There’s this popular and annoying Twitter account called So Sad Today that posts depressive “deep” aphorisms that are clearly engineered to be retweeted by people who are feeling vaguely down and can’t articulate why — stuff like “i love when i’m not awake” and “just got a terrible feeling that I exist.” The account is run by Melissa Broder, an educated woman who is married, lives in LA, and has published four books. I don’t question the validity of her experience with mental illness, but I do find the way this account portrays depression to be rather distasteful. It’s this cutesy, faux-self-deprecating tone that many use on the internet, and it glorifies depression by turning it into a blandly relatable performance that doesn’t contain any real truth.
Lana Del Rey is the So Sad Today of musicians. Her new album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, appeals to the same audience of disaffected young women, and it taps into very contemporary feelings of nostalgia and anxiety about the future. It’s a huge, ambitious album, and it has an undeniably appealing sound with its piano plus string arrangements and Del Rey’s vocals, which are gorgeous and full of longing, similar to Hope Sandoval’s. Despite these obvious positives, and some good songs like “Mariners Apartment Complex,” I find myself loathing this album because everything feels so fake and performatively sad.
Admittedly, this might be my contrarian instincts kicking in in response to the wave of hype surrounding this album, which has frankly been preposterous. But I can’t buy into this material, which is presented with such seriousness while taking on this silly and cliché 50s Americana aesthetic. Del Rey can sing and back herself with good production, but it never becomes anything to me other than some vapid tunes done in a style that has been performed by countless much more interesting artists. This nearly 70-minute album does not contain a single original thought or sound, yet it’s presented as this majestic, novel commentary on American life.
Norman Fucking Rockwell is so transparently ambitious and trying to be a Great American Album that it becomes unbelievably tedious despite its beautiful sound. A song like “Venice Bitch,” for instance, has no real reason to be nine minutes long except that this is an epic album that needs epic songs. Its long instrumental section tries to be mesmerizing and psychedelic but is really just some pointless noodling– it’s length for the sake of length. That song ends up being a microcosm of this album’s entire contrived self-indulgent vibe. Del Rey now believes she is an artist who has Something to Say about America and culture and everything else, so the album drags on and on with samey songs that are full of banal observations about how great things used to be, how she has no fucks to give, etc. There isn’t really poetry or depth in these lyrics, most of which sound like they were algorithmically generated to maximize likes on Instagram. Anyone pretending that these songs are some really deep exploration of the American Dream is out of their mind. I’ve read fortune cookies that had more insight.
What is maybe most frustrating about this album is that it’s totally in my musical wheelhouse as someone who really likes this type of nostalgic, emotive pop. It irritates me, probably irrationally, that Lana Del Rey is the artist being celebrated for this style when she is bringing nothing new to the table. Widowspeak’s Expect the Best did everything this album is trying to do in half the length and I might have been the only person to chart it on my year-end list. Fiona Apple makes music that is somewhat reminiscent of this album, but she puts authentic feeling and experiences into her songs. When Del Rey sings, I don’t get that — it all feels like a character and a performance, and she’s singing these lyrics because she knows people will relate to them and like them, not because she feels them. This entire album is such a surface-level exploration of subjects that have been covered so much better by other art. You could probably re-read most of The Great Gatsby in the time it takes to listen to this thing and be much better off.
I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that this is the album people have decided is the greatest thing ever in the social media era. When people are brought up on the idea of likes and popularity being equal to quality, it makes sense that they all go wild for pandering middlebrow nonsense like this. And when writers and listeners are all desperate to seem positive about pop music to show how not-snobby they are, they convince themselves that Lana’s vacuous lyrics about walking on beaches in California are the pinnacle of the form. Meanwhile, the music that really does have something to say often goes ignored in this social media driven cultural monopoly held by mainstream pop. Norman Fucking Rockwell being a boring album isn’t what bothers me so much: it’s that it represents a tipping point in our culture where every big pop album with some hype behind it is lapped up uncritically by maniacal fans and celebrated for accomplishing the bare minimum artistically. Our standards should be much higher than this.