Much to my dismay, something about the first cold front of the year tells my brain that it’s time to start listening to Lana Del Rey. Released in 2019, “Norman F****** Rockwell!” is the singer-songwriter’s sixth studio album, and for me, it’s the epitome of what I think of when talking about what music to listen to during autumn. Although the album’s lyrics are cloaked in a warm, seaside aesthetic, the mood is as cold as it is intensely personal.
If you’ve ever listened to anything by Del Rey, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The decadence and romance that she builds her music around are undercut by darkness at every opportunity throughout her entire body of work. Both the sweeping, orchestral instrumentation on “Born to Die” and delicate vocals found on “NFR!” share a feeling of beautiful melancholy. Some critics have argued that at times, Del Rey uses this aesthetic irresponsibly.
As far back as 2012, the singer was criticized for album art which showed her being choked by a tattooed hand, which fans and critics said glamorized abuse. Her aesthetic has also been criticized because of the way it glamorizes fundamentally racist vintage, stereotypically Native- American, high-society and Hollywood imagery.
All of this criticism is valid, and Del Rey has done a terrible job addressing the ethical issues present in her work. Her defensive Instagram posts have ruined her reputation online, and although her newer music attempts to remedy the mistakes she’s made, it lacks a comprehensive understanding of what was wrong in the first place.
Del Rey’s musical transgressions illustrate a common question that society is grappling with as we consume media in an online environment. Can you separate an artist from their art, and do their sometimes distasteful “private” beliefs warrant actual backlash?
Before we can answer these questions, it’s important to think about what exactly art is. In a highly industrial and commercialized world, we’re conditioned to think of art as a product that’s pumped out and consumed. In many minds, art exists independently from the conditions in which it was produced in the same way we look at food, which is a topic I discussed in a previous article about animation. This idea might not seem harmful on the surface, but consider what it means in terms of artistic critique.
When art is removed from the conditions in which it’s produced, its viewers lack the critical information needed to understand it fully. The idea of “separating the art from the artist” is the same as separating your food from the potentially disgusting conditions in which it was made. And likewise, a work of art you find offensive contains layers of context and intention you might not yet be aware of.
I’m here to tell you that if you keep this concept in mind, you can consume literally anything you want. The question is how far and how deep that consumption is taken. I’m comfortable consuming Del Rey’s work because I fully understand the ways in which it’s problematic as a work of art. Am I going to buy her merch and support her financially? No, I don’t think I will. Will I stream her music and give her a few dollars of Spotify revenue over the course of my lifetime? Yeah, probably. But the most important thing is that I know the limits of my appreciation for Del Rey’s work.
And so my philosophy amounts to this: consuming art isn’t the all-or-nothing endorsement that the clutches of capitalism have conditioned us into thinking. It’s paradoxically both personal and non-personal. It’s an experience that each viewer should approach individually, but with an understanding that expands beyond the work itself. If we care about what we put into our bodies, we should also care about what we put into our minds.
Actually, “NFR!” as an album kind of reflects this internal perspective. That’s also why its mood hits so hard during the fall; there’s an extreme feeling of solitude that I experience while listening. Del Rey sings unaccompanied about life and its trauma in a way that probably appeals to my seasonal depression. I experience the album in informed isolation, and I remain aware of who Del Rey is when I’m singing along.
I challenge those reading this to expand your understanding of what it means to appreciate art and to use the solitude of “spooky season” to examine your personal relationship with art others might have criticized you for consuming. Trust me when I say that sometimes, it’s worth it.