Essays

Lana Del Rey Will Never Change, and That's Why She's the Greatest

On 'Norman Fucking Rockwell' she eases in, stretches out and continues to fill the artistic space she created for herself on 'Born to Die'.

by Duncan Cooper
31 August 2019, 12:00pm

Joseph Okpako/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

When Lana Del Rey opens her sixth studio album with "Goddamn, man-child," she calls back, reassuringly, to her first record: "Go play your video games." She projects the same self-confidence, a wise mix of caution and open-mindedness—and feeling familiar is a big source of her project's power. Because Lana, over time, hasn’t really changed. She was right all along.

On Norman Fucking Rockwell, she eases in, stretches out, and continues to fill the artistic space she created for herself on Born to Die. A ground-shifting debut, her first album relocated Cat Power’s arch attitude and indie-rock-with-samples approach to major-label pop. Though rarely successful on the radio, her distinctive music has acted, more powerfully, as a blanketing atmosphere—summertime plus sadness—anticipating the mood-based playlisting of the streaming era. Here, the overall vibe is swooning yet lonely, with ambling piano songs that allude to depressed American poets, living and dead, and a sprawled Laurel Canyon surf-folk that’s beachy with a fog, so all the sounds swim. On the spectrum of her career, between elements of rap and rock, let’s just say there's only one song with a drum machine.

But that opening title track, a swooning love song about a "man-child," offers more than a sideways opportunity to point out Lana's uniquely enduring influence. The song and its sentiment are also, in a Joni Mitchell sort of way, deeply romantic, exemplary of her whole project. "Why wait for the best," she sings later on the song, "when I could have you?" For an artist often associated with fantasy, how precisely Lana Del Rey understands real life! What is good has flaws.

Five years ago, I did a FADER cover story around her second album, Ultraviolence—an important reference point because, like Norman Fucking Rockwell, it was produced by a (male) rock veteran whose big-solo-loving musicianship complimented Lana's vision but in no way skewed her general project, because that’s impossible. At the time, I asked her what she thought of ostensible feminist criticisms of her music, and she responded, famously, that she was more interested in space travel. Many saw her dismissal as grounds for derision, but I now believe she knew what she was doing. She gives herself the freedom to be herself, and doggedly. As a result, almost nothing she’s done has ever felt forced.

She’s covered Nina Simone twice and now just did… Sublime. That’s iconic. There are 900 reasons someone big should have done a Sublime cover this year, but it feels like the only reason Lana did one is that she felt like it. At the same time, there’s heft. A critic might easily read something transgressive into the fact that she’s redoing a track which, in our nostalgic memories, is sunny and blissful yet, as she underscores simply by singing it, contains a fantasy of domestic violence: "She’s evil… I'd like to hold her head underwater." But what’s great about Lana’s music is, whether you’re "reading" it or just listening, it's undeniably good.

Does anyone really believe that’s the case on Taylor Swift’s new album, when Taylor sings, "If I was a man, I would be the man." God, let's hope not. Taylor is, perhaps, an exemplary CEO, but she pales as an artist: it's hard to imagine her summoning the combined mania and conviction that it takes to pull off so simple a self-reflexive line as "Can’t a girl just do the best she can?" as Lana does on "Mariners Apartment Complex." Consider another comparison. As someone rightly pointed out, Taylor decided to choose this particular moment to cast a Black love interest in her new music video—coincidentally, at just the same time that Katy Perry cast a Black love interest for her new music video. Now, remember Lana, those many years ago, portraying Jackie O aside A$AP Rocky’s President Kennedy? That was really only mildly bold, but it’s powerful when you connect it to 2019 and her recent clip for "Fuck It I Love You," where she’s with the most beefcakeingest white bodybuilder, like Mr. Universe 1952. When you do things that nobody asks for, you can just do things.

It’s by passing through romance that Lana finds America, always her secondary love interest. Enough has been written about this subject that I will just say a few things. First, note this key difference between Lana and lesser acts: she critiques the problems of America by participating in its iconography (imagine the stars and stripes on anybody else’s album cover right now); others participate in problematizing America. "You're beautiful and I’m insane/ We're American-made," she sings on "Venice Bitch." Sounds about right; again, what is good has flaws! Second, whose sound, more deftly than Lana’s, has ushered us from second-term Obama into the collapse era of Trump? "Maybe I'd get less stressed if I was tested less," she sings, and isn’t that just where we live now?

I keep getting suggested this video on YouTube, thumbnailed with a picture of a straight-faced Billie Eilish, called "The Death of Melody." The algorithm is eating its young. And they wouldn’t be there without Lana: it's hard to imagine an Eilish, a Lorde, or a Halsey, without her first. “Death of Melody” might describe her acolytes, but it’s surely not high-flying Lana, always on the verge of scatting, our great Norah Jones with cusses. Lana’s the one who sings that she’s "obsessed with writing the next best American record,” and she has the relentless consistency and necessary frames of reference—she starts that song with a reference to Led Zeppelin, of all people—to pull it off. Maybe this album is already it.

In a recent New York Times interview, Lana remembered celebrating Obama’s election in Union Square, then, in great contrast, reflected on this summer’s mass shootings and fires in the Amazon: "Wow, this is not just a passing phase," she said. "There’s something extremely wrong." Apocalypse always hangs in the background her songs—“The culture is lit, and if this is it‚ I had a ball,” she sings on “The Greatest”—but did you ever notice, Lana never panics? Instead, she sings about love, and about everything, "Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman to have, but I have it." Maybe going to church really helps—or maybe, in the endurance of the church through history, there is an echo of Lana Del Rey.