American dreaming in Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 4:40pm

NOSELL

Polydor Records

“God damn, man-child,” pens Lana Del Rey in her love letter to America — fitting, perhaps, within the contemporary culture of “fuckbois,” casual hookups and sneakerheads. Del Rey’s latest album, however, is no feminist rage against the patriarchy. No, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is all at once a condemnation and celebration of American culture; an ode to the complex, bittersweet history of the “American Dream.” 

Disregarding layers of thematic symbolism and metaphor, the album itself is a walk down memory lane. Del Rey’s style has always held an a vintage flair, from her slow, traipsing vocals to the timeless quality of her songs. Del Rey often appears to be old beyond her years, as if a ghost from centuries past inhabits her body, rather than a young woman of the 21st century. 

Throughout the album, Del Rey recalls artists and genres from throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The opening of her first track, “Norman fucking Rockwell,” is reminiscent of classic Hollywood soundtracks with its flowing orchestration. “Fuck It, I Love You” echoes the big-band era, borrowing from Doris Day’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time,” a cover of the Sublime’s 1996 song by the same name, recalls both the music from the end of the 1990s and the artistry of George Gerswhin, whose piece “Summertime” is sampled in the song. “The Next Best American Record” references Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy,” further reinforced by the track “The Greatest,” where Del Rey croons “Me and my friends, we miss rock n’ roll.” By the end of the album, Del Rey has given us a grand tour on the history of American music and culture.

But where the album shines isn’t simply in its extensive name-dropping of other prolific artists. No, Lana Del Rey can stand confidently on her own two musical feet, no piggy-backing necessary. Rather, this walk down memory lane provides momentum for an overarching, far more important theme: the simultaneous oppression and empowerment of the American Dream. 

Del Rey sets the scene by evoking the legacy of Norman Rockwell, both in the title of the album, the titular song and by referencing his name throughout the fourteen tracks. Rockwell, a popular artist throughout the 20th century, made his career through illustrations which depicted domestic scenes of American everyday life. Through his art, Rockwell captured the very essence of the American Dream. However, these works, unsurprisingly, focused on the greener side of the grass, romanticizing much of the true American experience. 

In reality, the American Dream excluded many from its idealistic embrace. The dark underbelly absent from much of Rockwell’s artist works was — and still is — characterized by rampant racism, poverty, drug use, inequality and more. In fact, it was Rockwell’s idealism of American daily life which earned him varying degrees of condemnation from critics, despite his popularity and success. Thus, Rockwell’s legacy recalls not only what is evident in his artwork, but more so what is absent from his work. 

Wielding Rockwell’s legacy as her own painter’s brush, Del Rey explores both the American Dream, and its ever-present shadow of nightmare. This comparison is consistent throughout her every song; Del Rey sings of dysfunctional, often toxic, relationships, echoing the duality of the American dream and the American people’s love-hate relationship with its mythic ideal. This is further emphasized through the album’s striking lyrics. In “Venice Bitch” Del Rey sings, “You’re beautiful and I’m insane / We’re American-made,” referencing how the American Dream has been a sort of ever-present torment: always just out of reach, but close enough to taste. 

The American Dream, while a grand standard to strive for, has always been poisoned by its diminishing tangibility. “Fuck It, I Love You” reaffirms this. “Maybe the way that I’m living is killing me” — whether it be back-breaking work for a livelihood afforded to only the lucky few, or the self-destructive rebellion that followed post-’50s disallusionment, the American Dream often has inspired more harm than good. 

Yet at the same time, Del Rey’s emotional, provoking exploration of the American Dream in itself confirms that she, like everyone, cannot help but be hypnotized by this distant shore. Even in her criticism, Del Rey simultaneously celebrates America in all its glory and shame. Just as love and hate are said to walk the same thin line, so too does desire and rejection of the American dream exist on two sides of the same coin. 

As a conclusion hovers over the final lines of this review, one thing becomes starkly apparent: Despite all these words strung together in an attempt to express the pure, radiating power of Lana Del Rey, there is so much more to say. With every replay of the album, more and more is unpacked within Del Rey’s masterful singing and imaginative lyrics. Complete comprehension of Norman Fucking Rockwell! may very well be just as unattainable as that beautiful, cruel American dream. But the thing about Lana Del Rey is that understanding is irrelevant to enjoy the hypnotic, spine-tingling power of her music. 

So, go take a well-deserved listen to Del Rey’s new release. Call it a mandatory exercise of patriotism, if this review isn’t motivating enough. In true American spirit, bring your speakers, find a lawn chair somewhere sunny and grab an ice-cold Coke, because “baby, remember, I’m not drinking wine / But that Cherry Coke you serve is fine.”