Lana Del Rey: Portrait of an Artist
American artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell is likely best known for his 1960 piece, “Triple Self-Portrait,” in which the illustrator draws himself — drawing himself. It’s an apt image for Lana Del Rey’s new album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, as, on this record, Lana is finally authoring herself. She’s not a character in someone else’s narrative any longer: she’s the creator.
According to Vanity Fair, the title of Del Rey’s latest is a riff on today’s corrupted American Dream. “This is where we’re at — Norman fucking Rockwell,” she told the publication. “We’re going to go to Mars, and [Donald] Trump is president, all right.” Still, this is the American Dream through her eyes — and, in this case, she’s done being someone else’s “National Anthem.”
This is not all to say that Lana Del Rey is not original — has not always been original. Early in her career, she got a lot of flack about being some sort of industry concoction, created by music world Svengalis. She’s not; she’s always been very much her own artist, as those who have worked with her can attest. (Her manager Ed Millett: “We were lucky with Lana because she knew exactly who she was.”) Still, like many young writers, in the past, Lana often filtered her image and her sound through her influences — making herself a character in someone else’s story.
In fact, the singer-songwriter first introduced herself to the world through an author’s eyes. “Light of my life, fire of my loins/Be a good baby, do what I want,” she croons in “Off to the Races,” off of 2012’s Born to Die — casting herself as Vladamir Nabokov’s titular Lolita. She went on to reference the famous novel in tracks like “Carmen,” and, in interviews, where she described herself as “Lolita got lost in the hood.”
With 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, however, she’s taking the pen away from of the horde of authors she’s channeled before (Walt Whitman on “Body Electric,” Anthony Burgess on ULTRAVIOLENCE), and assuming her rightful role: writer.
The first hint comes with the title track, which effectively dismantles an unnamed “man child” whose “poetry is bad.” Putting aside any real world parallels, this character is likely someone most women have dated — the slacker who tricks us into thinking he’s tortured and misunderstood.
“You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two,” she sings, conjuring the image of the listless literary hero by pointing out, “You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you.” Unknown male author out of the picture, it’s time for Lana to fill the page.
“The Next Best American Record” finds the singer-songwriter striving for the slightly altered cliché of writing the next “Great American Novel.” What’s telling about this track is that, in 2017, an early version reportedly leaked, the lyrics being, “You were so obsessed with writing the next best American record” — on the studio album version, “you” becomes “we.” Sure, the track is tricked out with the usual Lana fare — bathing suits, California locales, etc. — but by replacing “you” with “we,” Del Rey is reclaiming her own story. The song is now about her, not an unnamed third person with great aspirations.
Perhaps the album’s most revealing track is “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it.” First off, she boldly casts herself as a true-to-life writer, a “24/7 Sylvia Plath” — a longtime favorite author of the singer’s. As we all know, Plath didn’t have the rosiest life (or death), but this, after all, is Lana Del Rey.
She goes on to start “writing in blood on the walls/’Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad.”
As that lyric may tell you, this is still very much a Lana Del Rey record. It’s replete with crude-yet-fun sexuality (“Fuck It I Love You”), plenty of beachy scenes (“Venice Bitch”) and tons of nostalgia (Sublime cover “Doin’ Time). This time, however, she’s not “your little scarlet starlet/singing in the garden,” as she was in “Off to the Races” — she’s “the lightning, the thunder/Kind of girl who’s gonna make you wonder/who you are and who you’ve been” (“Mariner’s Apartment Complex”). And she’s at the top of her writing game.
And, in the end, that’s what really shines. Lana Del Rey is fully coming into her own as an author; sure, she loves her references, but her story is now delightfully her own. As Billboard points out, this record is not exactly radio-friendly, but that attribute hardly matters when it comes to song craft. After all, Leonard Cohen only had one hit (three guesses as to what that was). “Some people really are trying to get in the mix of the zeitgeist, and that is just not my MO — never cared,” Del Rey told Billboard.
Moreover, the singer is literally stepping into the role of writer later this year, when she drops her very first collection of poems, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, date TBD. Given the quality of the lyrics on this album, we can only imagine what Lana as poet will read like.
As it stands, Normal Fucking Rockwell is a record that lands somewhere between an Edgar Allan Poe poem (Annabel Lee by the sea), a neon thriller (bathing suits and serial killers) and a Shirley Jackson short story (everything is characteristically haunted). She throws winks to everyone from Robert Frost to Crosby Stills, Nash & Young to Elton John. But, in the end, she paints her own American Dream — brush held aloft, eyes clear, reflected in the mirror of her own existence.
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