the artist’s last four records, a singularity that allows her various personae to converge into higher form. A Lolita wannabe, a saturnine seductress, a beach bum, an Americana poet, an avatar of angst — Del Rey amalgamates these versions of herself into a higher form, becoming one of Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon.

In 2012, Del Rey’s debut album, Born to Die, delivered a complex satire of American neediness far ahead of its time, which combined babylike vocals with crushing instrumentals and lyrics rife with literary references to everything from Walt Whitman to Vladimir Nabokov. The net effect was like listening to a toddler recite passages from The Bell Jar: mesmerizing and depressing. Over the years, Del Rey has introduced more of her own voice, which is naturally lower and velvety — something like a counterpart to Johnny Cash’s gravely bass. In albums like Ultraviolence (2014) and Honeymoon (2015), she toyed with the concept of a torch song, producing subversive anti-anthems about romance’s entanglement with death. Lust for Life (2017) extended these motifs into an exploration of patriotism. That same year, Del Rey stopped performing in front of the American flag, viewing it as “inappropriate” for the Trump era. She changed her backdrop to a screen of static instead, a multifaceted commentary on the “white noise” of American politics and the dissociative phenomenon of living in the world’s wealthiest country, which also happens to jail children.

Del Rey’s most recent album, produced by Jack Antonoff, takes its name from one of America’s greatest propagandists, Norman Rockwell, who spent 50 years advocating presidential policies from his pulpit as an illustrator for the weekly Saturday Evening Post. Although his paintings became monolithic postwar signifiers of what the American Dream should look like, it’s important to recognize that Rockwell also advocated for progressive ideals like social welfare and civil rights. But subsequent generations of artist have not been particularly kind to the artist, parodying his work as a critique of an America that never quite lived up to the dream it was selling. The fucking between Norman and Rockwell is a symbol of Del Rey wedging herself into that lineage. And instead of adopting one of the artist’s paintings for her album cover, she references Roy Lichtenstein’s work. Del Rey poses on a boat with one hand around Duke Nicholson (grandson of the actor Jack Nicholson) and the other outstretched to the viewer. An American flag waves in the background just below the initials NFR!, which are illustrated inside a comic book action bubble.

The mixing of artistic references is confusing if also apropos for the album. Lichtenstein was Rockwell’s contemporary, and he often painted damsels in distress — some in the midst of drowning beneath the ocean waves. Likewise, Del Rey’s music indulges in melodramatic archetypes of women by amplifying concepts of femininity and futility to the point of high camp. “Fuck it I love you,” exemplifies the form, spilling into a delirious chorus of expletive-riddled adorations after imploring listeners to “dream a little dream of me, make me into something sweet.”

Here, Del Rey also manages to balance delirium with an eloquent critique of romance. “The poetry inside of me is warm like a gun,” she sings on the ambitious “Bartender” track, referencing The Beatles. “But that cherry coke you serve is fine, and our love’s sweet enough on the vine.” Elsewhere, she’s gloriously despondent. “Fresh out of fucks forever,” she sings on the prodigious “Venice Bitch” song. “Ice cream, ice queen, I dream in jeans and leather.”

Del Rey’s lyrics combine narratorial precision with a masterful turn-of-phrase comparable to that of country singer Kacey Musgraves. “You took my sadness out of context at the mariner’s apartment complex,” she sings on the album’s second track, “I ain’t no candle in the wind.”

She is rejecting more than the male gaze; she is refuting the myth of male exceptionalism. “God damn, man child,” she asserts on the album’s eponymous first song. “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news.” “You act like a kid even though you stand six-foot-two,” she later remarks, “You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you.”

When Born to Die debuted seven years ago, Lana del Rey refined the vainglorious qualities of American culture into music. She appeared on that album’s cover looking like the California cousin of a vampire from True Blood: powerful, seductive, cruel. The music followed suit. By comparison, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is entirely human and painful in its complex depictions of romantic fatigue and emotional gaslighting. The new album ends with the song “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it” wherein Del Rey calls herself a “modern-day woman with a weak constitution” witnessing “a new revolution” that’s “born of confusion and quiet collusion.” But by the end of the song, she breaks through the refrain, whispering in falsetto: “I have it, I have.” And yes, she does.

comments (0)