2019 was a year—and the 2010s were a decade. The 2010s were a time of massive change and growth for me. Throughout the decade, I lived in four cities: Philly, Brooklyn, Austin, and New Orleans. I was affiliated with four different universities and loved in four different romantic relationships (let alone in other kinds of romantic configurations). I was in my early 20s to my early 30s, and made dear friends in each place with whom I existed in reciprocal emotional and intellectual growth and support. All along the way, I watched the years fold into the decade, their sedimentation ultimately writing the story of my young adulthood. More than ever before, music was a huge part of that journey. Near the end of 2019, I first heard two recently released albums that immediately encapsulated both my year in review and how the year rolled up into my decade: Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! and FKA twigs’s Magdalene. Both NFR! and Magdalene are examples of what I’ll expand on below as a careful romanticism, of artists—and people—putting their hearts on the lines in various ways while keeping past (both political and personal) histories and hurts in their purview. With Blood Orange, Austra, and Janet Jackson, Lana Del Rey and FKA twigs are the handful of artists who most moved—and changed—me in the 2010s. In a 2019 when I (joyfully) got back into blogging consistently for the first time in years, this is my year-end post.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the album that we had all been waiting for Lana Del Rey to make for a long time. With some of Del Rey’s best poetics (and disses) to date, NFR! explores the current state of America through the metaphor (that is not always so metaphorical) of toxic white masculinity. “Goddamn, man child,” Del Rey utters as the first words on the first song/title track, signaling that she will not be holding anything back this time. Over a beach-y yet folksy yet psychedelic mix of guitars, drums, keys, and, yes, a piano, Del Rey delivers 14 songs about navigating interpersonal relationships as the world around her is “getting hot,” resulting in some of her most direct—and politicized—songwriting of her career. For the lovers, NFR! was a continuation of the work begun on 2017’s Lust For Life (as I wrote about in a previous post), with its side A of pop bangers and side B of politically conscious songs. For the haters, NFR! was the moment of throwing their hands in the air and admitting that Del Rey was indeed a very good songwriter, even if they thought that she was still being repetitive and/or sloppy in her musical citations. For the skeptics, NFR! was the much-prolonged fulfillment of “Video Games,” the first single that Del Rey released in advance of her contentious first album, Born to Die. In the 2011 video for “Video Games,” shots of a young Del Rey singing into the camera alternate with “vintage” footage of happy heterosexual (white) couples, reporters taking endless photos, and the symbols of America that will carry throughout Del Rey’s work (the Manhattan skyline, the Hollywood sign, the American flag). While the man who “Open[s] up a beer/And say[s] get over here and play[s] a video game” is absent from this first music video, he is front and center by the time of “How To Disappear” on NFR!, where Del Rey observes,“You just crack another beer/ And pretend that you’re still here.” This absent presence will be the hallmark of toxicity of all kinds on NFR!
During the early days of the year-long rollout for Norman Fucking Rockwell!, my sister, best friend from New Orleans/Austin, and I went to Buku Festival in New Orleans to see Del Rey’s headlining act. Even with only “Venice Bitch” and “Mariners Apartment Complex” out as singles, we could already begin to sense the power of the album to come. “Fear fun, fear love/ Fresh out of fucks forever/ Tryin’ to be stronger for you,” the song’s opening lines, captured so much of how I was already feeling about 2019 back in March. There is a careful romanticism that has always drawn me to Del Rey’s music, even as its hopeless heteronormativity (despite sarcastically bemoaning “Give me Hallmark/ One dream, one life, one lover” in the second verse) has been a point of disidentification of me. The 2010s were a decade when I saw four different relationships in four different cities end—and found myself constantly in dialogue my 2011 self about how long the road to lasting romantic love was becoming. It would be so easy to “fear love” at this point, with the accumulation of past heartbreak behind us (me). When coupled with the idea of a lost fantasy of American democracy, it can feel like too much to bear. We didn’t know it quite yet but this is exactly where Del Rey would be heading in August, when the entire album would be released. “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news,” Del Rey sings on the opening track, both attempting empathy and calling her lover out for not taking accountability for his actions. “The news” (as a stand in for the state of America) becomes the backdrop for the entire album, its characters attempting to navigate a country where even the TV screen can’t offer an illusory better world into which to escape. While “the news” certainly isn’t making the act of being alive any easier, there is a limit of how much we can blame on it, given straight/white/male privilege and/or emotional toxicity.
Since the album’s release, I have listened to “Fuck it I Love You” many times as a healing space from a bad breakup in July, lingering on the “fuck it” in the song title. The “fuck it” simultaneously embodies two possible extremes: the ways we ignore the red flags in romantic interests and the ways that we love (again) despite past disappointments. In the beautifully shot video, Del Rey uses the sun, sand, and waves as a canvas for her careful romanticism. The video begins with Del Rey at a mic in a dimly lit beach bar, swaying and singing alone. After a shot of her at a painter’s easel, the camera shows Del Rey riding out into the waves on a surfboard as she delivers the lines, “So I moved to California but it’s just a state of mind/ It turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself, that’s not a lie.” The camera then moves to a shot of her on the sand underneath the boardwalk, camping it up as makes exaggerated gestures while singing. Crescendoing up to her falsetto, she sings, “Fuck it, I love you” over and over again in the song’s chorus. The vocal gymnastics push up the volume of the instrumentation as it comes back in for the second verse, where Del Rey largely repeats lines from earlier in the song with a heightened intensity. In the sort-of bridge, Del Rey delivers what is possibly the most Cancer-Gemini cusp (represent) lyric of her career: “And if I wasn’t so fucked up, I think I’d fuck you all the time.” Smiling (which is a rarity in LDR videos), she delivers the lines, putting her middle fingers up as she sings “fuck you.” The mental health struggles of our trying to carve out a place in this economic and emotional mess of a country are real, at times seeping into our most intimate of relationships. This is apparent at the end of the video, when Del Rey crashes into the waves and water covers the camera lens, setting up the transition to “The Greatest,” the most politically cognizant song on the album. Although completely overwhelmed by her interior and exterior worlds, she comes up for air, smiling and laughing at the unpredictability of it all.
I will be the first one to admit that as the singles were rolling out, I initially did not feel very excited about FKA twigs’s Magdalene. Where were the pulsating electronics that had made LP1 so powerful? The lyrics about the slippages between sex, vulnerability, and intimacy? Having heard Magdalene previewed at Afropunk back in August (see my previous post), I felt dismayed by how most of these songs seemed to be about the demise of a heterosexual romantic relationship. To be fair, I was having a bad mental health day while at Afropunk, which in retrospect clouded my hearing what the songs did beyond that. And I also have a very strong attachment to LP1, which came into my life right after I relocated to Austin in July 2014 and ended up being the soundtrack to which I learned that sex in itself (i.e. outside of the context of a committed romantic relationship) could be pleasurable and meaningful. Magdalene isn’t so much an album about sex as it is one about the ways that women get sexualized—and about how blackness and brownness subquently cause that femaleness to become racialized. “I’ve never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi,” twigs sings on the second track “Home With You,” which could be just as much about her pushback that she is not alt-r&B as it could be about responding to the racism that Twilight fans hurled her way while she was dating Robert Pattison. As a woman of color (a term Barnett has used more than ever in the interviews about the album), twigs has to navigate not only the sexualization of women but also the hypersexualization of black women. In a brilliant move, she embodies the figure of Mary Magdalene, a friend of Jesus who was also a sex worker. Where both have been whitewashed in the Christian imaginary, twigs brings color—and passion—back to Magdalene, citing her as her muse.
As an album, Magdalene sounds to the emotional—and sexual—labor that women are expected to do for other people (especially men) while it simultaneously claims sexuality as a monumental part of a woman’s identity and self-expression. The song “mary magdalene,” which comes exactly midway through the album, is the LP’s heartbeat, what twigs has described as her “most complex song ever.” Beginning with electronic strings and harp sounds, the instrumentation suddenly drops out so that twigs can sing, “A woman’s work/ A woman’s prerogative/ A woman’s time to embrace/ She must put herself first,” a powerful moment that sounds back to societal expectations (and channels Kate Bush). As the synths come back in, twigs sings through the first verse to the chorus, where the drums slowly return. At the chorus’s end, she ignites the first drop of the song, an electronic gothic- and Middle Eastern music-tinged explosion. She cycles through the second verse to the chorus, the intensity of the song continuing to build. After singing, “Oh, you didn’t hear me now/ Oh, you didn’t hear me when I told you,” twigs prompts the second song-shattering drop. Running through the chorus once more (which includes the beautiful line “Come just a little bit closer till we collide”), twigs ultimately ends here, in this call to be heard. “mary magdalene” is simultaneously one of twigs’s most emotionally vulnerable and emotionally protective songs. It sonically and affectively pivots on this axis of femaleness out towards relationalities of all kinds. As a white queer woman currently on the academic job market, there is something about this song that resonsates within the deepest registers of my body. Her Capricorn exterior (her sun) matches my own (my rising sign), constantly doing this dance of demonstrating one’s work ethic while staying attuned to one’s internal emotions. It is careful romanticism grounded in balance, a movement between self presentation and self-preservation.
For too many reasons to go into here, 2019 has been a difficult year for me, albeit one filled with many professional achievements, beautiful moments of connectivity with friends, and hard (but necessary) lessons learned from my romantic life. In a moment of exhaustion last month, my sister convinced me to fly home for 24 hours so that I could go see FKA twigs with her in Brooklyn. At King’s Theater in the Flatbush neighborhood where the first great love of my life used to live, I at last got to share a FKA twigs show with someone dear to me. Through sharing this experience with the person I love the most in the world, twigs’s “Home With You” took on a new meaning. Writing this portion of the post on the solstice, I’m thinking about how much we are all a mixture of darkness and light, our own nuanced versions of Mary Magdalene. How do we sit with (and cope with) our darkness without flipping and projecting it onto others? Even as the darkness is ours to work through within ourselves, we are not alone. Midway through the performance of “Home With You,” the curtain opens and a row of four dancers in masks appear behind FKA twigs. The masks are both costume and metaphor, symbolic of how we dress ourselves up for others until we feel safe enough to (start to) remove those very masks. “When I visualize/ All I see is black,” twigs sings, as she heads towards the floor—and prepares for the drop. She’s reaching towards home, which sometimes can feel like a slow crawl with no end in sight. The biggest lesson I learned in the 2010s is that home starts deep down within us—and then extends out to the people we love in friendship or romance. On that night, the combination of my sister and FKA twigs reminded me of just that. Onto a 2020 where I strive to only give—and receive—in emotional reciprocity.