I’m well aware that these will be very cold takes, considering these are two pretty huge albums that got the hot take treatment upon their release a few weeks ago. However, I couldn’t help but feel the need to compare and contrast these two albums, considering they have a lot in common, as well as a lot of differences in terms of how their pop star creators have navigated their careers up until now. Also, I’m not sure that they’re albums that are all that conducive to the “hot take” treatment, considering their breadth and ambition.
Just personally, Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey are similar artists in my consciousness, since they’ve both been pretty huge in their respective spheres of influence over the past decade. Yet, I’ve mostly been able to avoid paying them much attention, though I have given a couple Del Rey albums a listen, though they never quite clicked with me. Taylor Swift, meanwhile, has been arguably the biggest pop star of the decade. Though, similarly, the numerous times I’ve been inundated with her music it hasn’t left a huge impact on me, though her talents as a pop songwriter have always seemed formidable if not undeniable.
While these two artists would almost unequivocably be put in the “pop” genre, it does feel as though they’ve been releasing music to two completely different pop audiences. Swift has navigated the more traditional pop world, trying to appeal to literally everyone in between the ages of 10 and 50. And even if not everyone in this demographic loves her music, they at least know who she is and what her deal is. It’s not terribly different from your Michael Jackson’s or Madonna’s, though Swift’s more confessional style of songwriting has made her a more “relatable” popstar, which has also made her particularly well-suited for the social media era.
Lana Del Rey, on the other hand, has never seemed quite as interested in mainstream success, though one could argue she achieved it in her own unique way. She was one of the first pop artists of this decade to have indie appeal, and in turn has led the way for a more melancholy type of pop music, typified by artists like Lorde and Billie Eilish. That said, it’s weird to think about her influence on the modern pop landscape, since it feels like for a long time her fans’ adoration was drowned out by the public’s apathetic feelings toward her. This, of course, gets to another thing the two singers have in common – being embarrassed on national TV.
That said, Swift and Del Rey suffered two completely different types of embarrassment. After riding a wave of buzz built on her early singles, Lana Del Rey performed on Saturday Night Live in 2012. Which I honestly still haven’t watched, but had such a negative reaction that by the time her album Born To Die dropped, it seemed like the public had already disowned her. The album wasn’t a huge critical hit, even though critics had been the ones hyping her, while her subsequent albums similarly did just fine with critics, though she appeared to slowly amass a devoted cult following.
While the public seemed to be embarrassed by Del Rey’s performance on SNL, they seemed to be embarrassed for Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where she was famously interrupted by Kanye West doing one of the dumbest/greatest things in the history of award shows. It’s hard to say if Taylor Swift really deserved it, considering she was already an unbelievably successful 20-year-old at this point, but it seemed to build up a lot of goodwill towards her. That weird man ruined her special moment! How could he do that! It would be cynical to describe the moment as good PR, but it certainly didn’t hurt her next three albums from being huge releases that quickly established her as the pop star of the decade.
So it’s been interesting to see the way Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey’s public standing has morphed a bit in the time surrounding their two most recent albums, Swift’s Lover (released August 23) and Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! (released a week later). After 2017’s Reputation, it seemed like people had grown a little tired of Taylor Swift, while the almost desperately catchy singles “Me!” and “You Need To Calm Down” felt like Swift trying a little too hard to insert herself into this cultural moment. Meanwhile, Lana Del Rey released some of her most breezily great singles yet, with “Venice Bitch” and “Mariners Apartment Complex”, during the yearlong roll-out of Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Yet, even though those early singles hinted at a huge misfire, Lover is actually a pretty enjoyable pop album. I can’t say I’ve spent a ton of time diving into the T-Swift catalogue, so I can’t really compare it to her earlier work. All I know is it’s got some songs I really like (such as the album’s title track), and it also has some songs I can’t stand (such as “London Boy”). But it’s a big time pop album! It’s trying to do a lot of things and appeal to a lot of different people, which I suppose is a good thing for Taylor Swift’s brand, but doesn’t necessarily make for the most cohesive album.
The most obvious similarity between the two albums is that they share a producer in Jack Attonoff. He’s had a pretty good track record of creating pop albums that appeal to indie rock snobs like myself, such as Lorde’s Melodrama and St. Vincent’s Masseduction. NFR feels a bit more in line with those releases than Lover does, though on both albums Antonoff is only one of several producers. But whichever producer is to blame, Del Rey easily pulls off the kind of sadsack epics she’s always been capable of, while there’s a great combination of intimacy and sweep to these songs which show her fully in command of her signature sound.
However, I’m not sure Norman Fucking Rockwell is that much of a breakthrough compared to Lana Del Rey’s other albums. It just seems that the critics have finally caught up with her, while it feels like she’s doing as good of work as she’s ever done. So consequently, it feels like the right time for a reappraisal of this artist that never really went away. Also, there must be something special about this album, since unlike her previous albums, the songs are intoxicating enough that I see myself continuing to listen to NFR, as the glow of summer slowly simmers into the bittersweet vibes of Fall.
Which brings us back to the fact that I’m not sure these are albums deserving of hot takes when they both crack the 1-hour mark, while clearly a lot has gone into the production of both of them. Appropriately, I’m sure this will manifest itself in different ways for both albums. I can see Lana Del Rey’s album continuing to grow on listeners, where some of its more subtle ballads will reveal their charms as we head toward Best of the Year times. Meanwhile, Lover I’m sure has its own surface-level charms that will reveal itself, while more and more singles will inevitably be gleaned from its hefty 18 tracks. Either way, they’ve both made a mark on the end of Summer 2019, while reinforcing the idea that there’s a place in this world for more than one kind of pop star.