Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the best album of 2019. Seemingly everyone in the music critic sphere has echoed this belief, and I am not going to argue with that (it’s been a weak year, anyway). It’s the rare album of a genre leader crafting a magnum opus that everyone expected to be great. It was in the title; it was in the album cover; it was in the slow build of epic singles with myth-building videos to match; it was in the growing acceptance of Lana Del Rey as a prominent songwriter capable of greatness dating back to 2014’s Ultraviolence. An album like Norman Fucking Rockwell! comes around once a year, if that; it’s in the territory of DAMN., Blonde, Lemonade, & Currents — immediate classics. With those albums though, there wasn’t this need to portray the artist responsible as a generational soothsayer, and that’s where the Lana Del Rey commentary gets sticky.
Despite Lana Del Rey being a massive pop star with a fake name for almost a decade, she has maintained a down-to-Earth, representational image. It’s part of her image-crafting as the classic American — implied whiteness, of course — woman. She needs to be seen as singing for you and from you for it all to work. Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar don’t have the same necessity of personal connection, and maybe that’s due to their black heritage — allowed to be outsider geniuses off the beaten path. More likely though, it has to do with their often-abstract lyrical approaches. Lana Del Rey is far from abstract; she rarely strays from first-person narration, every song has a chorus and a few verses, and relationships are her main concern. She pretty strictly stays in this mode on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, but she’s found room to breathe and expand within these confines, most excitedly in the sprawl of “Venice Bitch.” Much like Taylor Swift, she mostly clings to her calculated approach in fear of pushing away her core audience, the ones that identify with her.
The need to conform to the pop star she has been keeps NFR! a step below the afore-mentioned immediate classics, but more importantly, it undercuts the narrative of her becoming a political voice of the people or an embodiment of the American spirit. “Looking for America” was released as a non-album single before NFR! in the aftermath of multiple mass shootings over a weekend. Its haughtily-dramatic, percussion-less instrumentation is more in line with her pre-NFR! work and is a immediate turn-off for me, but the lyrics are more irksome in their blasé approach. She sings, “I’m still looking for my own version of America / One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly / No bombs in the sky, only fireworks when you and I collide.” These may be fine if she took it a step further, but this is as much as she will say for her political anthem. Notice the lack of subjects involving the gun or bombs; they’re just present rather than inextricably linked to the worst among us. The song’s melancholic drift is upended by its calculated lyrics, rhymes, and imagery that suggest her version of America is a pretty banal one. Ultimately, it’s a pop star saying the bare minimum — “guns and bombs are bad” — and being mostly lauded for it. My biggest grievance with the commentary surrounding Lana Del Rey in 2019 is that she has meticulously crafted her lyrical persona to the point where the slightest mention of political conviction or apocalypse anxiety is blown out of proportion rather than considered tepid half-stepping from a pop star.
Lana Del Rey, the person, also may have some work to do in being a voice of America in 2019. For the New York Times, Lana Del Rey was asked about her lyrics on Kanye in “The greatest,” and she said, “You never feel better for having written something like that. But Kanye just means so much to us. And by the way, I’m grateful to be in a country where everyone can have their own political views. I’m really not more of a liberal than I am a Republican — I’m in the middle.” It’s an enlightening answer on her political inspiration. She’s socially conscious enough to blast Kanye on Twitter for a pro-Trump tweet and sing about guns being bad, but what else? Saying you’re in the middle is about the lamest political stance you can take. It’s a sign of being aware enough to not be an idiot, but also not caring enough to fight for what’s right. It’s that default thing people say when they don’t vote. In 2019, it’s not like her core audience of young people are going to revolt against her for being too liberal. Hell, Taylor Swift made a post on IG telling people not to vote for Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn, and she just had the biggest week for album sales since her last one. Lana’s answer reads more like an apology for being politically outspoken for once.
With her tepid political beliefs and adhering to a pop songwriting template, Lana Del Rey is not there yet. The second half of NFR! falters from her prevalent issues of pacing and instrumentation with lyrics that don’t stand out — melodically or thematically — like the first half. However, it’s still the first album this year that succeeds through an onslaught of great songs — “Norman fucking Rockwell,” “Mariners Apartment Complex,” “Venice Bitch,” “Doin’ Time,” “The greatest,” and “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it” as a collection of six songs on the same album ranks as one of the greatest achievements this decade. At its heart, NFR! is a great singles album with filler that actually aims not to be, like Sweetener and Red. I hope this is more of the focus when discussing her greatness rather than a glorified version of a staunchly political Lana Del Rey that subtly takes aim at American history. Her subtlety seems more like lukewarm soapboxing, and her infatuation with classic America is often too earnest to be considered an admirable viewpoint in 2019. I’m still looking for the best version of Lana Del Rey, but until then, just let her be the greatest pop star of the moment.