During a Tonight Show monologue in the run up to the 2004 presidential election, Jay Leno told a joke based on one of Teresa Heinz Kerry’s saltier hot-mic gaffes. The punchline? “When asked for his opinion, former President Bill Clinton said, ‘I love it when girls talk dirty!’”
Something similar is afoot regarding reactions to the new album by Lana Del Rey.
As of this writing, the album, which for purposes of propriety will be referred to for the rest of this piece as NFR!, sits at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200. If its popularity endures, Grammy nominations will likely ensue, compelling presenters to pronounce its title in full and thereby to violate one of network television’s few remaining taboos.
The N, by the way, stands for “Norman,” the R for “Rockwell.”
The F, if you haven’t guessed by now, is not short for “family.”
What it is short for is the favorite shorthand of the verbally lazy and the morally benumbed, and it recurs frequently throughout NFR!’s 14 selections, undercutting their value as elegies for rock ’n’ roll and as expressions of the disillusionment awaiting those duped by the music’s hollow promises.
NFR!, in other words, had a chance at being the masterpiece that many insist that it is.
The hazy, floating music, for instance, reinforces Del Rey’s commitment to emoting like a patient being etherized upon a table. (Fans of “Burnt Norton” on Del Rey’s 2015 album Honeymoon will understand the reference). And the cleverly repurposed quotations from classic rock and pop (the Mamas and the Papas, Led Zeppelin, CSNY, the Beach Boys, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Cyndi Lauper, Tommy James and the Shondells, even George Gershwin) give the lyrics an authoritative “meta” quality.
The most telling allusions, however, occur in the final track, “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have—but I Have It,” and they’re not musical but literary: the writings of the jet-set photographer Slim Aarons and of the suicidal poet Sylvia Plath. As symbols of the glamour and the neuroses that Del Rey mourns and celebrates, Aarons and Plath are hard to beat. But even this song contains enough profanity to make skeptics wonder whether Del Rey’s admirers like the cut for what’s good about it.
And therein lies the connection to Jay Leno’s 15-year-old joke. Just like the men who used to buy Playboy “for the articles,” fans of NFR! get to indulge their taste for titillation while claiming the intellectual high ground.
This much seems certain: Were NFR! purged of its anti-virtue-signaling coarseness, there’d be a lot less fetishizing of Del Rey as a 21st-century siren providing lullabies to cushion the shipwreck inevitable in a thoroughly unmoored culture.
The real Taylor Swift?
Taylor Swift’s latest release, Lover (Republic), does its share of pandering as well—to the glass-ceiling crowd in “The Man,” to the gay-pride crowd in “You Need to Calm Down.” But because issues aren’t Swift’s forte, and because at least one of those songs was composed under the duress caused by Swift’s “woker” fans’ demanding that she prove she wasn’t a closet conservative, neither song feels especially sincere.