Ahead of the singer-songwriter’s latest full-length, diehard fans describe what it’s like piecing together the string of clues she unveils prior to each project.
It’s been 11 months since Lana Del Rey announced her fifth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, and general anticipation has reached a fever pitch. Set to arrive this Friday (Aug. 30), the full-length has been preceded by fake covers, alleged tracklists and fantasy video treatments that have more or less envisioned how this album sounds without hearing it, based on information from Del Rey’s trail of clues.
Since the title Norman Fucking Rockwell was announced last September, it’s been a long journey to release date. It’s something her fans have become accustomed to.
Over her nearly decade-long career, she has developed a habit of announcing album titles long before they’re plotted for official release. This rollout has been her longest yet: she’s sporadically served fans information and new tunes throughout, essentially giving an incomplete view of an album that her most dedicated fans piece together themselves, dreaming up their own versions of Norman Fucking Rockwell. Del Rey announced the title of her forthcoming album alongside the release of second single “Venice Bitch” back in September 2018. Since then, she’s spent the time peppering fans with content, from official singles to grainy Instagram snippets of new songs, including “Cinnamon Girl” and “Happiness Is A Butterfly.”
Like their muse, Del Rey’s fandom are unique. Unlike Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters or Justin Bieber’s Beliebers, they’re not known by one collective name. Adam Hall, the fan behind Twitter account Lana Del Rey Info, tells Billboard that they’re largely unconcerned by “sales and chart entries.” Instead, it’s all about the music — the lyrics, the aesthetic, the mystery. Lana Del Rey superfans make up an inquisitive group that spends its time in between releases searching for release clues, pulling apart unreleased lyrics and constructing grandiose, sassy memes.
She’s been using this prolonged rollout method since her second album. The title of 2014’s Ultraviolence was revealed alongside a picture of producer Dan Auberach and herself in the studio four months before the album dropped. In June 2014, the follow-up album was named Music To Watch Boys To; however, it was later changed to Honeymoon, and the record arrived more than a year after. For her fourth album, Lust For Life’s album artwork was unveiled two months before a July 2017 release date was set.
These lead times have become increasingly rare in today’s quick-fire release climate, when popular artists will announce an album that will drop a week later — in some cases, even less. “Lana] seems physically unable to hold her tongue,” says the user behind Lanaism, a Polish fan club active since 2012, when asked about why the singer announces album titles so early in the process. Del Rey’s seeming inability to keep major details under wraps in a surprise-album culture is something that appears to be universally accepted by her fan base. “She seems to be really excited about not only what she's currently working on, but also what she will be working on,” Lanaism adds.
Whenever she’s particularly active on social media, it often feels to superfans as if she’s offering information on new music up as spur-of-the-moment ideas, which is both a blessing and a curse for fans. As Lanaism puts it, “We’re never] sure whether she'll get bored of something before completing the project or not.”
Along with ditching Honeymoon’s original title, some fans claim that Lust For Life’s original title was The Next Best American Record; the titular song didn’t make the 2017 album, and instead has landed on Norman Fucking Rockwell. The nearly year-long wait for this record had some fans concerned that she’d re-name it, or cancel it altogether, in favor of a newer body of work.
Del Rey’s droplets of information about an album may fuel the fire, but it’s often her biggest fans that stoke it. Once she’s dished up minute details — song snippets, or fleeting images, posted by Del Rey on Instagram — the fans try to piece the information into their own puzzle, dreaming up what she eventually has in store. Cristian Teran, who heads up Lana Del Rey Argentina, believes that she announces details early to tease “the aesthetic and the concept of the album before it's released,” as is standard pop-star practice.
But Colin Wheeler, an American superfan who has met Del Rey twice, explains how rigorous the guessing game is: “We take information from interviews Lana does, like how many songs she said will be on the album, and we write down each snippet she releases on social media] and try to formulate the album’s tracklist for ourselves and see how many songs we haven’t even heard a snippet yet for.”
These song snippets are what introduce fans to “a new era,” according to Wheeler. Del Rey has been generous with sharing this time around, with multiple full tracks released months ahead of the album’s release date being confirmed; Vinícius Costa, who runs Brazilian fan account Lana Del Lovers, believes she does so because she’s anxious to share new material, while Wheeler says it’s because “she likes to gauge the song’s reception before actually adding it to the new album.”
It’s not unusual for any fandom to rigorously search for information in the lead-up to an album; it’s just that Del Rey fans often have more information. She keeps fans updated by way of audio snippets, behind-the-scenes video stills and excerpts of lyrics… but also nondescript pictures of Los Angeles, peppered into her feed in the lead-up to a new album, leaving fans wondering whether they’ll be incorporated into a new body of work, or just fun photos Del Rey felt like snapping when the light hit just right.
“It’s half the fun trying to take clues, whether they’re intentionally clues or not, from Lana’s social media posts,” says Wheeler.
The Norman Fucking Rockwell world was dreamt up by fans long before Del Rey revealed the visual aesthetic for it, dropping the album cover and stills from the video for “The Greatest” and “Fuck It I Love You” earlier this month. “We create fanmade projects immediately after even a brief announcement, but most of them couldn't be much further from the truth,” says Lanaism.
While the fan-made tracklists uncovered numerous truths, the fleshed-out Norman Fucking Rockwell aesthetic seems to have caught her audience off-guard. Once again, she’s introduced a new logo, and for the first time features another face on a cover along with her own — Jack Nicholson’s grandson, Duke Nicholson.
Del Rey is still capable of upending the expectations of the fans that have followed her most closely, but then again, mystery has been Del Rey’s brand since she first arrived with a glitchy video for a sweeping ballad called “Video Games.” As Lanaism notes, her arrival as a singer-songwriter at the beginning of this decade was surrounded by speculation that she was “a fraud” or “an industry plant.” She was neither of those things, but Del Rey was still difficult to categorize or understand. Seven years later, the mystery remains, even as the “fraud” accusations have dissipated.
Del Rey is more candid now than she was back then, telling Billboard recently that her music is a more dramatic representation of herself. “I’ve got a more eccentric side when it comes to the muse of writing,” she said, before joking that the truest version of herself is “at Starbucks, talking shit all day.”
In reality, Del Rey is privately guarded — one of the few artists able to tour the world and return home to a life that’s rarely publicized. As a result, it’s often hard to tell whether her music is cinema or real life. “The Lana Del Rey persona is fundamentally based on secrets and not entirely true scenarios,” Lanaism says. “The product of that is every single fan being able to see what they want to see in her.”
Each record has brought fans closer to who Del Rey really is, and while her most dedicated fans are constantly piecing the world of her music together, Del Rey is similarly processing the world for herself with each new album. She’s sharing what she has as she goes, in both the small-scale — snippets of songs, lyrical passages, album titles — and the large-scale, ruminating on new themes with each new project.
Each album rollout is “a mystery we’re trying to solve,” as Wheeler puts it. Del Rey is, in turn, trying to solve her own mysteries as an artist.