Lana Del Rey’s American Dream and ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Lana Del Rey performs during her show at the 2017 KROQ Weenie Roast festival in Carson, Calif. via Wikimedia Commons

If the 2010s have been defined by anything, it has been turmoil — changes in both the political climate and the actual climate, social divides that have permanently broken the ground underneath us and economic disparities that only seem to grow. What was once beautiful, or at least seemed that way, is now simply cracking under the pressure. The world of yesterday is only a memory as we hurtle — rather unprepared — towards the future.

Sure, it seems like we’re coming into an age of greater technological modernity, where movies are all green screens and people can spend their days wearing virtual reality goggles. But it’s only a greater age of escapism. We long for the past or a perfect world. If anyone understands our current circumstances, it’s Lana Del Rey. On her new album “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” (2019), the alternative-pop phenomenon makes music fit for an end to a decade spent split between longing for the past and a feeling that the future is bleak.

Del Rey thrives on idealism and the American Dream — or what was the American Dream, anyway. Lana has spent her past albums dissecting those ideals: big hair, suburban neighborhood, 50s Americana, Pepsi-Cola and ill-fated love with older men. She has spent time hopelessly in sorrow, singing softly over the sound of cicadas. She has celebrated empty beauty queen personalities, something that feels ripe in the age of social media. She has made pop that’s full of political purpose. But it’s on “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” (2019) that Del Rey dives deeper into the past. It is the place she, and perhaps the world, is most comfortable.

On the title track, Del Rey doesn’t seem all too thrilled with the man she’s with. He’s a man-child, but he’s good in bed. She lists the cons, describing a man who thinks he’s far more important, deep and philosophical than he actually is. Regardless of it all, Del Rey accepts it — “Cause you’re just a man/it’s just what you do. For all the times Del Rey has seen the ugly in a man, she is simply too comfortable to leave. She wants it to work out too badly to let it go. Perhaps it’s the desire for love, but it’s definitely settling for something that’s not as good as it could be. “Why wait for the best when I could have you?” she asks.

On “Venice Bitch,” we take a long drive on the coast, the air warm and inviting. There are multitudes to this spacey rock song, a feeling that all Del Rey wants is an escape. Maybe this nine-and-a-half-minute song is her version of that. As it reaches a chaotic culmination of electric guitars, there’s a feeling that maybe a drive with the top down and the sun shining bright is just the dream that people want right now. It’s like white noise, something to tune out the burning world around us.

It’s neither an exaggeration nor album-release euphoria to say that Lana Del Rey is music’s best songwriter right now. Her lyrics are thick and layered. On “Cinnamon Girl,” Del Rey is desperate for love that’s beyond the present — a love that’s forever. She has been hurt — “Hold me, love me, touch me … be the first who ever did” — and she’s practically begging for something that’s too perfect to exist. Well, too perfect to exist in our world. But in the past? In the world of our minds and in the places we go to escape our reality? Maybe not.

On other tracks like “California” and “The greatest,” there’s longing for the past and then an acceptance that it’s gone, followed by hope it will return. She sings about wanting someone — a lover, a friend, maybe the country’s lost hope — to return to America, and if they do, she’ll throw a party and take them to all the old places. It’s reminiscent of the good old times. But hope is fickle; on the track “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it,Del Rey softly describes the bleakness of living between hope and despair.

Sonically, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” exists somewhere between “Ultraviolence” (2014) and “Honeymoon” (2015) with a sprinkle of “Born to Die” (2012). It’s desert rock with some electric guitars, but there are plenty of cinematic moments — the opening of the title track vaguely recalls “Honeymoon,” but this time, the sound isn’t so eerie and lovely. The honeymoon has ended, and Del Rey wants it back. Moments of swelling sound very nearly burst, like the ending of “Cinnamon Girl.” Rather than continuing into the pop realm of “Lust for Life” (2017), she seems to take a hard right toward the dreamy alternative that made her famous.

Her longing for the lost American Dream made Del Rey famous, too. This longing is most evident in this recent work, where Del Rey invokes Norman Rockwell’s artistic reflections of American culture. It’s about escapism, a departure to a world of clean beaches and classic hairstyles. Del Rey escapes there often, but this time, she brings us. And sure, it’s not a complete American Dream, but she’s willing to pretend it’s all there. There’s a desperation to do so — on “Venice Bitch,” she softly requests “One dream, one life, one lover.” And while the world burns and chaos reigns, the past — shown through a grainy VSCO filter with hazy cigarette smoke—is welcoming and peaceful. It’s a desperation to make everything — the imperfect situations and uninviting lovers — perfect again. “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” searches for that perfection and finds it in all the right places.


Summary

With Lana Del Rey's latest release, the world burns outside our windows, but inside our bedroom, we escape to somewhere we make perfect.

5 stars
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