You’re scared to win
You’re scared to lose
I heard the war was over if you really choose…
The one in and around you
If the last few years have been hard on you, then Lana del Rey knows how you feel.
The brooding songstress has never been known for being upbeat, ever since she emerged on the pop music scene in 2012. But it always seemed like her gothy, death-obsessed music (all minor keys and torch-song atmospherics) was part of a carefully cultivated image – a pop star for the Instagram age. Detractors viewed her as little more than a music-industry creation, essentially no different from the Monkees or Spice Girls. The Sad Girl’s Summertime Sadness was a put-on, in the eyes of fans and foes alike. (My first essay on LDR certainly took all this artifice for granted.)
Then something happened. Lana plugged along and evolved through albums such as Ultraviolence (2014) and Honeymoon (2015), beginning to show some broader artistic ambitions than just being a prefab pop cipher. With Lust for Life (2017), she did something even more shocking. She seemed optimistic, even…. dare I say, happy? At least for a minute. “A lust for life keeps us alive,” she sang, hanging out with the Weeknd on the top of the Hollywood sign.
Lust for Life turned out to be her most successful record to date, nominated for a Best Album Grammy – but it also happened to drop on the world at exactly the moment that many of her fans were not feeling very lusty or lively. Trump and his army of tacky, outer-borough fascists and millenarian dolphin-rapists had seized power, determined to destroy all that is good and decent in the world. The good chill vibes of the Obama era were extremely gone.
What is a Sad Girl to do? Especially one whose whole aesthetic is a Cuisinart of Americana tropes and clichés, who literally wrapped herself in the flag in the video for “Ride.”
Well, we recently found out with the release of Norman Fucking Rockwell! in 2019.
Pieces of the album dropped over the course of a year, promising more of the same while also hinting at a new direction. “Mariners Apartment Complex” was quintessential LDR, dark and California-obsessed, with a Goddess complex (“if you’re lost at sea then I’ll command your boat to me again”); “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have” was a stripped-down, nearly Leonard-Cohen-esque ballad, while “Venice Bitch” offered a sprawling panorama with a touch of psychedelia.
It was hard to know quite what to expect, but the album’s title hinted at some kind of political commentary: Norman Fucking Rockwell!, a derisive allusion to the kitschy, wholesome America of old that conservatives of the Cracker Barrel set say they want to return to. Make America Norman Rockwell again? Lana has some thoughts on that.
In fact, the album presents all the classic LDR components: depression and sadness; profanity; lyrics about drinking and partying hard (which is funny, since Lana, like Trump, is supposedly a teetotaler); self-mythologizing (“The Next Great American Record”); and California, California, California. There’s even a song called “California,” which to the amazement of most observers she had not already done by now.
The biggest shock of the album is how intimate and genuinely confessional it is. The Lana persona is still very much there, but tracks like “Love Song” and “The Greatest” convey a real sense of tenderness and vulnerability that does not feel like arch posturing. They’re actually resonant ballads that evoke the Carole Kings of yesteryear – a lot of pianos, strings, and synths, and not as many trip-hop beats and samples.
Indeed, NFR is the most singer-songwritery album in her oeuvre. Probably the greatest song on the album is the title track, which combines a rich, smoky piano riff that could be borrowed from Joni Mitchell or even Billy Preston in the early 1970s. Lana expresses a drowsy resignation speaking to a feckless lover:
Cause you’re just a man,
it’s just what you do;
your head in your hands…
You’re just a man, all through and through.
But it also possesses that rarest commodity on a Lana album – a sense of humor. She’s speaking to a mopey failson, an inadequate man that she is still willing to put up with for some reason. (“Why wait for the best when I could have you?”) She mocks him for indulging in self-pity and explaining away his shortcomings as a side-effect of the awfulness of the times: “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news, but I can’t change that and I can’t change your mood.” And then there’s the best line of the album: “Goddamn man-child… You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’” Is she happy or sad? Laughing or crying? Wearing a white hat or a black hat?
In an era of Trump—the most insecure and self-pitying pseudo macho-man imaginable—and the failure-to-launch generation of young men who have badly missed the mark on adulthood – well, what can you say? You’re just a man, it’s just what you do. As another great American said, you go to war with the army you have, and this is what Lana has to work with.
The sudden efflorescence of sincerity in Lana’s music, first discernible in Lust for Life and readily apparent in NFR, puts the whole postmodern Lana-as-a-media-construct theory in a new light. Her very public spat with music critic Ann Powers, who dared imply (in what was actually a favorable and insightful review) that Lana was creating a persona and not expressing her true self, showed her determination to be taken seriously as a real person, and not just a figure of pop mythos. Or maybe she went to war with Powers just to create another story in the celebrity news cycle and goose sales of both the album and the mythos itself. Who can say?
“California” captures the sincere-insincere dynamic of the album perfectly. “We’ll have a parrrrrty, we’ll dance til dawn… your favorite liquor off the top shelf,” but it seems rueful and sarcastic, foreboding; the rest of the song is about depression and frustration, even mortal danger (“The Santa Ana moves you…”) Its refrain – “If you come back to California, you should just hit me up” – implies that someone has left both California and America and might never come back. It seems to me that LDR is narrating a sense of loss, as the shimmering mirage of diverse, liberal California recedes into the distance in the benighted era of Trump. “If you come back to America, just hit me up…”
But the song also shoulders a certain weariness: “You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are,” she assures, “when you’re lying in my arms. You don’t ever have to go faster than your fastest pace, or faster than my fastest cars…” The lyric is an inversion of the Christian circular logic that maintains “God will not give us a weight too much to carry,” i.e. whatever happens, you can, by definition, handle it, because God wouldn’t give you more than you had the strength to bear. Her counsel is less willfully hopeful but also more empathetic: honey, I know you’re not very strong, but you don’t have to be stronger than you really are.
Of course, America and Americanness have been consistent themes throughout Lana’s music. (“Be young, be dope, be proud – like an American,” she said in a more optimistic cultural moment.) LDR is talking about making America great again, but the America she has in mind is very different from that of Norman Fucking Rockwell!. If America comes back to America, just hit me up.
“LA is in flames, it’s getting hot. Kanye is blond and gone,” she observes on “The Greatest.” There’s wreckage everywhere. There’s a war going on, in her mind, in and around her. She has used this specific expression of two previous songs. In “Ride,” on the Paradise album:
Been trying hard to stay out of trouble,
but I’ve got a war in my mind
and in “Get Free” on Lust for Life:
Sometimes it feels like I’ve got a war in my mind
I want to get off, but I keep ridin’ the ride
America has not felt so at-war with itself as it does today since the 1960s. Lana is surveying the wreckage as California burns. But she has a striking thought, as she stands amid the smoldering ruins of Paradise: maybe the war could be over if you really choose.
Alex Sayf Cummings is a writer who used to work at this magazine. Her book, Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.