On August 30 Lana Del Rey released her fifth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! to near universal, almost ecstatic critical acclaim. Pitchfork gave the album a score of 9.4, the highest for any new release since D’Angelo’s Black Messiah in 2014. In the review, writer Jenn Pelly called NFR! “the apotheosis of Lana Del Rey,” who “now sounds like a millennial troubadour.” On this album “that ground-swelling complexity coheres to reveal an indisputable fact: She is the next best American songwriter, period.” The writer waxes poetic in the German Idealist vein, exclaiming that NFR! “is less to do with camp, and more to do with real life; less to do with scripting the incandescent character of Lana Del Rey and more to do with human complexity; less about aesthetics than being.” (Emphasis not mine.)
In NPR (not to be confused with the abbreviation of the album itself), Ann Powers wrote a more nuanced and in depth, but still generally positive, take. “Del Rey is at her most instantly compelling… words like ‘classic’ and ‘greatest’ adhere to her now.” But the review had a couple barbs. Powers addresses the ways that Del Rey’s “white” Americana vision overlooks the signifiers drawn from marginalized communities, as with her Dutch braids hair-do reminiscent of 90s cholas: “Few Latinas from East L.A. would have made it the 15 miles west to the beach.” Naturally she does not forget to address Del Rey’s Khachiyanesque ambivalence to #WokeFeminism, that she “has continued to stand firmly against the ideal of self-empowerment.” But the real kicker is when Powers compares lyrics of the track “Cinnamon Girl” with Joni Mitchell (the master signifier in the Laurel Canyon imaginary of NFR!) in “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”: “Mitchell’s lyric reads as poetic and incisive. Next to it, Del Rey’s feels uncooked.” This last one incurred the wrath of the popstar herself:
This of course turned into a controversy of its own, with plenty of online writers defending Powers and her review. On the surface that seems to be the reasonable take: Lana is overreacting à la Bret Stephens, criticism isn’t supposed to just ignore any uncomfortable details about the thing at hand, and so on. And saying that she “never had a persona” is like the infamous Bronze Age Pervert commanding his reader to “Learn that I don’t understand the gay idea of ‘irony’”—transparently false posturing for the sake of indignation itself.
But isn’t there some deeper truth in this knee-jerk hostile reaction? Something fundamentally off, something fundamentally disingenuous about Powers’ NPR review that doesn’t occur whatsoever in the wholly fawning Pitchfork one? How it shifts from lauding this new classic, this new entry to the American canon, this magnum opus Gesamtkunstwerk, to coyly scolding it for ignoring her implicit liberal feminist expectations. One recurring comment I saw on the matter was that Lana Del Rey should be proud to be mentioned side-by-side with her idol Joni Mitchell. But I suppose if, once I finish my own magnum opus that condenses the grand trajectory of American history into sublime poetic form, or whatever, some nerd from NPR held my lines up alongside some picked from the dankest depths of Moby Dick saying it was “a bit… uncooked,” I might be pissed too.
But why bother with this trivial beef anyway? Why can’t we just “let the music speak for itself?” We could talk about how the new album tones down some of the billowing baroque vocals, how it sounds a bit less vintage, somehow—Lana’s voice no longer appears sonically as if emanating from some old radio, no longer quite so ornate as if she’s Princess Americana singing along with the pigeons in a 1950s Disney cartoon movie about the Beats. That vibe is toned down, for sure. It’s somehow more modern, but ambiguously, so that can’t be pinned down to a particular era—you’ve got this 60s–70s twangy SoCal folk sound at times, you’ve got the 90s rap sound in the cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” and so on. But those discrete elements, as far as we can put our finger on them, are fleeting. This isn’t a limitation of the music at all—on the contrary, it seems to signal some subtle mature turn, it doesn’t need to don the trappings of some particular period as a crutch. But it is a limitation of music criticism, and of language generally.
If only it were possible to return to the primordial innocence of some so-called “pure music”—no, the music cannot speak for itself. It isn’t actually the thing at hand. And as that cunning cat-eyed heel Taylor Swift shows time and time again, it’s the constant strife that cuts through the music, the totalizing campaigns waged across all kinds of theaters of war—in the press, on television, in the modern salons of social media, recruiting the fans themselves—that makes pop interesting. (Pop considered properly as something more than the music itself, but the whole performance, the whole gesture). The fans demand war!
So in short, people—or at least the literary people, the people who generate chatter, the people we hear about, the bourgeois intellectuals, a class of people that includes the most vulgar, toxic fans—expect pop stars to make the big comments on the big cultural themes. We need Lana Del Rey to tell us what to think about the relations between the boys and the girls in America. (The Red Scare girls say that politics is just “a matter of whoever won’t fuck you.”) And so we learn something about this fundamental reality of our age, from not just the music itself, but from what unfolds out of that—the discourse. The emerging consensus seems to say that Norman Fucking Rockwell! has such particular symbolic urgency that, as Pelly writes in Pitchfork, “the stakes have never been higher.”
An outspoken critic of President Trump, has throttled back a bit on the patriotic motifs ubiquitous at the start of her career, the Bettie Page Fourth-of-July nostalgia—in 2017 she stopped flying the American flag in the background of her shows during the song “Born to Die.” But America is more than just the flag, more than just the guns, more than the ‘murica grunt. And it’s not just Trump. Those are the excessive things, but not the essential ones. And so there is now a wider American reckoning, of the foundational violence the nation rests on, slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans and the War of Terror and everything else. The frontier has long since closed and all its plenty has been sucked up by the capitalists—who, now unsatisfied with what grotesque wealth they have amassed, want to open for plunder the national parks, Greenland and the North Pole, whatever is left of the Amazon, and, of course, women’s bodies. Those Laurel Canyon hippies still lived on stolen land—Neil Young singing of their massacres in “Cortez the Killer” and “Pocahontas” isn’t good enough. Reparations!
But Lana Del Rey was never going to represent the great Maoist anthem of the people’s war against the empire. But maybe she can represent another oppressed class that lives a precarious existence on the margins of society—the incels. “Goddamn, man-child,” she coos as the album begins. Never mind that “You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you’” is the next line—some incels fuck, as everyone knows, and the “almost” is what’s doing the work. We can’t return to the innocence of that Norman Rockwell kitsch as the fascists and the trads seem to think, but there’s something enticing about it, at least for the pathetic American male, dickless and afraid from the Adderall and the weed and all the research chemicals we do these days. Lana Del Rey taps into that, which is why the proper feminist critics are suspicious: she’s supposedly one of those cool girls—not a feminist bitch, but a “Venice Bitch” for the underappreciated Ezra Pounds out there, shitposting online, “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news/But I can’t change that, and I can’t change your mood, ah…”
Read the explanation she gave for the inspiration for “Mariners Apartment Complex,” one of the high points of the album:
The song is about this time I took a walk late at night with a guy I was seeing, and we stopped in front his friend’s apartment complex, and he put his hand around my shoulder, and he said, “I think we are together because we’re both similar, like we’re both really messed up,” and I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. And I said, “I’m not sad, I didn’t know that’s why you thought you were relating to me on that level, I’m actually doing pretty good.” And he was upset, and that’s when I wrote the song. I thought, I had to do [that] so many times, where I had to sort of step on that role where I was showing the way and I was sort of being the brighter light. But that’s why it’s so cool that you’re playing it. ‘Cause I thought that I’d just put it out and it would be one of those things that I’d put out just to have there for myself, but it’s cool being able to share it with people too.
And a verse from the song itself:
“They mistook my kindness for weakness
I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus
Can’t a girl just do the best she can?
Catch a wave and take in the sweetness
Think about it, the darkness, the deepness
All the things that make me who I am…”
Is this not the quintessential incel scenario? The true myth of the fundamental miscommunication between the boy and the girl. Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel. The boy sees in the girl some sort of deeper meaning in her willingness to listen to him speak, the transferential relationship—she is his analyst. His words are violently cut off from his corporeal body the moment they leave his lips, he castrates himself with his speech, and he shows his grotesque naked desire to the girl—his dick cut off and offered to her like Van Gogh’s ear. She politely accepts, like Lacan or Belle Delphine accept cold hard cash. The boy assumes that her oceanic femininity, “the darkness, the deepness,” is a reciprocating receptacle for his desire. He is doomed like Captain Ahab in his monomaniacal quest for the white whale, the desire of the woman. But it’s not her fault. Can’t a girl just do the best she can?
Mike Crumplar is a writer and editor living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter.