A Good Segment From Monday Night Raw, Which is a Good Show

I’m not sure if there is anything in other media quite like the relationship between wrestling fans and WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw. Clocking in at three hours every Monday night, Raw is the most-watched wrestling show in the world despite the fact that seemingly everyone hates it. There is an entire industry now of YouTubers, podcasters, and social media personalities who build their entire brand around trashing Raw and dramatically talking about how TERRIBLE and SO BAD everything is, and it’s become something of a bizarre shared ritual where fans tune in to bitch about the writing, the wrestlers that are being pushed, the amount of talking on the show, and pretty much anything else anyone could possibly complain about. This sort of contrived “suffering fan” schtick is insufferable to me and it’s part of why I tend to keep my wrestling fandom guarded in public.

I’ve always enjoyed Raw, but often it’s been something like a guilty pleasure. I have a certain respect for the difficulty of putting on a 3-hour show every week for a fickle and tough audience, and if the show ever had major flaws (and boy did it ever), I usually would find them fascinating instead of frustrating. It provides a lot of analytical fodder, thinking of how they could have handled certain wrestlers, how they should be telling a story, what a segment was trying to accomplish that it didn’t, etc. One reason I recommend wrestling is that you get a really strong visceral sense of how storytelling works in real time, and sometimes there is a lot to be learned in watching WWE step in it. But lately, for a variety of reasons, Raw has become an actual good show, with what seems to be a more logical booking philosophy and plan for its main characters. And it turns out, it’s just as fun to analyze something that actually works.

One segment in particular on this week’s show captured the essence of what I think pro wrestling should be. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with my scorching wrestling takes, it involves the best professional wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch. That is a bit controversial because most wrestling fans on the internet think being a professional wrestler means doing the most cool moves, flipping around the ring like a gymnast, and having self-indulgent 4o-minute matches that are designed to get “five stars” from hack wrestling journalists and “this is awesome” chants from fans who don’t care who wins. I’m part of a shrinking group of boomer fans who really love the non-match parts of wrestling, and I think a lot of the art in this business comes from talking, promoting, and making people actually give a shit about the match. Nobody is better at that than Becky Lynch.

Becky has run roughshod over the roster since winning all the gold in the main event of Wrestlemania this year, and as with any long title reign, it’s brought out critics who are sick of her push and think she’s a bad wrestler because she isn’t putting on the aforementioned nonsense matches with all the moves and flips. These people are wrong, they’re bad, and they deserve to be shunned from the wrestling community. Because even months into this reign, the crowd still loves Becky and she’s still evolving as a character, from an outlaw rebel who was defying the company to the self-admitted “golden goose” of WWE who now has to fight to maintain her individuality and desire for the toughest fights while being “protected” due to her value as a corporate spokeswoman.

The target for Becky is Asuka, the Japanese wrestler who beat her nearly a year ago at the Royal Rumble and has continued to have her number since. Becky’s story is that WWE didn’t want her to face Asuka, figuring she’d lose again and it would damage her marketability as “the face of the company.” Asuka is a mega-talented wrestler who doesn’t speak much English but still has tons of charisma, and she’s only lost a tiny handful of matches in her entire career. Lately she’s taken to spraying her opponents with “green mist,” and in this week’s segment she hit Becky with it after signing the contract for the match at this year’s Royal Rumble.

At this point, it’s worth observing that spraying green mist in people’s eyes is not something that people generally do, and it’s seldom seen in the real world. That’s part of what made this segment feel so definitively pro wrestling to me: it’s this ridiculous character trait that has been passed down in Japanese tradition (notably by The Great Muta, who Asuka cites as an inspiration) and it’s just this weird wrestling thing that exists and is accepted by fans. The reason it’s accepted is because of performances like Becky’s in this clip: of course we know wrestling is fake, and within the realm of fakeness the green mist is even faker, but she sells it seriously and believably as if it is incredibly painful. And because she is so damn good at this, and it’s presented without any irony or winking at the audience, fans actually believe now that this mist is a real dangerous thing, that Asuka can hit it at any time, and that the most pushed woman in the company’s title reign could be in jeopardy.

Then Becky demands a microphone and delivers a fantastic promo while recovering from the mist and looking into a camera that she is blindly swiping at with her hands.  Maybe it got a little too fanciful with its language, but I felt the emotion and the intensity, and it was from someone who just is their character, not someone who is playing a role and thinks of themselves as a performance artist. And now because of segments like this, I want to see the match and there’s a clear sense of stakes — Becky needs to win this match to prove something to herself and to get revenge on Asuka. All of this build-up is going to make their match at Royal Rumble feel bigger, the moves are going to mean more, and it will almost certainly be awesome, even though I don’t think either of these wrestlers has ever done a flippy move in their life.

This should be Pro Wrestling 101, but the current landscape is polluted with an “everyone knows wrestling is fake so nobody will care about anything so why should we even try” mentality where everyone just does outlandish goofy crap and winks at the audience. I can’t even go to indie shows because all of them feature so much dumb nonsense on the card, and WWE’s competitor, AEW, continues to struggle at telling stories that have any real sense of gravitas or stakes like this one does, despite the ridiculousness of the green mist. So, bizarrely, Monday Night Raw, the punching bag of fans, is my favorite wrestling show right now and the one that I think has the most talent and a philosophy that makes me want to watch.

Cold Beat’s “Prism” is the Early Song of the Decade

The biggest thing that has always stopped me from being successful as a writer is my inability to produce something when I don’t really feel inspired. When it comes to music, I have no idea how some of these people get themselves fired up to write about albums every single week when most music isn’t all that great. My laziness and inability to pretend to like things means that just getting me to throw a post together is something of an accomplishment, and I use it as a marker of success if anything is able to get me to care enough to write. Cold Beat is one of the only bands that consistently makes me want to throw a shout into the internet echo chamber in the hopes that someone will hear it.

It is difficult to discuss Hannah Lew’s band and not have it be through the lens of how underappreciated they are — I don’t even say “underrated” because they aren’t even rated. Genuinely no one talks about this band other than me. I might actually be their biggest fan, and maybe I should give up and accept that they just don’t appeal to other listeners because they’re all worse at appreciating music than I am. Their new song “Prism” makes me want to keep fighting, though.

This is from their upcoming album, Mother, written during Lew’s pregnancy, and it feels like a strong continuation from their previous album, Chaos By Invitation, which I lauded to a largely indifferent pseudo-audience. With few lyrics, there isn’t much to grab onto in terms of themes, but musically it is a distinct work from the band, who have really carved out their own space in all of these 80s synth pop acts. Cold Beat is still really into purposeful ambiguity — the lyrics aren’t telling the listener anything, but I still feel like there is a clear emotion and meaning to it and I’m always one listen away from figuring it out. Artists who can pull off that trick tend to be among my favorites, and it’s something Lew has shown a knack for even going back to her previous band, Grass Widow.

The ambiguity is part of what makes “Prism” addictive, along with its multiple repeating motorik grooves that are joined by some swirly synths that give it a celestial quality. The band is saying this album is trying to describe earth to a newborn, and the sounds here capture the ground and the sky, along with some of the wonders of looking up into space. Once again, Cold Beat have made a song that isn’t necessarily complicated on the surface and put in so many layers that keep revealing themselves. This is the work of a band in prime form, and Mother is instantly my most anticipated album of 2020.

A Dispatch From the Wednesday Night Wrestling Wars

The most polarizing character in wrestling right now is Orange Cassidy, a comedic character who performs in the ring as if he just woke up from a hangover and has no interest in anything that is going on. When he enters the ring, he lightly kicks his opponents in a parody of the typical “babyface fire-up” in wrestling, when the heroic character regains their strength and starts hitting all of their impactful moves. Fans react with ironic shock at Cassidy’s “brutal violence,” and it’s generally been a popular gimmick that taps into the type of ironic comedy and memes that are currently popular with the youths.

While Cassidy is a minor player in All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion that just began airing a weekly TV show called “Dynamite” a few weeks ago, I increasingly think he is the litmus test for potential fans of the company. AEW stormed onto the airwaves on TNT with a wave of momentum from fans who are fed up with WWE’s monopoly on large-scale American wrestling and its various frustrating creative and booking decisions. However, in a few weeks, AEW has lost hundreds of thousands of viewers as potential fans tuned in and lost interest. I’m one of those who has eventually tuned out, and Cassidy is emblematic of the reasons why.

It’s not that Orange Cassidy is necessarily unfunny — it’s that he represents a flaw in the core of AEW’s DNA that makes it impossible for me to enjoy it as a fan of wrestling. Even though wrestling is fake, I think it is at its best when it feels real and it taps into authentic emotions and makes people feel invested in the winner of the match. Maybe that sounds like a silly notion if you don’t watch wrestling, but think of it like any other form of entertainment. If you read or watch  The Lord of Rings, of course you know that the world is fictitious, that hobbits and wizards and orcs don’t really exist. But it is still presented as a world with its own set of rules and logic, which combined with serious storytelling makes you still feel an attachment to the characters. Once you’ve suspended your disbelief in this way and gotten caught up in the world, storytelling moments like Gandalf’s “death” generate emotional reactions that are very real, even though he is a fictional character.

The massive problem I have with AEW that I haven’t really seen discussed much (most hardcore wrestling fans and critic types love this show) is that it has absolutely no suspension of disbelief, in part due to the comedic hijinks of a character like Orange Cassidy, whose entire gimmick and humor is based on knowing that what you’re watching isn’t real. But it goes beyond Cassidy: because the show is aimed at the young male wrestling fan who knows the ins and outs of wrestling shows, it plays constantly to that base with insider jokes and winks at the audience. The matches themselves don’t feel real either, even for the standards of pretend fighting — a lot of the matches in AEW are more like choreographed gymnastics displays, with the clear goal being to “put on a great match” instead of trying to win or hurt your opponent.

AEW’s champion, Chris Jericho, is one of wrestling’s greatest performers, but over the run of the show his character has become increasingly goofy and silly, with promos that more closely resemble bad SNL sketches or improv routines than the classic style of wrestling promo that I love. Instead of building conflicts based on emotion and real-life feelings, his segments are increasingly focused on props and jokes, and because he is funny, fans don’t desire to see him lose the way they should with a heel champion. Even when Jericho gets booed by the fans, it’s obvious that they’re playing along because “this is a good heel promo,” not because they actually hate the guy and want to see someone beat him.

Another potential star, Jon Moxley, left WWE right before the launch of AEW and talked a big game about how he was held back there creatively and was going to change wrestling once the shackles of the evil corporation were off him. What got me most excited about AEW was to see what this guy could do with more creative freedom and a chip on his shoulder. But it became apparent pretty quickly that he had no brilliant ideas: he just wanted to behave like a generic badass who walks through the crowd and loves violence while “wrestling” garbage deathmatches with contrived weapons that are in no way believable or entertaining, such has his indulgent, interminable match with Kenny Omega at their last pay-per-view. Moxley said he hated WWE’s “hokey shit,” but his match with Omega was the hokiest thing I’ve ever seen in wrestling with its use of mouse traps and other dumb weapons.

AEW’s women’s division has also been a massive problem, in part due to WWE having a monopoly on talent and in part due to AEW being run by a bunch of guys who don’t seem to care much about telling stories in the division. Its champion, Riho, weighs about 95 pounds and wins all of her matches with sneaky roll-ups. Undersized heroes will always be a thing in wrestling, but Riho doesn’t even seem to have a mean streak or a switch she can hit where she starts kicking ass. She’s portrayed as completely sweet and innocent, someone who would never hurt a fly, which is boring in a wrestling context where I want to experience some catharsis in a staged fight. So just the idea of this demure character being the best women’s wrestler in the company is another of the many things reminding you of how fake AEW is.

Further damaging AEW was WWE’s ruthless and frankly evil decision to put its “NXT” show head-to-head with AEW by switching to a two-hour cable format. And it’s formed an obvious contrast with AEW by taking itself seriously with high-level performers and a logical storytelling flow week-to-week. To me, the breakout star on NXT since its move to cable has been Rhea Ripley, and she has also served to expose many of AEW’s flaws. She is everything missing from AEW: a wrestler who is serious, has star power, looks and acts legit, and the fact that she’s a woman has only further turned a spotlight on the clown show that is the competition’s women’s division. While AEW’s champion barely looks like she could hold her own in a fight, Ripley gives off the vibe that she’s going to rip someone’s head off at any moment. There is intensity and emotion in Ripley’s performances, which are a far cry from the bland choreography in AEW. She’s now set to take on long-reigning women’s champion Shayna Baszler in a match that feels much bigger than anything AEW has offered.

Baszler is her own contrast to AEW and its champion. While Jericho has been putting on interminable promo segments that seek to “entertain” and make people laugh, even though he is a heel, Baszler is no fun whatsoever. She’s a mean, sadistic bully, and she’s held the title for so long and is so ruthless that fans are becoming desperate to see someone knock her off the mountain. And since NXT has an incredibly talented women’s division, fans get to speculate and hope that one of their favorites can be the one to dethrone Shayna. That’s just classic heel wrestling psychology, and that’s what I find fun in wrestling more than segments that are desperately trying to be clever. Even though the fans of NXT are aware of a lot of the behind-the-scenes information, they buy into Baszler because she is believable and serious, and everyone is emotionally invested in seeing who can beat her.

I feel a little bad for these opinions, because the truth is I wanted an alternative to WWE, and I like that AEW exists to push them a bit instead of letting them become complacent. At the same time, I’m not going to watch a show I don’t like because “it’s the right thing to do,” and I also don’t believe WWE is evil and AEW is some virtuous company when both are run by billionaires, who are all inherently horrible. For all of WWE’s faults, they still deliver storytelling that has more emotion and takes itself more seriously than AEW, which seems to lack the confidence to do anything without winking at you and reminding you that it’s all just for show. That might appeal to certain fans of irony and memes — the people who love Orange Cassidy — but it doesn’t speak to what I think pro wrestling can be.

 

 

Angel Olsen Triumphs on the Stunning “All Mirrors”

“Lark,” the opening track on Angel Olsen’s new album, All Mirrors, is an astonishing song: starting at a barely audible volume, it builds through six minutes of huge dynamic shifts before ending with Olsen practically screaming over loud strings that sound kind of like fireworks going off, as if the world is crashing down around her. Its loose, disjointed structure makes it feel like a high-wire act with Olsen barely keeping her balance. The rest of All Mirrors has a similar energy, owing to her manic ambition, but Olsen never falls off the wire. Like professionals in that field, she’s putting on a show that seems risky when really she is in complete control of the situation, and it leaves witnesses asking “how did they do that?”

Ironically, one of the reasons I’ve never been hugely into Olsen prior to this album is that I didn’t think her music was ambitious enough. Burn Your Fire for No Witness is loved by many, but I was never grabbed by its deliberately lo-fi style, which obscured her ability. I liked My Woman a lot more because she seemed to gain confidence and realize she could belt songs out and still shine even with increased production values. But All Mirrors so thoroughly blows the doors off those albums that it has the effect of making her past music seem quaint. Likely inspired by the extensive scientific research indicating that strings make everything better, she surrounds herself with sweeping orchestral arrangements along with synths, and for the first time it feels like her talent is on the stage it deserves.

Olsen is shooting for high drama on this album, which is a dangerous game to play: go too far and it comes off as cheesy and melodramatic; don’t go far enough and it might just be boring. She and producer John Congleton (who has seemingly recorded 90% of music I listen to this year) go all in with the strings and production flourishes, which might turn off fans of hers used to a more grounded style. But Olsen’s ambition never outpaces her skill, and her voice is such a powerful instrument that it cuts through any amount of production and sound. This is not a comparison I make lightly, but this whole album reminds me of Björk, whose music is often dense and experimental, but tied together by undeniable artistry and a distinct voice that is impossible to ignore.

Part of the ambition of All Mirrors is in its variety of songs, which display all the different facets of Olsen’s tremendous vocal ability. “Lark” itself presented a wide range, but the following 10 tracks show so much more. On “Too Easy” she sings with a softer feminine touch, sighing her lyrics above the sound, while on “New Love Cassette” she practically mumbles and blurs into the synths. The closing tracks, “Endgame” and “Chance” are each throwback ballads like from old movies, with Olsen crooning in a more classic, vintage style. While working in a distinctive slow-tempo, orchestral mode, Olsen finds so many ways to show different sides of herself — as a vocal showcase, this is an impressive of an album as I can remember.

Olsen’s style lends itself to melancholy subject matter, and this doesn’t surprise in that regard except that the songs are cloaked in more ambiguity than before. Maybe it’s just that there are songs called “Spring” and “Summer” and this is being released right at the start of autumn, but the album’s variety and the way it’s sequenced makes me think of the passing of seasons and time. The title track indicates her interest in the possible parallel universes that exist with all of the different choices we’ve made that define who we are, and how we sometimes look back at them with regret. Most of this is through the lens of relationships and striving to live in the moment instead of dwelling on the past or fearing the future. The strings lend a gravitas to Olsen’s words and are a critical part of why every song feels like it has high emotional stakes.

What makes this album feel so real is the way Olsen’s themes of growing up and changing are mirrored by her own evolution as an artist. Even with the dramatic performances and more stagey presentation, everything is still grounded in genuine emotion that connects. The feeling I got that Olsen’s previous music undersold her ability makes me wonder if it took her awhile to find her true confidence, even as she was making acclaimed albums. All Mirrors has the feel of an album she’s been building to her whole career, with all of her previous work serving as a warm-up before the real show — and what a show it is.

Bat For Lashes Returns to Her Roots on “Lost Girls”

Bat For Lashes’ previous album, The Bride, wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser: a slow, deadly serious collection of songs about a woman whose husband-to-be dies on her wedding day. While I argued at the time (and still do) that it was an emotionally powerful and worthwhile record that took some audaciousness to release, it was easy to see why many found it unengaging. It’s also easy to see why she chose a more accessible direction on her new album, Lost Girls, which feels like a much-deserved vacation after such heavy material. It’s a shimmering, upbeat pop album that sounds like a love letter to the 80s music and cinema she grew up with.

If you’re like me, the last part raises some eyebrows, since we’re currently at peak “have you heard of this thing called the 80s” culture from Stranger Things and a gaggle of artists embracing that synth pop sound. And like it was hard to argue with The Bride being too slow and difficult, it’s also hard to take issue with anyone who is turned off by the nostalgia and references at play here. But I think it works on this album because Bat for Lashes is referencing a past she actually experienced, and I sense a genuine appreciation for the material she’s referencing instead of it being a cynical nostalgia-grab or put-on. Her whole career proves this in a way, because she was working with these sounds and reference points years ago before it became a cool thing to do. Lost Girls feels more like her coming full circle than her jumping on the bandwagon of 80s mythologizing.

What also helps Lost Girls become more than the sum of its nostalgic parts is that, well, the songs are great. Similar to some other pop acts I’ve appreciated in recent years like Kristin Kontrol and Carly Rae Jepsen, this album has a charming “I’m just here to write memorable pop songs” energy coming from an artist with a deep knowledge of the craft. The first five tracks on this album could all be classified as “jams” (good songs), starting with the lush “Kids in the Dark,” which introduces the album’s themes of young love that are further established on “The Hunger,” which has a similar slow-burn style with an organ added to the mix. “Feel For You” feels almost like a conscious attempt to see how simple she can make a song with it still being good — it’s just a recurring synth part and the lyric “I love you; I feel for you” over and over, yet it doesn’t feel underwritten to me in any way. The sparkling “Desert Man” and the whispery, seductive “Jasmine” close out this opening salvo of tracks, all of which prove that Bat For Lashes can still write catchy, listenable pop — she just didn’t feel like doing it on The Bride.

The instrumental “Vampires” segues into the final few tracks, most of which are slower ballads that are in the conventional Bat For Lashes style (meaning slow and beautiful). While this album lacks the emotional punch of The Bride, it’s a useful companion for showing another side of her artistry, and it’s satisfying to hear an album that doesn’t overreach. Without having some grand contrived narrative, Lost Girls still creates its own world that evokes feelings of youthful innocence and imagination.

“Zdenka 2080” is a Quirky, Cosmic Adventure

People often approach me and ask me “Josh, what do you think music needs more of? By the way I’m a huge fan and love what you do.” I always look them straight in the eye and answer: “we need more music that embraces whimsy and we need more concept albums about traveling into other dimensions.” Lindsay Olsen, who records as Salami Rose Joe Louis (I’m going to refer to her as “Salami” because that seems fun) has delivered my request with her new album,  Zdenka 2080,  which is delightfully bonkers and one of the year’s most creative records.

It takes place in a dystopian future where, as outlined in the second track, “Octagonal Room,” corporations have used the power of the sun to fuel a giant spaceship. When the earth begins to cool, they flee the planet in their ship, leaving the earthlings to inhabit a cold, dark earth. One of those earthlings then stumbles upon an octagonal room with eight paintings, all of which lead into another dimension, and she searches through each dimension to try to find a way to save earth. This gets even weirder through the album, and I’ll resist sharing more of the plot, partially because I don’t want to give it all away and partially because I’m still not sure if I really understand it (or if I’m supposed to).

The plot is told through occasional expositional narratives backed by the music, but for the most part its purpose is to provide a narrative thread that connects all of the tracks, which are quick 1-2 minute collages of abstract pop that are reminiscent of some of Broadcast’s later work with The Focus Group. Salami’s wispy, soulful vocals combined with her quirky retro-futuristic electronics make for a relaxed mood that lets the listener get sucked in and appreciate her mad creativity at work. She is also a planetary scientist, so there is some appropriate science nerdery in the lyrics with songs called “Diatoms and Dinoflagellates” and “Transformation of a Molecule.”

There aren’t really traditional verses or choruses on Zdenka 2080. There is more a collection of intriguing sounds, with memorable keyboard hooks or vocal melodies coming and going quickly as Salami throws all of her musical ideas out there. “Meet Zee in 3-D/Third Dimension” has a beautiful dreamy segment that is probably my favorite part of the album thus far. After a brief keyboard-backed narration at the start, “Love the Sun” turns into a more upbeat piece of lounge pop that would make Stereolab proud.  While many concept albums go for epic scale, Zdenka 2080 is strengthened by its economy of sound and thought, which gives it a wide variety of sounds that don’t overstay their welcome.

On paper (or screen, I guess) this might all sound like a bit much. In practice, Salami weaves all of these elements of the music and story together in a way that feels cohesive. In the context of music now, this is a really refreshing album — one that commits to its ambitious concept and fully embraces the idea of music as a way to expand the listener’s mind, to make them think and wonder. These days, I get a lot of joy out of hearing music that is so willing to be quirky and strange.

Lana Del Rey’s New Album is an Overhyped Bore

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.