Review: Norman F-cking Rockwell

Years and years ago, I used to publish music reviews on this blog. They were usually my most engaged-with posts, albeit before “engagement” was as much of a buzzword as it is now. But the reason I posted those reviews was not for engagement purposes. I was at an important moment in my life, passing from teenage-hood into adulthood, and a lot of albums that were released spoke to me directly at that juncture in my life. And so, in lieu of being able to do much else, I wrote through my feelings. In the process, I got other people to listen to the music I listened to.

Now, Lana Del Rey doesn’t really need exposure. But I have needed to write through my feelings about her music for years. I wrote my college application essays to Born to Die and Lana Del Ray (catch the spelling) A.K.A. Lizzy Grant; refused to listen to Ultraviolence during a tumultuous summer after my freshman year of college; blossomed through Honeymoon; finally went back to Ultraviolence and mourned; exulted in Lust for Life; and relived it all over again through Norman Fucking Rockwell.

I love Lana Del Rey. I used to not at all; around the time she released Blue Jeans, I thought she was emblematic of everything wrong with the world. I thought she romanticized abuse, engaged in dangerous nostalgia for Americana (“I belong in the 50s!!”), and was just generally not talented.

And then I listened to Video Games. Or maybe it was Born to Die. Or maybe it was Blue Jeans. I can’t recall what I listened to first because I had instantly devoured her entire discography. And I got it. I intuited what she was trying to do, the artist she was trying to be, the themes she was trying to explore, and I saw the spite that was threaded through her work. I felt a kinship with her spite. Yes, the character of Lana Del Rey was mired in abuse and darkness and she thought she was loving it, but we were invited to live in the wrongness of it all with her, and through living in it, were exposed to the lushness and neons and filters that allow you to think, just enough to make it real, that “Maybe this (the pain, the abuse, the darkness) isn’t so bad.”

That’s the genius of Lana Del Rey. She doesn’t write music for the lowest common denominator to consume thoughtlessly: she wants to invite you into the nostalgia with her and learn, with her, that it’s terrifyingly easy to excuse toxicity when it’s couched in beauty.

Simultaneously, she is unapologetically feminine. She engages in the usual tropes: jealousy, cattiness, ruthless ambition, the Virgin, the Whore, the helplessly devoted girlfriend… and then she subverts it with tenderness, with moments of light and escape. In those moments, you realize. The femininity, Lana’s content, is not the issue: the problem is in the negative space. Implied to be kitty-corner from Lana’s music is the toxic masculinity, the patriarchy that makes Blanche DuBois – fragile, afraid, mentally ill – so much more villainous than Stanley Kowalski – a rapist, a misogynist, a wife-beater. We lionize Marlon Brandos at the expense of the Marylin Monroes. Lana Del Rey’s early music was uncomfortable because it was a reflection of our own proclivities.

It was lazy and simplistic of me to blame Lana Del Rey for romanticizing abuse; just as it’s lazy and simplistic and dangerous of us to blame the victims of abusive relationships for not leaving their partners.

Maybe this isn’t actually a review of Lana’s latest album. I’ve been growing and evolving with Lana since Born to Die. To be here with her, occupying the world of Norman Fucking Rockwell, is to luxuriate in the person I have become, to reflect – with tenderness where it should go (towards me) and spite where it should go (to those who have hurt me). And it feels like a homecoming.

Norman Fucking Rockwell is not painless. It forces you to lock eyes with the person you used to be, the places you used to inhabit. It exposes the pretenses of your past, reminds you that the wounds you used to have are still a part of you. But it loves you unconditionally. It shows you where you are now, and nods to the people who are there with you. It tells you it’s okay to hide for a little while so you can get back to the growth promised you. It reminds you that there are walls to lean against when you can’t stand on your own. It tells you that hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like you to have – but you have it. And, most importantly for me, it tells you it’s okay to ask to be treated tenderly.

I always knew I loved Lana Del Rey. She has been one of my favorite artists since 2011. But I didn’t realize she was my favorite artist until I got to the end of this Billboard article ranking all the songs she’s released. As soon as I saw what #1 was, I broke down crying. I may not have agreed with all the rankings, but the name of each song brought up a memory, a feeling, an experience from the past decade of my life. The epiphany that came with the tears was undeniable in its strength.

Lana Del Rey has gone from being an object of scorn to my favorite artist. And – though I accept that this may be a reach – that is a pretty solid parallel to my own journey, from self-loathing to knowing that every day, I become a better version of myself.

Maybe Lana Del Rey didn’t teach me self-love, but she taught me to be patient with myself. Things might be rough now. But there’s always another album on the way. There’s always more tenderness to be found.

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