How does it feel to be Lana Del Rey in 2019? To have lived your whole life under a different name, playing music to no one, then the next eight years in the public eye? She’s spent reinvention after reinvention clawing her way towards artistic and personal contentment -- so why is the closing track of Norman Fucking Rockwell so emotionally devastating?
In a room so empty you can hear the silence, she sits, almost alone, with her thoughts. As Jack Antonoff plays a muted piano waltz, echoing her every gesture, Lana looks back on her art: “I had fifteen-year dances/ Church basement romances, yeah I’ve cried/ Spilling my guts with the Bowery Bums is the only love I’ve ever known/ Except for the stage, which I also call home, when I’m not.” Even in this calm after the storm, the past still weighs on her, leaving her shaken in the present. She’s seen things in Hollywood, that maker of dreams, that silenced her from speaking up: “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman with my past…” The future is uncertain, and her mind and body might still fail her: “There’s a new revolution, a loud evolution that I saw.../ A modern-day woman with a weak constitution, ’cause I’ve got/ Monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off.”
“I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown/ 24/7 Sylvia Plath,” sings Lana, invoking the poet who wrote and died young by her self-destructive impulses. When trauma provides a well of inspiration, artists are forced to constantly relive their most intimate moments, commodifying themselves to make a living. “Shaking my ass is the only thing that’s got this black narcissist off my back…”
“Video Games” was so powerful that nearly a decade later, it still defines the way we see Lana Del Rey. For years, she was viewed as the queen of misery, both in song and public persona, even long after she thought she’d moved on from those early fixations: “Writing in blood on the walls/ ’Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad.” Perhaps in response, she gave combative, elusive interviews about wanting to throw it all away.
Many of her greatest works felt like her final proclamation, songs so dramatic and fatalistic she might never be able to top them: “Born to Die,” “Ride,” “Cruel World,” “The Other Woman,” “God Knows I Tried,” the “High by the Beach” video, “Swan Song." It was a form of control, the tantalizing prospect that Lana could culminate her career in a tragedy of her own making; the musical equivalent of the “Born to Die” video’s fiery car wreck. She even recorded an entire album, Ultraviolence, that probably should have killed her commercial prospects, but backfired miraculously. Like no other pop star this decade, Lana Del Rey wanted to define herself on her own terms, or not at all.
The truth is, sadness was never the purpose of her music. It was that beauty without suffering used to feel cheap, dishonest: “All of these debutantes/ Smiling for miles in pink dresses and high heels on white yachts/ But I’m not, baby I’m not...” Through Honeymoon, Lust For Life, and now Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana Del Rey learned to write from a place of compassion for herself; to be a role model for her listeners, while allowing her past to amplify her newfound optimism. It was never about nostalgia, lovers, or breakups; she’s proven that she was her own muse all along. But still, the process of grieving, learning, and growing never ends, in life or art.
“Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not/ But at best, I can say I’m not sad...” After eight years, for five and a half minutes, Lana drags you through heartbreak and back, all to earn one final stanza. Her voice quavers as she jumps up an octave -- whispering, gasping: “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it/ Yeah, I have it/ Yeah, I have it/ I have...” It’s the quietest, most vulnerable moment in Lana Del Rey’s discography, and the most truthful. Her future is unwritten, but she’ll write it with hope.