How Lana Del Rey Assesses Her Character’s Complicity — “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

by Gabriel Valdez

Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a phenomenal eulogy that dismantles a dangerous mythology of excess. She’s spent her career clarifying this excess by inhabiting it. She’s presented and idolized the intractable pull that makes us chase it, while simultaneously charting her own chase of it and what it costs. She’s painted haze-filled, sepia-toned stories of enjoying its conveniences and comforts as an enabler of others’ toxicity, while marking down the scars it creates.

Her albums to this point have created a lore-filled American mythology featuring celebrities as our gods and goddesses. That Lynchian, Laurel Canyon-double of her that exists in celebritized excess and 70s-era Hollywood has acted both as siren luring listeners in and specter warning them away. There’s duality and dissonance to her music, a feeling of being lost in a dream-state between the illusion and what maintaining it takes from you.

The part of Lana Del Rey that speaks to this time and generation is that she’s both one of those who’s been holding the guillotine’s rope, and the first one marched out to set her head beneath its blade. Her mythology has always been that of an enabler and beneficiary of excess, seeking to partake in that mythology and the privilege of that excess, at the same time hollowed out and distanced, victimized by what it asks her to leave behind. Her career has charted an evolution from feeling emotions through others to increasingly remembering herself.

Her first single “Video Games” in 2011 repeated:

“It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you
Everything I do
I tell you all the time
Heaven is a place on earth with you
Tell me all the things you want to do
I heard that you like the bad girls honey, is that true?”

Here was someone who compared changing who and what she was for someone else to playing a video game. It came with ease. It was expected, repetitive, and most dangerously – fun.

Compare that to “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it,” the last song on “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

“There’s a new revolution,
a loud evolution that I saw
Born of confusion
and quiet collusion, of which mostly I’ve known
A modern day woman
with a weak constitution, cause I’ve got
Monsters still under my bed
that I could never fight off
A gatekeeper carelessly
dropping the keys on my nights off.”

In “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” it feels like she’s realized the most responsible action to take – perhaps more for herself than for us – is to dismantle that mythology in front of us. She still yearns for it, she still idolizes moments in it, and she also treats it as toxic.

Critic Izzy Black once wrote about the increasing role of the cinema of excess. This includes movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Bling Ring,” “Spring Breakers,” “Pain & Gain,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Counselor”. Unlike previous films regarding capitalist excess that were either tragedies or satires, these all presented excess that brought their protagonists in on the joke. As Black wrote, the characters “own this absurdity. They’re aware of it and embrace it. They participate in the comedy, as they participate in the irony.”

This risked an issue of endorsing the behaviors in these films rather than questioning them. Lessons aren’t learned. Characters don’t face moral dilemmas. Black argues that these characters present a critique of capitalism not in facing negative consequences, but in getting off relatively free from ethical struggle, remorse, and often consequences altogether. These are films that – instead of calling out the actions of their characters – seek to call out the complicity in their creation and our viewership of it.

Where those films created a reflection of the audience that’s in on the joke, Lana Del Rey created a Lynchian doppelganger of herself who’s lost in it: beneficiary, enabler, and victim all at once. Where does it end and where does that double begin? Well that’s the difficult part for all of us in an age of social media, personal branding, and influencers.

This has always been the line that Lana Del Rey has balanced on. She crafts a mythology of hypocritical iconography. She clarifies its role in complicity to excess, and creates an icon who inhabits that complicity in order to do so.

Her character initially identified with malleability to someone else’s whims. As long as she was benefiting or achieving a desire, some other part of herself could be hollowed. That was the consistent theme of her debut album, “Born to Die.”

We weren’t told whether that was a warning or not because the character was never called out on it. Over time, Lana Del Rey’s albums have become increasingly explicit in identifying the scars this has cost her, and the hypocrisy in the Americana mythology that she both worships and warns us of.

If this is her Lizzy Grant album, then Lana Del Rey is being acknowledged here as her given name’s double, as the complicit, both a shield that’s protected her and the hypocrisy that was utilized to do so. The songs here seem to move on from it because that’s where the evolution is, but they don’t try to shirk their burden.

“Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a sloughing of skin, but not in a way that seeks to escape. She’s still squarely in the ring. The entire album calls out hypocrisies and makes more express the trade-offs her character has made. It is a dismantling of her complicity, perhaps because the artists practicing art of excess didn’t get there fast enough, or weren’t enough in number, or maybe just because that hypocrisy-as-critique wasn’t effective.

Whichever way, the most important part here is that Lana Del Rey’s still inhabiting that evolutionary moment. “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a snapshot of it, and it’s an honest one. She’s now holding that double at arm’s length and assessing it. She still needs to express that dreamlike foray into excess in order to make clear the path to leaving it. She treats the complicity of that double as if a recovering addict, someone who “used to shoot up my veins in neon.”

Whether that character of complicity has been more effective in critiquing it or embodying it seems to vary by perspective, but Lana Del Rey’s career has charted the course of the United States falling into an illusive and dangerous mythology of excess in a way no other artist’s has. As she sings in “The Greatest,”

“If this is it, I’m signing off
Miss doing nothing the most of all
Hawaii just missed a fireball
L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot
Kanye West is blond and gone
‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song
Oh, the live stream’s almost on.”

The featured image is from Consequence of Sound here.

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