Wednesday, September 23, 10:45am - 11:30am (Roundtable)
“The culture is lit and I had a ball”: Youth, Politics, & Culture in Lana Del Rey’s Discography
On August 30, 2019, alt-pop star Lana Del Rey released her fifth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, to universal critical acclaim. Combining her most refined cinematic pop thus far with a bold step into interrogating the white heteropatriarchy informing the musical atmospheres on her previous LPs, the album earned Del Rey the title of one of the best songwriters alive. Inherent in this praise for the album was the assertion that Del Rey had at last “grown up”—and had left behind the most problematic aspects of her younger selves’/narrators’ relationships with toxic white masculinity. Nevertheless, a public back and forth between Del Rey and music critic Ann Powers soon ensued, with an army of stans asserting that the former had always been great while a contingent of music writers gathered around the latter to defend her critical (yet generous) analysis of the album. Ultimately, the debate raised questions about the role of music critics in this moment of social media saturation, along with the extent to which artists occupy a persona when crafting music—or responding to criticism of it.
This roundtable takes up Powers’s call to revisit Del Rey’s discography in the wake of the release of Norman Fucking Rockwell! and the cultural conversation surrounding it. Bringing together a collection of writers who move across lines of music criticism and music scholarship, the roundtable offers a multi-angled approach to considering the motifs of youth across Del Rey’s five full-length releases: Born to Die (2012), Ultraviolence (2014), Honeymoon (2015), Lust For Life (2017), and Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019). From lyrics to sounds to visuals in music videos, Del Rey interweaves everything from iconic symbols of youth (Jackie Kennedy, Lolita) to so-called youthful music genres (rock ‘n’ roll, trip hop) to her own personal narratives (growing up around New York City, relocating to Los Angeles) to create a representation of youth that is simultaneously highly specific yet transcends the constraints of time and space. Through her attention to the viscerality of moving through a seemingly always-changing political and cultural environment, she captures the emotionality of living in an America that is “fucking hot” and “in flames.” This affective and atmospheric approach to songwriting has inspired countless “young” artists in the past decade, from Montreal-based experimental pop artist Grimes to L.A.-based electropop artist Billie Eilish.
Beginning with a brief synopsis of each album and then joining together for a discussion of her discography as a whole, this roundtable explores questions of what it means to be young, white, female, and heterosexual in the America—and the world—described in Del Rey’s songs. Through tracing Del Rey’s complex relationships to racial and sexual minorities in her music, it additionally looks outward to the tensions and strifes occurring outside of her musical worlds, a move that Del Rey has increasingly begun to make herself. In the process, the roundtable asks: Who are the youth? What can they show us about what’s happening in the world today? And what, perhaps, can we still teach them?