The year is 2011, and then-rising star Lana Del Rey wears nothing but blue jeans as she hugs her tattoo-covered lover in front of a giant red, white and blue flag. It’s the opening shot of the music video for her second-ever single, “Born to Die,” in which Lana laments the loneliness of America’s open roads. Del Rey, with her vintage wardrobe of leather jackets, heart-shaped sunglasses and Chuck Taylors, built her persona around a wistful fascination of 1950s/60s Americana. Her sad girl aesthetic comes from a deep longing for James Dean-esque bad boys; for tortured, cigarette-smoking Beat poets; for summer nights watching fireworks and drinking Coca-Cola. She sings in mourning of an extravagant America that is long gone—one that never really existed in the first place.
Del Rey garnered considerable controversy when she emerged onto the music scene in 2011—people criticized her dubious rags to-riches story, her notoriously shaky SNL performance, her glamorization of codependent relationships—but her proudly patriotic aesthetic seemed to be low on the public’s list of qualms about the self-proclaimed “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” But in a 2017 interview with Pitchfork, Del Rey confessed that she no longer feels comfortable using idealized American imagery in the Trump epoch. “I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I sing ‘Born to Die,’” she revealed. “It feels weird to me now—it didn’t feel weird in 2013” (“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Conversation with Lana Del Rey,” Pitchfork, 07.19.2017).
Yet America’s fiercest millennial advocate did not suddenly abandon all references to old Hollywood, sprawling U.S. interstates and white yachts. On her aptly named sixth album “Norman Fucking Rockwell!,” Del Rey sings of her infatuation with a California that’s burning away, with classic rock stars who tragically died of drug overdoses, with self-loathing poets who are ultimately more pompous than interesting. It’s the same larger-than-life America that Del Rey has written into existence throughout her discography—only this time, this dream world is imbued with a realism and far deeper sadness than ever before. The result is the most beautiful and poignant document of modern American culture to come out of pop music this decade.
The album cover of “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” at first appears to employ classic Del Rey motifs: She stands with her arm wrapped around a wealthy-looking man on a boat, with an American flag and a coastline in the distance. But upon closer look, the beach is on fire, and Del Rey is reaching toward the viewer in desperation. It’s emblematic of the record’s devastating juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, a tension that is also evident in the album’s title; Del Rey refers to classic mid-century Americana painter Norman Rockwell in a manner that is equal parts reverent and laughably flippant. In Del Rey’s words, “It was kind of an exclamation mark: so this is the American dream, right now … This is where we’re at—Norman fucking Rockwell. We’re going to go to Mars, and Trump is president, all right” (“Lana Del Rey on Breaking Up with Big Hair—And Her Slow-Dance Lesson with Jared Leto,” Vanity Fair, 02.15.2019).
Del Rey’s newfound cynicism has infiltrated even her discussions of sex and love. The opening title track begins with the scathing line, “Goddamn, man child/You fucked me so good I almost said, ‘I love you.’” It’s one of the most instantly memorable starts to an album in recent memory, and the first of a series of Fiona Apple-esque insults that continue throughout the song. Del Rey has suddenly matured as a songwriter in the two years since her last record, 2017’s lackluster “Lust For Life”—such acerbic send-offs are a far cry from the old Lana, who was once known for calling her lovers “daddy” and who infamously declared in 2014 that feminism “is just not an interesting concept” (“Lana Del Rey Is Anyone She Wants to Be,” Fadar, 06.04.2014). Del Rey is no longer romanticizing unhealthy relationships, and the sense of newfound self-worth she debuts on “NFR!” radically enhances her talents a lyricist. This novel sophistication, skepticism and self-assuredness is also striking on the equally gorgeous second track, “Mariners Apartment Complex,” in which she confidently croons, “I’m the board, the lightning, the thunder/ Kind of girl who’s gonna make you wonder/ Who you are and who you’ve been.”
But of course, Lana is still a romantic at heart. On the heartbreaking highlight “California,” Del Rey yearns for the classic love stories of American cinema, ones filled with life, dancing, drinking and adventure. She begs her lover to come back to California, pleading, “I’ll pick up all your Vogues and all of your Rolling Stones/Your favorite liquor off the top shelf/I’ll throw a party all night long.” Del Rey is subtly referencing iconic American singer Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song of the same name, and Lana effectively proves that she is no longer the one-dimensional caritarture and rudimentary musician of her early days—she deserves a legacy as grand as such legends.
Yet the most dazzling moment on the record comes on later cut “The greatest,” which is arguably Del Rey’s best song to date. The track begins with Del Rey’s signature vintage nostalgia (“I miss Long Beach and I miss you, babe” and “I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go”). But this time, Del Rey reconciles retro references with her most political lyrics yet. The song’s outro is a powerfully candid encapsulation of the dire state of the modern world: “LA is in flames, it’s getting hot/Kanye West is blond and gone/‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song/I hope the livestream’s almost on,” she sings in a near whisper, as if she’s frantically narrating all she knows of the world as it ends before her eyes. Her beloved city is in ashes, Kanye proudly dons his MAGA hat, and the metaphor of one of her cherished ’70s rock stars is now a reality. Does Lana have any rationale left to cling to her prior trademark idealism?
But of course, Lana is an optimist at heart, despite her lugubrious nature. She ends her magnum opus with a song titled “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it.” The instrumentation is some of the bleakest in Lana’s discography, but when she whispers the eponymous lyric, you believe her. It’s a glimmering moment of certainty within our increasingly uncertain and desolate world, and Lana Del Rey’s singular ability to find beauty in the crumbling American landscape is what cements her as one of the most essential writers of our times.