Before you read on, be aware that this piece contains many rude words, or rather the same curse word repeated many times in different forms. If you are sensitive to such things, or are under 13, please stop reading now. If not, continue to the next paragraph, after these photos of the CD cover and inlay from Lana del Rey’s most recent release.
If you look closely at the photos above, you will see that the album title and artist name are both reduced to three letters of the alphabet: “NFR!” and LDR. Also, the track listing on the inlay shows that the first song is called “Norman ******* Rockwell”. In fact, the song, like the album as a whole, is called “Norman Fucking Rockwell” (with or without the “!” at the end). The CD inlay also uses asterisks to censor the title of Track 4 (“Fuck it I love you”) and even Track 3 (“Venice Bitch”). I find the latter bit of editing rather endearing, suggesting as it does that some people might be equally offended by the words “bitch” and “fuck”. I certainly am, and have not uttered the former word aloud in many, many years. I have, on the other hand, used “the F word” a fuck of a lot, and will probably continue to do so.
I chose “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” to be my third Album of the Week (following on from “entertainment!” and “Pin-Ups”) for a number of reasons. First of all, it doesn’t feel right to spend all of my time listening to 1970s releases by male acts, so I wanted something from the current century by a female performer. I wanted an artist whose work I was only vaguely familiar with, and apart from “Video Games” Lana del Rey’s music was unknown to me. I had been meaning to check out her recordings for a while. The clincher was reading through the Guardian’s list of the 50 Best Albums of 2019. I had kept the relevant supplement from last December but only went through it earlier this month. “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” was #1 on the list.
For a full review of the album, and the reasons it made #1 on that list, here’s a link to the review by Laura Snapes (all 1,300 words of it). It also includes links to some of the songs. I won’t attempt anything similar, just my own experiences of acquiring and listening to the album, 1,000 words which follow this paragraph. For a look at the rest of the Guardian’s Top 50, click here.
Having decided to buy the CD, my immediate thoughts were about which record shop I should visit, but any place selling new releases would have taken me out of my way. I ordered it on Amazon to arrive the following day (£7.50, free delivery through Prime). This prompted four emails from the world’s biggest online retailer: an Order Confirmation, notification that it had been dispatched, further notification that it would be delivered later that day and finally a confirmation that it had been delivered. On every email the album’s title was given as “Norman F**cking Rockwell” rather than “Norman F*cking Rockwell” or “Norman F***ing Rockwell”. This suggested that the offending word might have been “Flicking” or “Fracking” rather than “Fucking”. This is the kind of thing you ponder when you get four emails in under 24 hours related to the same successful transaction.
My 13-year-old daughter was in the room when I opened the envelope, interested to see what I had bought. I showed her, and she asked if she could play it straight away. She told me that one of her schoolfriends really likes Lana del Rey but doesn’t have anyone to talk to about her music. I let her take it up to her room. Her portable CD player still works, unlike the one I tried to use for last week’s album of choice. I wasn’t planning to start playing this one until Wednesday, when my new Album of the Week kicks in.
On Tuesday evening I drove her to athletics training, 10-15 minutes away. She wanted to play the CD on the way, so it was a sneak preview for me of something that I was planning to listen to the following day. Fortunately, she doesn’t pick out song lyrics quite as readily as I do, so she didn’t notice the album’s first words: “Goddamn, man-child, you fucked me so good I almost said, ‘I love you’”.
I said something along the lines of, “Blimey, it really is ‘Parental Advisory Explicit Content’, like the cover says”. My daughter asked, “What did she say?” I said that if she couldn’t make out the words for herself, I wasn’t going to repeat them, but they might not be entirely appropriate for her or her friend. I’m all for singing along to music but I won’t be joining in with this one anytime soon.
The words “shit” or “fuck” or both appear in each of the first six tracks. We heard them all on our drive to the athletics club, while we were sat in the car before training (we arrived early, and it was raining) and on part of the way home. At that point I played her two tracks from “entertainment!” by Gang of Four (still, at the time, my Album of the Week): “Damaged Goods” and “Love like Anthrax”. The most explicit lyrics here appear in the first of them (“Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you / But I know it’s only lust”). By contrast we (or, more accurately, I) had heard Lana del Rey singing such unambiguous words as “If I wasn’t so fucked up I think I’d fuck you all the time” (from “Fuck it I love you”). I didn’t expect my daughter to warm to Gang of Four, the jagged post-punk tunes of my youth, and was pleased by her straightforward assessment: “It’s very different”.
I have continued to listen to “Norman Fucking Rockwell” throughout the last week, a dozen times or more. I like it and I like many things about it: the raw and confessional tone, the drenched-in-California sound, the biographical references to other musicians (Dennis Wilson, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash among them). All of that sexual detail did make me feel a bit voyeuristic (I am, after all, old enough to be Lana del Rey’s father) and I don’t feel that it’s suitable for my 13-year-old daughter or her friends. Ironically, the friend who is a fan of Lana del Rey is not allowed to watch the latest series of “Anne” (or “Anne with an E”) on Netflix because the main characters are now aged 16 or over. Apparently her mother believes that this makes the show unsuitable viewing, even though it still has a 12 rating. God knows what she would make of Lana del Rey’s lyrics. I haven’t met her, and we don’t know for sure that her daughter is listening to “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”. It could be the earlier albums.
I have listened to plenty of expletive-laden music in my time but never with my parents in the room. If I had wanted to shock them at any time I could have played them “Bodies” by Sex Pistols, but that was only ever heard in the room that I shared with my brother, never on any music device in the living-room or kitchen. Neither of my parents ever walked in to hear about Pauline (“she was a girl from Birmingham / she’d just had an abortion … she was a bloody disgrace”) or to hear Johnny Rotten’s lead-in to a rousing rendition of the final chorus: “Fuck this and fuck that / Fuck it all and fuck the fucking brat / She don’t want a baby that looks like that / I don’t want a baby that looks like that …” Still shocking after all these years. Check it out here if you like.
I’ll end with something a college friend told me back in the 1980s. It came to mind while listening to Lana del Rey’s explicit lyrics with my daughter. My college friend, aged about 18 at the time, had brought home the album ”Secondhand Daylight” by Magazine and played it on the family stereo in the living-room. Her father came into the room while it was playing, sat down and started reading the paper. It was not his kind of music. Eyebrows were raised. Occasional comments were made. I don’t believe that it went as far as, “How can you listen to this rubbish?” or, “That’s not music, that’s just noise” but this was not a “father and daughter bonding over music” experience. Which was okay, until “Permafrost”, the final track. Howard Devoto’s enunciation is clear enough to make out the lines, “I will drug you and fuck you / On the Permafrost”. Repeatedly. She was blushing throughout the last three minutes of the song. When it ended her father said, more in disappointment than anger, “I don’t really think that’s appropriate, do you?” If my daughter had been able to make out Lana del Rey’s words just as clearly, she might have said the same thing to me.