A luscious string intro, followed by a solo piano arrangement, starts “Norman F---ing Rockwell,” the Lana Del Rey song on the album of the same name. The singer makes her way through the first verse, singing about her temperamental artist lover, before she despairingly sings “your head in your hands as you color me blue, blue, blue.”
“Norman F---ing Rockwell,” both song and album, are up for the most coveted trophies at this weekend’s Grammy Awards ceremony. I first heard the ballad in a Texas Barnes & Noble cafe last fall and it nearly brought me to tears. I'm sure the staff was concerned. This song has all the elements. Fun Lana lyrics? Check. Great vocals? Check. An orchestra for some reason? Check.
I started to wonder, “Norman effing Rockwell? What’s up with that guy?” So I called Stephanie Plunkett, who's the deputy director and chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum. She helped me understand the fascination Rey has with the artist. The museum is located in Stockbridge, where Rockwell spent the last few decades of his life, and it holds the world’s largest collection of Rockwell’s work.
On two of Rey's songs, “Venice B----” and “Norman F---ing Rockwell,” she sings of lovers who cover her in blue. “Paint me happy in blue, Norman Rockwell,” she sings on “Venice B----.” Blue is a color that Rockwell used in many of his neutral-colored compositions, and he used it to draw the viewer's eyes to the most important element of the composition.
According to Plunkett, Rockwell was America’s most prominent illustrator in the 20th century. Rockwell was only 22 when painted his first cover for “The Saturday Evening Post,” a gig he kept for 47 years. Throughout his life he worked for many companies, creating artwork for children’s publications, magazines and advertising art for American corporations.
“He was, I think, a very trusted figure in American culture for literally seven decades,” Plunkett said. “In many ways, he has shaped what America looks like.”
Plunkett said his art reflected life’s small, but significant moments, many of the images showing people interacting with one another. In the 1960s his work became more reportorial, focusing on the changes America was going through regarding race and technology. His following came from the readers of the publications in which his work was featured, which were publishing in the millions back then, Plunkett said.
Rey's music demonstrates a fascination with America’s past that bleeds into her music. She has made a career out of referencing the ideals of the 1950s and 60s, singing about James Dean, referring to herself as the "gangster Nancy Sinatra," and creating a dream-like music video with herself as Jackie Kennedy and rapper A$AP Rocky as J.F.K.
With the help of Jack Antonoff, super producer and collaborator to every female pop artist with critically acclaimed work for the past few years (Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent and Carly Rae Jepson), Rey was able to turn her interest in the past into a hit album. Now what's her obsession with Rockwell about?
“So many of his paintings in the '50s summed up where the American dream was at, and then I was thinking about where the American dream is at now, today,” Rey said in a radio interview with 102.7 KIIS FM. “I just thought, sheesh, Norman effing Rockwell. What would he think?”
Plunkett said the museum staff are fans of the singer’s appreciation for Rockwell. Since the song and album dropped late last fall, patrons of the museum have asked staff if they’ve heard the song. For younger folks who missed Rockwell in his heyday, Plunkett says Rey put a spotlight on the artist for a more contemporary crowd and it was a great way to start educating the next generation.
She said the museum staff is definitely rooting for Rey and they might throw a party if she scores a Grammy award this weekend. Plunkett would also be up for having Rey perform at the museum. You hear that, Lana? Your first post-Grammys night performance is basically already booked.