A closer look at two titles from the most memorable Album Release Day since the Kanye/50 Cent face-off
You can’t buy the loyalty that Lana Del Rey and Tool have from their obsessive faithful. As the rainforest burns, we’re seeing the limits of idolatry in 2019, but when have we not? Hanging on someone’s every word is objectively bad, and you can draw a bubble around that in Sharpie. But in the Twitter era, everything’s a cult, and cults rule everything.
“We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me” sang Lana Del Rey at the top of Honeymoon, her third album and first to arrive fully respected, after the walking-on-eggshells-in-high-heels press expedition of Born to Die and the eyebrow-cocking retcon Ultraviolence. But the new Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a Trump-level ascension, thrust upwards from not just determined fans but dejected critics who now portray her as a seer that spiked 2010s pop with Xannies to slow it all down to the pace of her twirling in as many SNL-inspired memes.
It’s received not only the highest rating Pitchfork has awarded for a new album this year, or any year since 2012, but it ties Joanna Newsom’s Ys in 2006 for the highest rating the site has ever given a woman’s album upon release. (Caveat: Björk’s Homogenic received a hilarious 9.9 in 1997 — one tenth off! — and It Means Everything by ska also-rans Save Ferris, fronted by Monique Powell, got a 9.5, and both reviews have been expunged from the site.) The review calls her America’s best songwriter. Rockwell! has also received the highest rating of 2019 from Rolling Stone, four and a half stars, and looks like a frontrunner for Zombie Pazz & Jop, should the critic’s poll return.
But the only time Del Rey has been compelled to speak on any of the best press run she’s ever enjoyed by far was a positive and deep but insufficiently worshipful NPR analysis by Ann Powers, perhaps the least-disliked music critic in history, tweeting: “Here’s a little sidenote on your piece. I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music. There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”
Since plenty of Del Rey’s decisions — crafting an anthem called “This Is What Makes Us Girls” while denying she’s a feminist, dubbing herself the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” likening her genitals to Pepsi, covering Sublime — have been described as pretty galaxy-brain for years, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the woman born Elizabeth Grant has arguably topped them all by claiming she doesn’t write from a persona. I mean, Lil Jon writes from a persona.
Is it more disturbing that the singer’s response comes off like she plainly didn’t read the adulatory piece, or that the legions of first responders from her nine million followers parroted her in kind? It’s this sort of unsettling sycophancy that makes people wary of social media: the overzealous fandoms (they don’t call ‘em hives for nothing), no criticism too small for an overblown response, the misjudged power dynamics all mirror the division strewn by the chaos-merchant-in-chief.
Alt-metal pretentiosos turned prog torchbearers Tool, who released their fifth long-player Fear Inoculum on the same day as Norman Fucking Rockwell!, are emblematic of a simpler time for what we’ve termed cult artists. Like any chart juggernaut, they were savvy enough to turn their deficiencies into quirks: palm-muted verses that once exploded into emetic refrains now overgrow their frameworks like kudzu. Lyrics defying contemporary elocution are now rustic homages to King Crimson and ilk. Sphincter-obsessed entendres have been replaced with “mature” titles like “Descending” and “Invincible.” Did I mention every song exceeds ten minutes in length? Only time will tell if their crazies unearth any Fibonacci sequences in the time signatures of Fear Inoculum, but this is the stuff of bongwater legend that kicks a band into Pink Floyd’s echelon. And they’ve doubled down because why not? They should’ve called it Bill Fucking Hicks!
And so a band who hadn’t released an album since 2006, the year Taylor Swift bowed with her eponymous debut album at age 16, just knocked her off the number-one spot on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums. Now at #2, she’s sandwiched between Tool and Lana Del Rey, who debuted at #3: the two biggest cult artists in rock and the unlikely coincidence of their albums coming out on the same day. Namely, the enthusiasm for both is largely confined to their claques, but those are big enough in number to get them to the top spot on the charts. Lana’s done it twice without much help from institutions like radio, unanimous reviews (until now, anyway, and this is her lowest-charting debut), or the Grammys, and this is Tool’s third number-one debut without much more of the same.
The only other act who would fit this description is Radiohead, but Radiohead’s music is engaged with often outside of their fanbase; Katy Perry once sang about making out to them, even Hanson has covered them. But people don’t really sing Tool or Lana at karaoke, and their songs don’t randomly show up in movies. (Lana songs do get commissioned for movies, since Hollywood is her whole thing and all.) Obviously, there are many ways these two artists couldn’t be more different. But while their staying power itself is a marvel considering how little the outside world has forced them to change, one of their commonalities is the creepiness of their devotees.
For Del Rey, this is a new experience. The (quite sexist and problematic) hatred she incurred even before she dropped her first album overtook her art, with a poorly received SNL performance and a lot of jeering about her chosen moniker, possible cosmetic surgery, and lyrics that identified with outdated gender roles. She was truly divisive, immediately beloved but definitely not by everyone, and what was so striking about her attack on Ann Powers was how little her target deviated from the unanimous, uncontroversial success she’s currently having. Tool only became a punchline during their many extended sabbaticals, which allowed many a mindblown stoner to proselytize for them in lieu of a PR team, to captive dorm roommates, of course. But with both artists, such missteps only add to their legend; they’re rewarded by disciples for their lack of discipline. Maybe that sounds less dangerous because it’s just entertainment. But the host of The Apprentice runs the world.
VIDEO: Lana Del Rey “Fuck It I Love You…”
AUDIO: Tool “Fear Inoculum”