When fans and skeptics alike talk about Lana Del Rey, the word “persona” always seems to be thrown into the conversation somewhere. That of a bad girl. A rebel who is also an angel. A damsel in distress. A beach queen — a “little Venice bitch.”
But recently, in response to a review of the singer’s recently released Norman Fucking Rockwell! that circulated Twitter, Del Rey fired off a snarky rebuttal to this characterization: “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”
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.
— Lana Del Rey (@LanaDelRey) September 5, 2019
NPR Music Critic Ann Powers shared her own review of NFR! — which only directly references a “persona” once — but it struck a nerve with the musician, along with many fans. Should it have?
About half of the thread includes fans rushing to Del Rey’s defense. Others praised the review and expressed confusion at the overwhelming defensiveness, noting that the analysis was generally positive and any artist should be honored to have someone interpret their art so thoughtfully and thoroughly.
Amazing work. @LanaDelRey, I think NFR is stunning end to end. But I also hope you can see that a critic engaging deeply with your work is a good thing even if you don’t love every word. Artists would KILL to have a critic of Ann’s caliber write about them with such nuance.
— Kristi Coulter (@KristiCCoulter) September 5, 2019
Some were on the fence, recognizing the writer’s talent but questioning what exactly she is trying to portray about the singer.
this is a well written piece but it is also misguided (around a couple, but mainly one particular point). Are women songwriters not allowed to be vulnerable or write our truth without being written off as bad feminists / female submissives??? that’s a very troubling take
— cmat (@cmat_baby) September 5, 2019
The article is barely shy of 4,000 words, and honestly, such a volume of content might extend beyond most readers’ online attention spans these days. Because there was so much packed into each sentence, people failed to focus long and hard enough to realize the review was not intended to be a diss any more than the next music review.
To be fair, though, some critiques of Powers’ critique were also valid. It was rather inaccessible and hard to follow, saturated with too-specific allusions and Joni Mitchell comparisons, as well as em dash usage exceeding even my own taste — and that’s saying something.
This review was exhausting. Stopped reading about halfway through. Way too many words packed into each sentence. Couldn't figure out if Lana was being insulted, praised, or both at the same time in some weird backhanded way. Probably the latter but still. Yikes.
— nobody cares why u unstanned BTS so shut up (@12090412NJSJ) September 5, 2019
So, what’s the Lana Del Rey persona, anyway? Does it exist, is it problematic, and at the end of the day, does it even matter?
Despite her journey from the stage name Lizzy Grant (also her real name) to Lana Del Rey and a couple of variations in between, it’s debatable whether the persona she’s developed is phony or simply artistic. Those who claim that it doesn’t matter will point to the most iconic pop stars throughout the decades, like David Bowie and Lady Gaga, as if to say, “So what?” On the other hand, whistleblowers are quick to criticize her sudden shift in aesthetic and style after the name change, claiming she sold out or was coaxed into adopting a much more polished persona.
As one piece in The Atlantic argues, “Del Rey’s assertion that she’s never had a persona is laughable given how much flak she’s gotten for seeming to live in costume. She has a stage name that she said the music industry coaxed her to adopt.”
However, in a 2012 article from The Guardian, Paul Harris sums up the root of the debate quite well:
“The internet has allowed figures like [Del Rey] to come rapidly to the fore of the cultural landscape, whether or not their emergence is planned by a record executive or happens spontaneously from someone’s bedroom. It has speeded up the fame cycle. It is worth noting that the huge backlash to Del Rey is happening before her first album has even been released. This reveals a cultural obsession with the ‘authenticity’ that fans, artists, and corporations all prize above all else.”
Her second full record produced by a major label, the singer released Born to Die as Lana Del Rey and under a new manager, losing the “A” in “Ray” from her first, self-titled album (Lana Del Ray). The nihilistic title harkens back to her background as a philosophy major — one who artfully romanticizes life’s meaninglessness. Born to Die emanates a more produced sound, fronted by a disobedient rebel to society but one who also yields unwaveringly to the men of her affections. That said, some tracks like “This Is What Makes Us Girls” still offer glimpses of Lizzy Grant, a teenage girl who was sent off to boarding school after battling alcoholism.
Yet for many fans, Del Rey’s music has gotten less autobiographical with each release and instead more synthesized and full of juxtapositions. Does that mean it’s “fake”? Does that mean it can’t be great?
In reference to a deep cut track on NFR!, Powers observes, “The song feels more like you’re in a story, in someone’s head at a particularly unsure moment. A great songwriter, as we tend to understand that role, would offer a more coherent view. But for Del Rey, the mash-up of affects and references is the point. It is emotion’s actuality.”
However much Powers’ review seems to become an endless list of all the things Joni Mitchell is that Lana Del Rey is not, the writer does arrive at a conclusion here. The musician’s themes of tragedy and darkness paired with love and self-empowerment might contradict itself at times, but they make you feel something (or more ambiguously, feel something).
For me, that “something” has ranged anywhere from nostalgia for a love I never had to an impulse to take a beach day in solitude to a weird urge to become a ’60s housewife (just for a day, though). I’m detecting “longing” as a common theme, and that’s an emotion Del Rey has never failed to instill in listeners.
We all seek fulfillment through music in endless ways, and the truth is, most Lana fans don’t come to her for wisdom or experiences that echo theirs. Whether or not her image is constructed or filtered isn’t a burning question for those who resonate with her sound. Lana Del Rey is not our next feminist figure in music; in fact, she’s deemed feminism uninteresting — a topic she does not feel educated enough to speak on. So, if you’re looking for the next politically charged, “you-go-girl” type of record, look to someone like Lizzo, not Lizzy Grant.
Nothing about Del Rey is supposed to appear raw or uncut. It’s cinematic; it’s fantastical. And if the singer is simply something of a character trope, then she plays the role with fantastic cohesion.
If nothing else, this artist-versus-critic social media scuffle raised some interesting questions: Can authentic art and an artist persona coexist? Is great art even about authenticity, or is it about cohesion?
All I can hope is that Lana Del Rey is proud of the work she’s producing and the artist she’s becoming. I hope it allows her to rest easy at night. And if so, then what “performance” does she have to put on other than merely sharing her voice to cheering crowds?