How Lana Del Rey fell out of love with America

Her new record 'Norman Fucking Rockwell!' presents a warped American Dream

Red, white and blue flags flapping in a balmy breeze, a star-spangled Hollywood walk of fame, a jagged New York skyline and gaudy neon on palm-tree fringed boulevards – from the moment that Lana Del Rey released the video for her breakthrough single ‘Video Games’ larger-than-life America has felt like the biggest presence in her work. 

Often, she collages together striking U.S. symbolism: her major label debut ‘Born To Die’ pasted James Dean and blue-wash Levi’s next to lyrical snippets of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen, and her very own ‘National Anthem’. In fact vivid all-American motifs are sprinkled through all of her records, functioning like descriptions in a screenplay. Each flattened cultural snatch conjures up the flawed romance of a chain-smoking Beat poet hammering at a typewriter in New York, or a Joan Didion-esque housewife who lazes on the beach getting high on Quaaludes and white wine spritzers – these symbols of excess and glamour are everywhere.

Yet if Lana Del Rey’s persona has ever seemed like a caricature, then it’s the result of a carefully considered sleight-of-hand. Her America is a landscape filled with perfect, sprawling days that feel like an escape from reality, everlasting summers,  sleazy bikers, million-dollar men, and inflated egos. The American flag she wears as a cape is a blank projection board for a beautiful but deeply flawed country.

Through referencing various American cultural figures, she also pokes fun at the mythology that surrounds various male geniuses –  and the pure adoration they are greeted with bears certain similarities with patriotism. As we’ve seen in recent years, serious accusations of misogyny and sexual misconduct have done little to prevent men like Trump and Kavanaugh from holding positions of huge political power. 

It also points to an interesting artistic double-standard in the same breath, when it comes to examining flawed characters in art. Why is it that somebody like Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski is universally revered by @beam_me_up_softboi entrants, who are able to nonchalantly separate the artist from the art? In a similar way, Vladimir Nabokov – who Lana Del Rey references numerous times –  is regarded separately to his fictional depiction of paedophilia in Lolita. And meanwhile there’s an assumption that art by women is squarely autobiographical – employ a bit of creative licence, or depict a protagonist with questionable morals, and you’re an irresponsible role model – worse, a fraud. And so, Lana Del Rey has historically been unpicked and scrutinised in the past. Who is ‘the real Lizzy Grant’ people asked? It’s a question answered with another Walt Whitman quote on her Twitter bio: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multitudes.”

Lately this has proven particularly true. Ahead of releasing ‘Lust For Life’ in 2017, she stated her intention to retire stars and stripes from her live shows. “I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing ‘Born to Die’,” she told Pitchfork. ”It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static.” 

When scores of people are sporting Make America Great Again baseball caps, and viewing any criticism of their home country as dissent – while children are being separated from their parents at the borders, and ICE are employing deceptive tactics against migrants – static certainly feels more fitting. Asked if the reality of Trump’s administration creates a tension when it comes to romanticising America, Del Rey replied “It’s certainly uncomfortable.”

Perhaps that’s why, in recent years, Lana Del Rey’s work has fallen out of love with the so-called The Land of Opportunity, trading in a slate of symbols for a barbed caricature. ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s closing epic like Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’ cannot help but feel sardonic in the current climate, just as one-off ‘Looking For America’ reframes her entire aesthetic. “I’m  still looking for my own version of America,  one without the gun, where the flag can freely fly,” she sings. 

And ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ certainly feels like a record that seeks to reframe this search in a slightly different way. This is a warped and disintegrating American Dream, filled with man-children who “blame the news” for their mediocre poetry, where the soothing beat of an old song, or a brief retreat to California is the only brief escape. Many of the figures in her music seem more unsavoury than ever before. ”The culture is lit and I had a ball,” she concludes pointedly on ‘The Greatest’. “I guess I’m signing off after all”.