America Is Doomed / Music

We’ll Have A Party, We’ll Dance Till Dawn: Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” Escapes America

“I was one thing, now I’m being another,” sings Our Lady of the Beaches, Driving Fast and Ruined Peaches Lana Del Rey in the song “Happiness is a butterfly,” off of her new blessed album Norman Fucking Rockwell!. And indeed, Lana is being another. Though certainly not a complete transition away from the rest of her dreamy, moody and melancholy oeuvre, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is nonetheless a departure.

Literally. Just look at the cover of the album, which was produced with Jack Antonoff. In contrast to her four previous album covers (not counting the Paradise E.P., which features the singer around an azure swimming pool as if she was disrupting a Hockney painting) that present Lana solo in front of or in a car, she is sailing away. She’s getting the hell out from the coast of Los Angeles, which is on fire. She’s also no longer alone, joined by Hollywood heir Duke Nicholson (grandson of Jack), and reaches out to the viewer, extending a neon green-nailed hand as if she’s going to rescue us. Take me with you, Lana!

With this image, like many of her album covers, Lana gives a glimpse at the themes explored in the music–namely, that she’s escaping America, whose imaginary she has mined throughout her career. Sure, there’s a flag on her boat, hung more as a remnant of the past, but the America depicted on the cover is done for. “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” asks Lana in her song “When The World Was At War, We Kept Dancing” on her previous album Lust for Life. And though she asserted it wasn’t the end then, seeming to twirl as America caught fire, by NFR, America has now burned down to nothing. Instead of digging through the wreckage, Lana flees from its shores, and grants us momentary transport too.

On her previous albums, Lana inhabited what I like to call Lana Americana–blue jeans, white shirts, biker daddies with snake tattoos, bad girls–that harkened back to an era and a country that never really existed. While Lana’s music has always sounded like the soundtrack to national collapse, NFR appears at a time when it’s already happened, allowing Lana to abandon patriotic romanticism for pure escapism, encouraging the audience to drop out, tune in, visit awful Long Beach dive bars, and lose ourselves.

Ironically, though, it seems as if Lana waved goodbye to our demolished country right as critics finally understood her damaged, danger-loving, and self-destructive take on the American dream, or its nightmarish counterpart. During the Obama years, critics were baffled by Lana’s depiction of the American dream as a dark paradise. I guess it’s easier to understand that we’re all born to die under the Trump presidency. Yet, none of the disappointment and sadness inherent in Lana’s music was ushered in by one psychotic president.

Admittedly, critics have always misunderstood Lana, skewering her misogynistically at the beginning of her career and complaining about “constructed image,” as if pop is known for its authenticity. Now, with NFR, critics have apparently collectively decided to give in and accept Lana as the queen she is. I mean, even notoriously snooty Pitchfork gave the album a 9.4 rating and called her “the next best American songwriter, period.” But, this praise doesn’t mean they’re getting it any more right than before. Many of the reviews are riddled with backhanded compliments as critics tie themselves in knots to compliment this new album, while continuing to stand by their earlier boneheaded criticism, even though NFR presents a direct progression and maturing of Lana’s aesthetic and sound. It’s different, just not that different. Most laughably, Hyperallergic’s Zachary Small even labels Lana’s femininity as “high camp,” while comparing her deeper register to…Johnny Cash. As Lana says in “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have–but I have it,” “And there’s no more to say about that.”

But what seems the most glaring in terms of critics’ continued bungling of Lana analysis is that this album is somehow still taking the temperature of the country with publications like The Atlantic labeling the album an “obituary for America.” I mean, imagine the pressure of having to pinpoint the state of America with each subsequent album! That makes me exhausted. In Ann Powers’s NPR essay “Lana Del Rey Lives in America’s Messy Subconscious,” which drew ire from Lana herself over Twitter (I don’t care how much of a trailblazer Ann is, lady needed an editor. It opens, “The trash on the Venice boardwalk sparkles like Wet n Wild lipgloss.” What?), she also contextualizes NFR in terms of the state of the union and Lana’s continued belief in democracy. Powers explains that NFR and by extension, Lana “still extends some hope that, with the proper perspective, its [America’s] best qualities – its beauty, its small-d democratic impulses – can be redeemed.”

Of course, part of the problem is the subtle slight of hand that is the album’s title. With a title like Norman Fucking Rockwell!, it would appear as if the music would further ground itself within the American imagination, referencing the sentimental images of Rockwell’s 20th century American exceptionalism. But, it’s a diversion. While Lana may still believe in the country America used to be and the freedom of the open road, she’s now firmly planted herself and her songwriting closer to reality than an Elvis, Jesus and Marilyn Monroe-driven American fantasy. Norman Fucking Rockwell! could also be understood as a near sarcastic exclamation, as if the romance, decadence, and escapism on the record was its own saccharine and idyllic work of art.

Who smells Pepsi?

This is not to say NFR abandons all the typical tenants of a Lana album. Fast cars. Party dresses. Pills (violet, blue, green, red). Beaches. References to soft drinks. Like previously, she slips in copious coy references to other songs and poems, from “candle in the wind” in “Mariners Apartment Complex” to “crimson and clover” on “Venice Bitch” to “dream a little dream of me” on “Fuck It I Love You.” She pairs these vintage references with, at times, shockingly contemporary phrases like “The culture is lit” or “I’ll catch you on the flipside,” making her songs occupy an in-between space of the past and the present. Much of these references are also California-centric–Laurel Canyon, The Eagles, and “California dreaming,” Los Angeles looms large, but not as David Lynch’s noir Los Angeles whose films have always been closely aligned with Lana’s sonic landscape. The Los Angeles of NFR is instead surfing and Sublime.

She also cites her own lyric-writing. She at times even refers to poets that appeared in her other songs like the Robert Frost quote, “Nothing gold can stay,” which was also included in her “Music To Watch Boys To” on 2015’s Honeymoon. “Topanga’s hot tonight” she croons on both NFR’s “The Next Best American Record” and Lust for Life’s “Heroin.” Other lyrics hauntingly echo older songs. For instance, “It’s you–all the roads lead to you” on “The Next Best American Record” recalls the eponymous “It’s you. It’s you. It’s all for you” of “Video Games.” The effect of these repetitions across her body of work is strange, as if her songs could loop back on one another endlessly.

However, NFR differs in its departure from a focus on America to momentary escape. The music supports the transportive elements in the songwriting–a swelling, soaring, sweeping soundscape of relaxed slacker guitars and dramatic cinematic interludes. The musical arrangements are intoxicating and sometimes maddeningly the same tempo, which works to nearly mesmerize listeners, taking them to another place. For example, “Venice Bitch” has made me zone out so completely that I’ve nearly life-threateningly walked through construction sites. Whoops.

Lana’s music has always been strangely nostalgic, yearning for a time and place that are not just unreachable, but perhaps non-existent. Many critics have referenced the 1970s in trying to find a reasonable comparison to the sounds of NFR, but I don’t see that. There is a folk influence undoubtedly, particularly in the songwriting, but the actual music is both familiar and foreign. Take, for example, the waltz-like, jingle-bell-filled “How To Disappear,” which narrates a litany of toxic men fighting and chugging another beer through a melody that sounds as if it was broadcast from another era. But, what era? It’s clearly some 20th century schmaltz, but not readily identifiable. It’s an uncanny call from the past that is reminiscent of the eerie looped “Slow 30’s Room” by Dean Hurley and David Lynch that appeared both in Twin Peaks: The Return and Lynch’s ethereal album The Air Is On Fire.

But, the nostalgia inherent in the music isn’t coupled with her same longing for America. Instead, Lana’s lyrics are increasingly confessional and personal, though just as full of ominousness. This switch didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, it follows the progression of her previous album Lust for Life, which saw the singer, who previously seemed to inhabit her own little world, turning outwards with numerous collaborations with musicians like Stevie Nicks and A$AP Rocky. Poetically, too, Lana became more vulnerable in her songwriting, particularly in the last two tracks “Change” and “Get Free.” In “Get Free,” Lana expressed, “I never really noticed that I had to decide to play someone’s game or live my own life and now I do. I want to move out of the black and into the blue.”

NFR is Lana in her blue. It’s no mistake the title track has Lana repeating blue over and over in her love song to a “goddamn man-child.” Clearly, Lana hasn’t moved from her ongoing themes of doomed romances, or distant and faint memories of past lovers. But, even romance as observed in the song “Norman fucking Rockwell” makes a slight shift. Rather than falling completely for a bad man so much so that she compares him to a “cult leader” in her song “Ultraviolence,” Lana is aware this dude “acts like a kid” even at 6’2”. But she’s settled anyway. “Why wait for the best when I could have you?” Lana asks.

Like that line, there’s a new awareness in NFR of herself and others that is coupled with an exhausted settling about the realities of right now, both in terms of love and country. In “The greatest,” she knows she’s wasted, and “burned out after all.” She also admits in “Venice Bitch,” she’s “fresh out of fucks forever.” It’s an acceptance of the imperfections of people as society crumbles, as well as finding various ways to escape. I mean, what can you do when your country isn’t just doomed, but dead? Party. Dance. Buy a truck in the middle of the night to go drink Cherry Coke with your bar-t-t-tender. Get high now because we’re older.

Partying and dancing are the primary forms of escapism that Lana seems to be consistently, if not somewhat menacingly, suggesting. Count me in! As she suggests to a former lover in “California”: “We’ll have a party, we’ll dance ’til dawn,” and later, “I’ll throw a party all night long.” Similarly in the subsequent “The Next Best American Record,” she implores, “Whatever’s on tonight, I just wanna party with you.”

And this escapism is all done with the dissolution of the country in the background. However, it’s not central to the songs. The disaster is there, but it isn’t foregrounded as it was before. For instance, in “The greatest,” Lana sings about Hawaii missing a fireball, LA in flames, Kanye West being “blonde and gone,” and “Life on Mars ain’t just a song.” But, rather than fixating on these American issues as she may have in the past, Lana is just waiting for the live stream, and twirling around industrial sites. She’s got hope, even though she knows she shouldn’t.

Ultimately, what she’s both desiring and building on NFR is an escape to a place of safety, whether partying, dancing, in the arms of a lover or just simply on a record. As she says in “Love Song,” “Is it safe, is it safe to just be who we are?” Similarly, she begins “California” with the line, “You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are when you’re lying in my arms, baby,” and repeats in the mesmerizing “Cinnamon Girl,” “If you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first that ever did.”

And she’s offering this safety to us too. “You lose your way, just take my hand. You’re lost at sea then I’ll command your boat to me again,” she calls to us on “Mariners Apartment Complex.” Okay! I just want to dance with you too, Lana.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s