To be sure, I write this in an emotional hangover from listening to “The Greatest” on endless loop, the definitive track on Lana Del Rey’s new album and “obituary for America,” Norman Fucking Rockwell! Nostalgia is a hard theme to pull off without seeming trite. After all, our culture is saturated with the stuff, from Stranger Things and knee-jerk franchise reboots to the obsession with Millennial childhood that miraculously never grows tiresome. These semblances of our past — seemingly singular, fixed points in time — trickle down to younger and younger generations and become increasingly commercial and self-parodying, the way all things do in the machinery of online recognition.
Yet, when Lana sings, “I miss New York and I miss the music / Me and my friends, we miss rock and roll,” it feels different from the kind of nostalgia we’re used to. She’s not “repeating older gestures…as if for the first time,” to borrow a phrase from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. She’s not indulging in any denial — that we still have quintessential New York City, untainted by gentrification and billionaire developers; that we still have rock and roll, before it was a commercial trope; that we still have the collective free-spirit of which both are now empty symbols. The album isn’t thematically set in the Sixties, or the Seventies, or even the Nineties. Rather, it’s pointedly (painfully, even) now. The shells of the cultural eras we see replicated ad nauseum — those days are gone, and Lana bids them a reverent and heartfelt adieu.
Of course, Lana is no stranger to glamorizing a bygone era herself. In tracks like “Brooklyn Baby” off Ultraviolence, for example, she refers to “the freedom land of the Seventies” and getting down to jazz and beat poetry, as if she were communicating from the time period about which she sings. And there will always be strong retro currents running through anything Lana does. It’s part of her charm. But on “The Greatest,” she shucks phony idealization in favor of honest reckoning: “I guess that I’m burned out after all.” What Lana seems to confront in NFR! (even by way of its title) is the possibility that we’ve all been desperately clinging onto a lost and distant world for too long. She seems to acknowledge that the ideals of that world are in the rearview mirror, and she waves them a tearful goodbye. It’s a refreshing departure from the norm of our zeitgeist, which is to continually resuscitate dead generations and walk around in its clothes as if they had always been our own.
“If this is it, I’m signing off” she sings in the finale of her bittersweet farewell to our past. “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blonde and gone / ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song.” As the party winds down — the resounding electric guitar fades, leaving only the tune of, one imagines, a confetti-covered piano — she drifts into final, subdued recognition of our present: “Oh, the live stream’s almost on,” she murmurs.
Our collective resistance to depict the present in favor of the retro is due, in part, to the fact that ever-growing hypercapitalism, in addition to determinedly spreading human and ecological misery, has taken from us our ability to exist in any way that feels sincere. Unlike in the past, we are no longer able to genuinely participate in culture without removing ourselves from our own experience by funneling it through digital observation, and projecting it onto a corporate screen. We cannot conceptualize our lives under hypercapitalism because they have become synonymous with hypercapitalism itself. To do so results in an unsightly picture, one unlike anything we’ve witnessed before, so we cling to the authenticity and dignity found in nostalgia — simultaneously avoiding the horrors of our present while objectifying our cultural past. As capitalism has grown beyond all ethical boundaries, and as our culture under such a system has grown beyond our comprehension, so too has our longing for a simpler time.
To truly accept the death of this reality is indeed to face “the greatest loss of them all.” But perhaps, coming from a cultural icon such as they do, Lana’s words signify collective closure. In order to turn the tides — not a reverse in direction, but a global pivot — popular culture must interest itself in producing new and positive visions of the future for humanity, visions that take into account our past without being embalmed in it. Let’s not forget the message we’re left with in the form of the final track on NFR!, “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have — But I Have It.” A wilted but unwavering whisper of optimism, a message for the future.