Norman Fucking Rockwell! and Lana del Rey’s layers of nostalgia

Culture Music

Above: Lana del Rey

 

Weeks have passed since the release of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey’s 6th studio album.
NFR! was reviewed glowingly by the likes of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and with ‘Video Games’ being
recently pronounced ‘Song of the Decade’ at the Q awards, it seems like Lana Del Rey has secured a space for herself in the annals of music history. Critical respect, popular appeal and cult street cred are a difficult trio to balance, yet Del Rey shows no sign of slowing down. For me, NFR! isn’t her best album (that remains the chilling, soporific Ultraviolence), and it should be admitted that this article isn’t really a review. Rather, the release of NFR! provided an opportunity to reflect on the nostalgia theme, particularly the bittersweet melancholic variety Del Rey is so heavily identified with.

If Svetlana Boym’s claim that “the twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for newness, but by the proliferation of nostalgias” ever needed justification, then Lana Del Rey would fit the bill. Her lyrics, the music, the aesthetics of her videos hark to a semi-mythologised past, fluctuating and untethered, both glittering and sullied. ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s 9-minute psych-rock inspired ‘Venice Bitch’ is a far departure from the likes of ‘Summertime Sadness’ and no doubt represents the latest stage in the development of Del Rey’s sound. Yet the golden thread of consistency throughout her career, from the hip-hop inspirations in Born to Die, to the soaring, score-like strings of Honeymoon, is the embedded sense of dislocation and uncertain yearning. From the heavy-lidded melancholy of 50s glamour, to the “freedom-land of the 70s”, Del Rey’s world is resplendent in its strange, otherworldly Americana where the girls are sad, the boys are bad and time seems to slow down and bend around you, seductive and sedating, rather than stretch before you in a linear projection.

Her sound is a complex patchwork of established genres; her tracks sound like they could be simultaneously be from any historical musical period yet none at all. She is an eager disciple of the grab-what-you-can ethos of cultural post-modernism, splicing and collaging (for example, with the now iconic ‘Video Games’ music video) together with relics of the past to create something that is ‘new’ and yet simultaneously isn’t. I don’t think Lana is an exception here: it’s arguable that most successful performers, pop stars and song writers of the past tremulous ten years are the ones that are able to slyly, consciously repackage looks, sounds, and styles from the previous century. What makes her so fascinating to me is how fundamentally unsettling her constructed multiplicity of nostalgias is.

Lana Del Rey’s world can only be understood in terms of mash-up of simulacra, which is why the endless
debates over her ‘realness’ and ‘fakeness’ (anything from her stage name, to her music, to her lips) are both irrelevant and easy ammunition. The ambiguous and multi-layered American past she invokes is uncanny in the way it resembles an idea of what constitutes American history, reduced down to symbols like the flag, Pepsi Cola, and bikers, references to which are cartoonishly repeated. Such over-saturation serves to underscore an emptiness beneath, for anything knowable and stable does not need such an aggressive, persistent mythological reference system. This saturation of Americana betrays the world as a simulation, reminiscent of, yet not quite that, which is known to us. Her world is uncanny in its similarity, but unsettling in its timelessness. Lana Del Rey’s America is a seductive netherworld resplendent in degraded beauty, the corruption of youth, female masochism, Hollywood rot, violence and freedom. And whilst all these are undoubtably true of the ‘real’ America, and are aspects of the ‘real’ American history, her vision is both beautiful and nightmarish in that it can never grow old, never change.

Thus, despite her evident musical evolution over her 6 studio albums, I do understand where the critics are coming from with their ‘one trick pony’ criticisms, their complaints ‘that everything sounds the same’. I remember, when Ultraviolence was released some reviewer commenting on how it was mere seconds into the first track that her oft-mentioned “little red party dress” was mentioned. The reviewer didn’t know how long she could keep this schtick up if she didn’t introduce a little variation. For me, this type of recycling, this conscious intertextuality, doesn’t present a problem. Sometimes it seems people miss the fact that, with an artist like Del Rey who has deliberately and painstakingly constructed a quasi-cinematic universe of overlapping nostalgias, that coherency of atmosphere helps to solidify this imagined plane. Repeated references to summer, cigarettes, cherries, moonlight, etc at first glance seem tawdry and unoriginal (theneedledrops certainly thought so). But they also function as part of a complex myth-building wherein the claustrophobia of constant repetition, the reliance on mutable symbols so ubiquitous that they have been stripped of meaning, and a heightened sense ofintertextuality, all underscore the fact that this time loop ensnares the narratorial ‘I’ of Del Rey’s work. She remains trapped in these nostalgias like an insect in amber, condemned to repeat herself like a haunting.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! has been seen by some reviewers as a departure from her ‘previous cliches’ and I don’t dispute anyone when they rightly commend the album for its maturity and the musical growth itrepresents. With NFR! we witness a development of the paradigm shift that arguably began in her previous two albums. She further departs from her romanticised vision of female victimhood and submission (from when she croons “I’m your man” in ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’ in a reference to Leonard Cohen, to her berating her “man-child” in the album’s titular track). We catch glimpses of an infectious wry humour rather than just unrelenting melancholy. Del Rey continues her political distance from the American flag following the last presidential elections. Yet the lofi rock inspiration, the unchanged references to cars, bars and difficult men, and the intertextual nods to “liquor of the top shelf” in ‘California’ linking this heart-breaking love song to Born to Die’s ‘Carmen’ prove that the Lana Del Rey’s world remains intact. Call it repetitive, but no-one in the 21st century has so deftly weaved together the leitmotifs of the 20th, so artfully crafted an atmosphere as eerie and fascinating as that which permeates Del Rey’s discography, an atmosphere that I’m sure will hauntand compel its listeners for many years to come.

 

Image Credit: Timothy Sacconti