30 Thoughts on Lana Del Rey's "The Greatest," Kanye West, Lorde, Billie Eilish, and a Year in Retreat

30 Thoughts on Lana Del Rey's "The Greatest," Kanye West, Lorde, Billie Eilish, and a Year in Retreat
  1. So this is the year-end, and I don't feel any different. Sorry, I had to. (Fwiw, as with last year, I am not doing any year-end lists on here, mostly because I'm still working my way through tons of 2020 releases. I will go back and unleash a Best Songs of 2020 list at some point, it just probably won't be until...idk, this time next year.)
  2. Reflecting on 2021 at large seems to be a zero-sum game right now, only because the shape of impact that years possess only shows itself with distance and time. (I am going to try to do so here regardless, because what are posts like these without tangled contradictions?) But 2020 already seems to have been more musically fertile than was acknowledged at the time.
  3. It was a great year for R&B (Keiyaa, Chloe x Halle, Liv.e, Brandy, Toni Braxton, Yaya Bey, Giveon's Take Time, and those are just the records I can recall off the top of my head), Afrobeats continued its creeping world domination of pop music at large, the emergence and continued development of digicore and hyperpop were the most impactful micro-movements in internet music since chillwave was borne out of the post-recession bedroom isolation of the early 2010s.
  4. I have the urge to go into the differences between the chillwave and digicore/hyperpop sensations—beyond the obvious differences, of course—but it would be a lot to unpack right now and as of writing this I'm already acutely aware that this piece has what could be generously termed as a roving focus, so. Maybe for another date.
  5. Fetch the Bolt Cutters was a monumental release for reasons obvious and not, among them being a musical work that many people either Had An Opinion About or Felt Forced To Have An Opinion About. With Soccer Mommy's Color Theory and Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher, well, let's talk a little about what I wrote for Vulture back in 2019 regarding the changing nature of "indie" as a marketing term throughout the 2010s:
  6. "The sensation that accompanied the release of Visions gestured toward the non-male and (Grimes excepted) nonwhite voices rising to greater prominence in indie, after what was practically decades of what amounted to noncoverage by music publications — a progressive movement encouraged by the social empathy of Obama-era America that remains owned by no particular year and is still ongoing."
  7. It seems accurate at this point to say that the "movement" found its locus point in the midst of 2020's chaos. Punisher and Color Theory are two (excellent) records that, for better or worse, will define the sound of "indie" for years, and you can throw the successes of Bartees Strange's Live Forever and Waxahatchee's Saint Cloud, as well as the continued rise of Yves Tumor and Moses Sumney as well as the elevation of Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas (one of the 2010s' greatest and, for a time, most underappreciated talents) from sometimes-marginalized singer-songwriter to marquee-level leading force, in the mix as more proof that big-ticket "indie" by and large is capital-L looking different than it did even two years ago. (To wit: Mac DeMarco, a defining figure of the 2010s' "indie" landscape and a songwriter with a level of prolificacy, has spent the last two years largely out of view, and whether his absence has been intentional or incidental, it's most likely for the best.)
  8. I've written a bit in the past year about how there were plenty of records from 2020 that just straight up disappeared in front of our eyes, too. Donald Glover's Childish Gambino project did a messy, intermittently interesting data dump that people are still surprised to learn that it came out at all; Lady Gaga's Chromatica also arguably underperformed outside of her cultishly adoring fanbase despite being her most "current"-sounding album since, idk, Artpop? Drake put out a record that felt small on his scale as well as regarding how the public typically consumes his work, I could go on. This is, of course, to say nothing of all the bands that would've found new audiences off the strength of touring behind buzz-building releases—opportunities dead and gone in 2020, with the promise of a second chance driving so many tour schedules at the moment.
  9. 2019 as a whole feels like it's similarly vanished. When I think of works of art that left a lasting memory without using a crib sheet, the picture still feels incomplete. 100 gecs' 1000 gecs was both influential and singular, there was Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Parasite and The Lighthouse and a few other things that I recall watching both in a refixed context of "art that feels like isolation" and due to the state of searing depression I was myself operating under when consuming them. I sometimes think that the latest (and greatest) 1975 album came out that year and then I remember that, no, that was last year. The cliché about time becoming an increasing blur, a neverending mural of pain and reflection that stretches across a thousand-mile span, occasionally rings true.
  10. To me, the defining work of art from 2019 at this point—and it could change in the future, who knows, we discover new things every time we look back with a purpose other than pure nostalgia—is Lana Del Rey's "The Greatest." The song felt like a meteor smashing into our collective consciousness when it first came out, like the aural equivalent of the movie poster for Deep Impact, and now it feels positively haunting in its anticipated sunsetting of an era that we did not yet know was reaching an end. I already said this online elsewhere, but speaking of sunsets, to me "The Greatest" sounds like mistaking a mushroom cloud for a sunset—finality as the end of a new day instead of the beginning of something terrifying and carpeted with utter devastation.
  11. "The Greatest" is so mesmerizing, so bafflingly profound, so prescient it makes you sick to your stomach, despite being so quintessentially Lana Del Rey. You get the neo-boomer IG filter gestures ("Me and my friends, we miss rock 'n' roll"), a deceptively clever reference to the classic rock pantheon ("Dennis' last stop before Kokomo") that doubles as fatalistic lore indulgence. It's all very her, bits and pieces of the Lana Del Rey Experience that was on display throughout the 2010s—and yet it also marked the full realization of the writerly tendencies she'd displayed throughout Lust For Life, an updated (and listenable) take on domestic abuser Don McLean's "American Pie" that does more with less words, cuts to the quick in a little more than half the time, and looks towards a decaying future instead of romanticizing a decaying past.
  12. "Oh, the livestream's almost on." Has any utterance in recent memory sounded like such a perfect conclusion to something? It arrives at the tail end of the most impactful section of "The Greatest," in which Lana zooms out and offers a few cultural summations about climate change, celebrity, and the perpetual dream of leaving Earth itself—a rhetorical device that recalls her peer and spiritual kin Father John Misty (another man who has wisely stayed quiet in recent times but, unlike, Mac DeMarco, whose absence feels impactful beyond the declining sale of bucket hats). She hits us with these conclusive cultural concussions and then just says, "Oh, the livestream's almost on" and then she dips, with wisps of open-ended piano drawing things to a close as our narrator, like so many of us, gestures her attention towards another distraction.
  13. When I mentioned online recently (where I do some ideological spitballing, in case you're reading this with zero context as to my own online presence, in which case, also, lol) that "The Greatest" felt like a pre-COVID work that defined the age of COVID, a friend mentioned that it's a similar situation as Wilco's "Jesus, Etc."—a song written and recorded pre-9/11 that, regardless, sounded like nothing but 9/11 when it finally reached our ears.
  14. Both are incidental works in this fashion, but the flower-crown Nostradamus vibes of "The Greatest" invariably take on a mystic shape too, another magic trick from an artist who's paradoxically worked in varying levels of misdirection and optical illusions (for all intents and purposes, and let's just have a little fun here with this thought for a second, her disastrous SNL performance may as well have been one of the first attempts at a hologram performance) while frequently laying it out bare unmistakably, saying what she means and meaning what she says even when it's not totally clear what she means.
  15. Norman Fucking Rockwell! was, as an album, something that marked the arrival of Lana Del Rey as a Serious Artist, even though there were opportunities to take her seriously before that (Ultraviolence and Lust For Life being two specific opportunities). I mentioned earlier the rare (and, frequently, frustrating) sensation of watching those typically uninvested in music forming opinions around Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and that took place with NFR! as well.
  16. To complicate matters more, despite having several good albums of material, I don't think Lana Del Rey is really an "albums artist." Does she think of herself as an albums artist? The only record she's made that possesses the type of specific vibe that could be defined as an "era" was Born to Die, which, despite recent attempts to tell you otherwise, unequivocally sucks.
  17. Sure, you could identify overarching sonic progressions in some of her works—Ultraviolence marked her shift towards a sound less rooted in the wan hip-hop signifiers of Born to Die and more in narcotized rock music, Lust For Life threw some beats back in the mix but tipped more towards the spare-yet-lush style she's embraced from NFR! on—but every post-Born to Die release has resembled not so much a data dump (despite occasionally punishing runtimes) but simply the latest collection of songs she has ready, packaged in the most traditionally consumable format still existent within the industry.
  18. For those who are curious, a ranking minus Blue Banisters (which I'm still absorbing): NFR! > Ultraviolence > Lust For Life > Chemtrails Over the Country Club > Honeymoon > Born to Die. But, really, based on what I've said myself here, a songs ranking would make more sense, and I'm already writing a lot here, so, maybe next time.
  19. I say this without having listened to the Adele record yet (which, to be clear, I don't expect to change things too much for me at large), but the best pop album of 2021—Jazmine Sullivan's Heaux Tales—felt flesh-and-blood, a record with purpose and perspective, its thematic ruminations unmistakable and carrying a level of raw intellectual thought that went largely unmatched this year. Otherwise, 2021 was a weird year, perhaps an off year, for pop music, beyond "it's still a pandemic after all" considerations.
  20. It was a year of retreat, both literal and figurative, with some of the biggest and on-the-rise existing stars popping their heads out of opulent gopher holes to confirm proof of life before heading back underground for however many more weeks of emotional winter are ahead. Clairo—one of the biggest breakouts in recent memory—followed the instantly impactful Immunity with an (excellent) album buried in almost Steely Dan-esque instrumentation, instantly polarizing to a part of her fanbase but seemingly created with little care about how it would be received.
  21. Tyler, the Creator offered a solid capstone to his first decade in the public eye with Call Me If You Get Lost, a work of thorough nostalgia that, similar to Lorde's Solar Power (we'll get to that one in a minute), dreamed of sunny vacations amidst ruminations on the nature of fame and the regrets accrued through living as someone whose every word is absorbed, hung onto, and monetized by and for others.
  22. After a string of singles that didn't feel like singles, Billie Eilish released an album that sounded, intriguingly and not negatively, like watching TV with the sound dialed down a few clicks too many. Happier Than Ever obviously sounded like anything but, at times recalling Tori Amos circa Under the Pink (slight jazz inflections included); it'll sound even better with time, and as it stands it's a fascinating and complicated document of a young person being thoroughly Over It.
  23. Of course, there's also Solar Power, the most interesting album of the year even as it stands as one of the most disappointing. I enjoyed the occasional Tarot reading of what the album might end up being when the title track and (awful) single dropped—this piece by Hazel Cills, one of the strongest cultural criticism voices that I regularly look to, was excellent—but Solar Power turned out to be something else entirely than the happier-than-ever effort we were all expecting. It reminds me most of Neil Young's On the Beach, another extremely stoned album made by someone in figurative isolation where the bummer is endless and the creator sounds like they'd rather be doing anything other than making music.
  24. Of course, On the Beach is a classic, whereas Solar Power is, for now, firmly not one—although it will undoubtedly enjoy a second life in years to come as a record misunderstood, a slight and sad expression of doubt from someone very young and very rich who's starting to wonder if being treated like the latest coming of Christ has fucked up their brain something fierce. As I've said elsewhere, my pity for the rich is perpetually low, but I know pain when I hear it, too.
  25. Other, bigger stars than Billie and Lorde have been engaging in scrapbooking in place of innovation—the musical equivalent of leafing through old yearbooks while visiting your childhood home, both to recapture how the past felt and because there's not much else to do otherwise. Red (Taylor's Version) (as well as last year's Fearless redux) is an obvious example of this, even as its mere existence is part and parcel of a greater and more meaningful endeavor, and ditto a thousand times over to the newly excavated and endlessly pored-over ten-minute version of "All Too Well."
  26. Drake and Kanye West both returned with oversized and exhaustingly dull releases of self-fellating nostalgia, seemingly designed to engender critical goodwill towards them at a time in which they're running close to empty. In the case of Kanye, his expressions of nostalgia became contagious, as a sizable part of my generation suddenly and quixotically embraced him again, years after casting him aside due to MAGA antics (does anyone really believe that his support of Trump had any material impact on the election anyway?) and despite his recent embrace of Marilyn Manson, a literal alleged rapist. (You have Kanye to thank for Manson's Grammy nomination this year, in case you are conveniently forgetting who you are supporting and who they are subsequently endorsing and platforming.)
  27. Maybe it's not so quixotic, though. There's a sense that time has been truly lost in this era—that everything is both frozen in place and continuing to move on, a collective sense of being left behind felt more acutely than the post-recession era of the early 2010s—and I sense that restoring some sort of collective faith in Kanye's music goes beyond yearning for a glimpse, if a momentary one, of "the old Kanye." The idea of loving his music again—of having it soundtrack moments in your life—is aspirational to a certain age set, as well as reminiscent of past times that felt better than we do now. It's exactly what we talk about when referring to nostalgia as a disease, just another form of fiddling as Rome burns.
  28. So yeah, some of these elements of What Went Down This Year are ascertainable and even examinable right now, whereas it's going to take a bit of time for other observations and revelations to, well, reveal themselves—and I think that more than applies to Lana Del Rey's recent output. There's interesting threads to be teased out of Chemtrails and Blue Banisters about the nature of creativity and the fickleness of contentment in the age of collapse, and even as you can hear Lana Del Rey-isms in some of the aforementioned pop records from this year, it all sounds pretty distinct, like someone neither zigging nor zagging anywhere close to other pathways currently being charted by pop's leading lights. As Chris Richards so brilliantly pointed out for The Washington Post earlier this year, her work is only becoming more endlessly parseable and prismatic, the kind of stuff that will be a real treat to revisit in years to come.
  29. Lana Del Rey has, ever since "Video Games," existed as a cautionary tale of sorts when it comes to the discourse around popular music in general. Nearly every opinion about her (some of mine included) has been wrong at some point, and being "right" about her—as the overall concensus of NFR! seemed to indicate a point of arrival around—has usually been followed by some altogether deflating sensation like her comments about the pop music or whatever shit she had to say about the January 6 stuff, both instances of which sounded like utter nonsense when she said them, to the point where I'm not sure they were worth engaging with meaningfully at all.
  30. Lana continues to resist easy ideological categorization at every turn, and regardless of how you feel about the music it's hard to argue against the notion that she's one of the most fascinating, most thought-provoking, and most era-defining figures in the last decade-plus of popular music. In that context, "The greatest" is perhaps a breadcrumb in a larger trail, or series of trails, leading towards an equal number of revelations and dead ends. Maybe it's a song that, as I've insisted, defines where we are now—or maybe it's just another reflective surface in her rapidly expanding hall of mirrors, something that catches our gaze for a while as we continue to try to find the way out.

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Jamie Larson