Culture

The Revolutionary Pleasure of Lana Del Rey

'Norman Fucking Rockwell' is a masterpiece from an artist whose greatest gift to her listeners is the total submission of thought to feeling.

by Emma Garland
02 September 2019, 9:09am

Screenshot: "Fuck It I Love You / The Greatest", via YouTube

Lana Del Rey's currency has always been escapism. Creating worlds from a cocktail of fatalism, romance and nostalgia, every album – and every aesthetic overhaul that has come with it – has been an immersive experience guided by a character of her choosing, from the moody "gangster Nancy Sinatra" of her formative years to the flower child on the cover of 2017’s Lust for Life, pictured smiling in front of a pick-up truck like the last shot of someone's daughter before she ran off to join a cult. With that sense of escape, though – unmoored as Lana's albums have often felt from their times of release – came a critical insistence on trying to ground her in reality.

Norman Fucking Rockwell provides the clearest line of communication to date in as much as it contains hope and reason tethered, however loosely, to a socio-political climate desperately seeking both. "The Greatest" and "Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it" in particular are full of allusions to recent cultural changes. But Lana Del Rey isn't an artist who deals in grand, definitive statements. Rather, an artist whose music is driven almost entirely by pleasure.

Sun, sea, food, drink, physical intimacy – all of these things have become staples in Lana Del Rey's lyrical repertoire, serving as sensory touchstones for things greater than themselves. Even bad relationships are rarely spoken of in terms of regret. It’s not that she ignores pain or sadness – or romanticises them, as she's been accused of in the past – but she does luxuriate in fleeting moments of bliss. As an approach it isn’t particularly remarkable, but is completely antithetical to the present world, which has never been more defined by pain and suffering. Given her propensity to do whatever she wants, it isn't surprising that, in 2019 – when everyone is constantly furious and artists like Lizzo and Billie Eilish have ushered pop into an experimental new frontier – Lana Del Rey would release an album comprised almost entirely of gorgeous piano ballads, as well as a psychedelic cover of Sublime's 1996 hit "Doin' Time".

Lana Del Rey has always been tricky to pin down as a narrator because she often performs inside a vortex of reference points. The identity of each of her albums is created by cherry-picking material cues (beaches, peaches, cars, guns, wine) and cultural icons (James Dean, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, Iggy Pop) and arranging them into a mood board; the specific combinations often alluding to emotions and states of mind more emphatically than if they were spoken about directly. The rock-and-roll legacy of the late-60s looms large over Norman Fucking Rockwell, with its references to John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dennis Wilson and Tommy James and the Shondells. But their collective presence is an act of world building more than anything else, contributing in some small way to the album's expansive, luxurious, classic rock-inspired slow jams.

Most of the songs are built upon simple chord progressions, then padded out by fuzzy electronica and sweeping orchestration. Jack Antonoff's production is so lush and so clear you can practically feel the furniture in the room – the dark wood, shag pile rugs, leather sofas, wine glasses with a splash of red left drying at the bottom. The intimacy is such that you get the feeling that Lana is playing to no one here. Like she's stepping up to the piano at an afterparty once everyone has fallen asleep, or performing a series of closing time ballads to a thin crowd at some dead cabaret bar.

Songs about infatuation are often wrapped up in imagery of fast cars and backseats, anchoring emotion to something more tactile ("Love Song"), while songs about unsatisfying relationships are wrapped up in the abstract, with sadness arriving in the form of colour ("Norman Fucking Rockwell"). "California" reaches out to a struggling friend by conjuring a big party full of all of their favourite indulgences ("I'll pick up all of your Vogues, all of your Rolling Stones, your favourite liquor off the top shelf"), while "Bartender" presents indulgences associated with the social lives of the rich – wine, Bacardi, black dresses to house parties and white to tea parties – as trappings, spoiled somehow by their ties to formality. In Lana's world, pleasure also rubs up alongside longing – usually for stability when pleasure feels fleeting, and for escape when it becomes too commanding.

It's impossible not to fall down multiple wormholes offered up by the references on just one song of any Lana album. On Norman Fucking Rockwell, for example, "Bartender" references Ladies of the Canyon – a true story of women who, in pursuit of a life beyond Victorian high society, left the safety of their well-to-do lives and ran off to the American Southwest. The title "How to disappear" is cribbed from Doug Richmond's 1986 book How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found ­– a "how-to" guide on starting a new identity, which advocates assuming the identity of a dead person as the most reliable route to success.

You could spend ages trying to decide which references are purely aesthetic and which point to something greater – and Lana knows that. She has always worn her influences on her sleeve in her music while being vague about her intentions. In a radio interview from 2014 she described Ultraviolence as "atmospheric", with "more of a general vibe going on" than a running theme. When asked if the lighter, more optimistic Lust For Life was a way of saying that she wanted to be happy, the spirit of Penny Lane jumped out in her reply: "No. It’s just that something is happening." Most recently, she described Norman Fucking Rockwell as "a mood album".

This has, in the past, led to dismissal and over-mystification. The beginning of her career was dominated by a preoccupation with her "authenticity", which seemed to be up for debate because she previously failed to take off under her own name, Lizzy Grant, joked about dying young in interviews and possibly had some nose jobs. Her very presence in the cultural landscape of the early-mid 2010s was antagonistic. At a time when women in pop were playful, vigorous and futuristic (see: "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen, "Starships" by Nicki Minaj, "Oblivion" by Grimes), Lana was tragic, languid and retrospective. At a time when publications craved earnest, cookie cutter quotes about feminism, Lana Del Rey said, "I have slept with a lot of guys in the industry, but none of them helped me get my record deal. Which is annoying."

This constant interrogation created a large amount of smoke and mirrors around an artist whose compulsions are actually very straightforward. "I'm really simple," she said in a 2017 interview. "I love nature. I like hikes. Being by the water – I don’t always get in. I love the elements. Playing an outdoor festival. Love that feeling."

That's basically how her albums are best approached. Pleasure is literally a built-in facet of Lana’s work, which is like a ripe piece of fruit in that it should be devoured rather than inspected. Because she treats her songs like a cork board in a university bedroom, that's also how her fans come at them. Speaking to Billboard, Adam Hall – the fan behind the Twitter account Lana Del Rey info, says Lana stans aren't as concerned with "sales and chart entries" as other fandoms. For them, the pleasure is less in seeing her emerge victorious after some fabricated dog eat dog fight over streaming numbers, and more about "the music – the lyrics, the aesthetic, the mystery".

While Norman Fucking Rockwell still feels more like a hot bath to soak in after a long day than turning on the TV to engage with current affairs, there is something of this world about it. While Lana Del Rey's previous albums have felt somewhat inward-looking, divorced from the zeitgeist, Norman Fucking Rockwell is right on the money in terms of mood. It shares a similar doomsday energy to the one currently being perpetuated by the news cycle; it's difference is that it's a step ahead in attitude. It is, in comparison to the rest of us manically #threading about podcasters and going to therapy to deal with climate change, at peace with its problems; a farewell from someone who has already sailed off into the horizon.

In a certain light, Norman Fucking Rockwell lands like an album of eulogies for things that haven’t yet reached their end, with premonitions for what's to come gestured towards but never explicitly articulated. In that sense it feels fitting that the biggest chunk of references come from the late-60s, a period of intense cultural polarisation marked by an ideological conflict between war and peace. If the mood board for Norman Fucking Rockwell is the Summer of Love, then it’s been put together with the knowledge that Altamont is coming.

That's how it feels, at least. The likelihood of that actually being the intent behind it is pretty slim. When asked about "The Greatest" in an interview, particularly in regards to its implication that rock-and-roll is dead, Lana said: "It’s more about the concept of actually just chilling and listening to music for no reason" with her first boyfriends. And why not? Lana Del Rey's ability to draw you into her reverie is such that you can be struggling down the M5 in a Megabus and still feel like you're hanging your legs over the side of a pool somewhere in LA, holding burning eye contact with a stranger who will ruin your life in five months.

Regardless of how much you want to ascribe to it, it's worth noting that her strongest album to date is named after an artist often derided by critics for passing over the uglier aspects of American culture in favour of more sentimentalised portrayals. Rockwell's line of defence was, famously: "I paint life as I would like it to be." You could easily argue the same for Lana Del Rey, although anyone left questioning her auteur status after Norman Fucking Rockwell will probably never be convinced of it at all.

Art that without a "serious" motivation or social intent behind it tends to be scrutinised more closely, as we try to ascribe meanings that are considered to be more logical – more complex – than emotion. This doesn't really work with Lana Del Rey, though, whose greatest gift to her listeners is the total submission of thought to feeling.

In an interview in the lead up to Norman Fucking Rockwell’s release, Lana said, "I feel that writing is not my thing: I'm writing’s thing," as if it’s an act of possession. When she’s not writing, she says, she's "just in Starbucks talking shit all day". This image of her as a basic bitch, torn from her desire to meander down boulevards drinking iced coffee by the inconvenience of having to make some of the greatest records of the 21st century, jars with our idea of art as some tortured and laborious process. But if that's truly the case, it's no wonder that her music, hung up on heartache as it can be, hits like an afternoon cocktail with a muscle relaxant chaser. In times of hopelessness, there is no greater pursuit than pleasure.

@emmaggarland