Pop Culture Worth Your Time: A Local Audiobook, an Apocalyptic Opus, and More
An entrepreneurial tale. A children's adventure. A pop music chronicle of the end times. Here’s what we’re reading and streaming at Portland Monthly this week.
Now that the temps have turned warm enough for me to once again spend hours in my yard fussing over flowers and ripping out weeds with therapeutic glee, I am back on my audiobook game. The first one of the season was Supermaker by Jaime Schmidt. Schmidt began as a Portlander with a tiny little homemade beauty company hawking natural deodorant in a Little House on the Prairie-style bonnet 👀at local farmers markets—seven years later, she sold it as an international company to Unilever for more than $100 million. Supermaker goes through the whole process from first idea to the major acquisition. As someone who writes about local brands for a living and owns a small business myself, I found the details fascinating, but I have a hunch you don’t need those prereqs to feel the same way. —Eden Dawn, senior editor
Norman Fucking Rockwell!
I've been listening to the Rolling Stones a lot lately. They were a band I decided I had to like in high school, spurred by unimpeachable documents like Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and Mick Jagger's omnipresence on graphic tees circa 2012. I screamed "Ruby Tuesday" plenty in the car, and at one point I framed the Sticky Fingers LP sleeve to hang above my bed, but in truth, most of Stones' work never really hit me on a gut level. I fired up Let It Bleed for the first time in a while over the weekend, and that changed. After a year of living through Whatever This Has Been, the band’s gory end-of-the-’60s freakout clicked right into focus, and my body finally understood all the fuss over "Gimme Shelter."
My reunion with the Stones led me to revisit another, more contemporary pop music vision of the apocalypse: Lana Del Rey's Norman Fucking Rockwell!. I'd been avoiding a relisten for a bit, worried either that the album wouldn't hold up or that it would hold up so well its insights would sting. Well—it certainly wasn't the former.
The day after the Stones’ album came out, in the final month of the ’60s, the band performed an infamous show in Altamont, California that left three dead, several injured, and the detritus of hippie idealism in its wake. Six months after Del Rey unleashed her Lauren Canyon-tinged, the-center-will-not-hold opus, the world went into COVID lockdown; a year later, the West Coast was engulfed in historic wildfires that briefly blocked the sun. Like Let It Bleed, NFR! saw dire writing on the wall and sounded the alarm on imminent collapse.
Funny enough, neither album has much in the way of explicit end-of-days text. Only "Gimme Shelter" and "Midnight Rambler" on the Stones’ end cite specific examples of cultural decline. Del Rey doesn't breach the headlines until the coda of stunner “The greatest,” the best song she’s ever written and probably my favorite pop composition of the last five years. After a couple teases (“Nobody warns you before the fall”; “The culture is lit / And if this is it / I had a ball”) and a mournful guitar solo, she finally gets to the heart of the matter: “Hawaii just missed that fireball / LA’s in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blonde and gone / ‘Life on Mars?’ ain’t just a song / Oh, the live stream’s almost on.” It’s a song about begging the world to come back from the brink (“Don’t leave, I just need a wake up call,” she pleads) and then shrugging while you watch it shatter, knowing deep down that there's nothing you can do.
Elsewhere on Norman, Del Rey is funny, hopeful, and steely. The title track opens with an all-time great couplet (“Goddamn, man child / You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you’”) and on the transcendent “Mariners Apartment Complex,” Del Rey insists she “ain’t no candle in the wind.” Still, discord and dislocation lurk in the margins—see the hazy 8 minutes of distortion in “Venice Bitch” or the demonically desperate vocal delivery in “California”—and you leave the album feeling like you’ve dreamt the seven plagues with a Neil Young record on in the next room.
All this to say: Norman Fucking Rockwell! holds up. If you, like me, have lately been drawn toward cultural documents that respond to collective unease without too much literalism, it’s an even more satisfying listen than it was 18 months ago. It also works very well if you just like pop music: super producer Jack Antonoff is in fine, warm form, and Del Rey’s melodies are at their most piercing. Reading Norman's name beside Let It Bleed’s might scan as a little silly right now. When COVID and the Trump presidency feel as distant as Altamont and Vietnam, I suspect it’ll make perfect sense. —Conner Reed, arts & culture editor