Lana Del Rey’s new album Norman F—ing Rockwell is definitely an in-your-face title. What is the singer talking about: the iconic American illustrator, one of her loser boyfriends, or something bigger like America’s image of itself?
Opinions, including Del Rey’s, vary.
The singer knew she’d have to explain an album and a song called Norman F—ing Rockwell.
So she did.
In the first pass, she told Vanity Fair that it was a bit of a “hot take” on the vanishing promise of attaining a better life than your parents. “It was kind of an exclamation mark: ‘So this is the American dream, right now,'” she said. “This is where we’re at—Norman f—ing Rockwell. We’re going to go to Mars, and [Donald] Trump is president, all right.”
Then, perhaps worried that too much political commentary might not be a good thing, she offered a new explanation. This time Norman F—ing Rockwell was just about a “self-loathing poet Laurel Canyon man-child.”
Finally, she tried to bail out of the whole controversy by telling New Musical Express it’s just a crazy title that happened to appeal to her. “I love having painter references, because I think sometimes when you’re writing, you’re sort of trying to paint these ideas into existence because I’m very visual, too. So yeah, I don’t know. I know it’s a crazy title, but that’s just the title of the record.”
But why bring Norman Rockwell into it at all? Most music critics admit they don’t really know. They give a brief nod to the expletive-free Rockwell in their discussion, and to many fans who might not be into art history, it’s just really, really weird.
So who was Rockwell? Because having a sense of the man’s work and influence reveals more than perhaps even Del Rey realizes.
The 411 on Norman Rockwell
Rockwell was an artist and illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post magazine from the Great Depression through the early 1960s. The Post was among the dominant magazines of its era, along with Life and Look, a mass-market, general-interest publication which routinely featured Rockwell’s work on its cover. Born in 1894, Rockwell was best known for his illustrations of small-town America in the mid-twentieth century. His favorite subjects were adorable children and happy families engaged in ordinary but inspiring vignettes of American life. But despite the cute kids and friendly policemen, Rockwell’s work and legacy have always been the subject of spirited debate. More than 40 years after his death in 1978, art historians and critics are still trying to decide whether Rockwell’s legacy amounts to more than just a lot of synthetic pop patriotism.
“Lana Del Rey and her listeners get the reference,” says Joan Saab, who teaches art history, visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester. “To critique him properly, you have to know who he is.”
Saab says Rockwell was an interesting title choice for several reasons. He never really escaped his kitschy illustrator image. He painted an idealized version of the middle class: it was Middle American, it was white, and it was incredibly patriotic. Saab says even viewers at the time understood that Rockwell’s most famous works such as The Four Freedoms and the Man on the Moon were more aspirational than realistic.
But she also says that’s what makes Del Rey’s album so interesting. “She recognizes Rockwell on those terms,” she says. “It was always a sort of potential America, not the America that was in front of them. She didn’t call the album Effing Charles Schultz. It’s Norman Rockwell, because that’s a certain type of shorthand most people understand.”
Visiting the Norman Rockwell Museum
Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, says the album title brings a historical figure like Rockwell back into contemporary conversations.
She says the Museum tries to help viewers understand the stories Rockwell told through his illustrations. “In Rockwell’s day, America was much less diverse. Magazines had tremendous power—millions in circulation—and they knew what kinds of things they wanted on their covers. They wanted to be seen as inspirational and dedicated to the type of American Dream that was being promoted. They wanted readers to see their best selves.”
She adds, “The best way to think about Rockwell’s work is to think about the movies. Think of Steven Spielberg, for example. You suspend your disbelief to enter that world, at least for a moment.”
However, not everybody in America was willing to suspend their disbelief for a feel-good moment. After Rockwell debuted his famous Four Freedoms series in 1943 (inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1941 speech), Plunkett says Rockwell received a letter from the NAACP. They asked him how those freedoms related to the Black community and what he could do as an illustrator to support dignity and equality for all Americans.
She says it wasn’t until later in his career when he had already achieved ‘elder statesman status’ that he began exploring social issues in his work.
The problem he faced was one illustrators still have today, Plunkett says. “How do you satisfy your client and still create an aesthetic statement that expresses who you are?”
“Rockwell’s patriotism had a gentleness and civility that is not present in recent conversations,” says Professor Saab. “Rockwell bracketed a moment we are never going back to. It’s too civilized. It’s too white. It’s too unreal. Rockwell can be used to talk about so many different things, but he was never about reality. It’s like watching Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best, she says. “Maybe it was never real, but [it] was paraded out as a version of the past.”
Rockwell admitted he worked primarily without any sort of agenda—except to please viewers and sell magazines. But every now and then, he thought about saying something more. “Most of the time, I try to entertain with my Post covers,” Rockwell said. “Once in a while I get an uncontrollable urge to say something serious.”
The same is probably also true for Lana Del Rey.