Lana Del Rey has a problem with music critics.
That's a central theme of her song "Mariners Apartment Complex," the fourth track on her new album, Norman F**king Rockwell. Though Del Rey has stated that the song is about a past relationship, "Mariners" could also easily apply to the unforgettable Guardian story in which she told an interviewer that she "wished she was dead already," leading to vitriol from critics and fans alike.
"You took my sadness out of context," she sings. "I ain't no candle in the wind." Now, with a new wave of reviews as fuel, she has some new inspiration for her next album (White Hot Forever is supposedly coming out within the next year or so).
According to Ann Powers, the song "Mariners Apartment Complex" is "four and a half minutes of gospel-inflected transcendence in which her pastiche is so perfectly constructed that it becomes flesh." While not exactly praise, this statement does encapsulate the transformative, hyperreal quality that has always made Del Rey's music so magnetic to listen to.
Del Rey didn't feel the same way, however. She recently attacked Powers in an incisive series of tweets, which ultimately served to reaffirm the point that Powers was trying to make.
It's likely that Del Rey's comments were written out of pain, as negative reviews hurt, especially when they attack art that you've poured your soul into. And yet, it's unfortunate that two of the most brilliant writers around today had to clash so unpleasantly. Del Rey's comments led Powers to take a break from social media to take her dog "for a long walk" —and that's just sad for everyone except the dog.
Maybe Powers could have dialed back the personal attacks, but so could Del Rey. With all that's going on in the world, we could at least hope for a little more context.
I want to preface the rest of this with a statement not unlike the one Powers made in her eloquent, rigorous review of Norman F**king Rockwell: Like Powers, I am a diehard Lana Del Rey fan. I think she's an absolute genius, and she's inspired me perhaps more than any other contemporary musician.
One of the many reasons I've loved her so much is because of how she's withstood criticism, and how much she's grown over the years while refusing to deviate from her values and vices of choice. Truly, you'd think she would've developed an immunity to critics by now, given what she's been through—the SNL disaster, the music-blog years that painted her as the devil incarnate, making her an "early sacrifice to the music gods," as The New York Times wrote. All the criticism she has weathered makes her continued output all the more impressive. Though she has a history of making exquisitely angry comments on the Internet, her tweets about Powers are still surprising.
In response to Powers' review, Del Rey tweeted, "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."
There's a lot to unpack there. Firstly, does Del Rey really not relate to a single observation Powers made in her 3,600-word review, in which she referenced some of Lana's obvious influences, i.e. David Lynch's dream science and Joni Mitchell's flower-child ideals?
Though it's critical, nothing about Powers' review is lazy or incorrect. If anyone is equipped to meet the complex challenges of Del Rey's catalogue and ongoing evolution, it's Powers—one of the most famous and knowledgeable music critics around. Powers acknowledges Del Rey's refusal to promote "self-empowerment" but also recognizes the nuances of this choice, exploring the merits of what happens when women tell true stories about themselves. (Perhaps she went too far in describing Del Rey's perception of love as "guileless"; but objectively, Del Rey rarely sings about healthy relationships).
Though Norman F**king Rockwell has been widely lauded (Pitchfork gave it a 9.4), Powers' review is full of wisdom, and ultimately it's hard to understand why Del Rey chose to attack this review out of all of them. Her tweets also beg the question: How on Earth did she survive the endless backlash that erupted over her purported inauthenticity during her early days?
It's possible that she did not consider those other reviewers worth addressing, whereas she actually read and took Powers' words to heart. If so, then it's understandable that she'd be hurt, especially if the review came from someone she respects. Still, some things don't add up, like Del Rey stating she "never had a persona."
She has never had a consistent persona, perhaps. Perhaps all her music did come from a place of deep honesty and self-reflection, which she used to craft very real experiences and thoughts into poetry and song—but her entire act and legacy is built around a cinematic and larger-than-life vision, and her rich and dreamlike music reflects that. That vision is what makes fans follow her every move. It's what defines most great artists, that element of performance that cuts through and creates something real, if only in its distortion.
The fact that Del Rey chose to attack Powers' review is ironic, but actually, it aligns neatly with the point that Powers is trying to make. Powers argues that Del Rey's music is defined by juxtapositions, half-formed thoughts, and observations that swirl together to create a vision of "emotion's actuality."
Indeed, a lot of Del Rey's music can seem shallow, until the floor falls away and you realize just how deep she's gone. As Powers writes, Del Rey achieves these illusions by using a technique called slippage, which means utilizing ideas and imagery that "[step] away from an authentic or even consistent narrative." The same thing could actually be said of Del Rey's vindictive tweets.
Through slippage, a common theme in surrealism and noir, "you'll find characters morphing into monsters for a moment, or being absorbed into rips in the time-space continuum," writes Powers. "These baffling scenes affect the viewer because they express the ways stress and a trauma can reconstitute a person's internal life." Arguably, this could describe all of art. Art is never a perfect mirror image of life; how could it be? It's always a way of converting a person's unique perception into sounds and images.
Perhaps Powers' mistake was this: In the review, she acts like an all-knowing authority on Del Rey's inspirations and intentions, and makes judgments about Del Rey as a person, rather than exploring Del Rey's persona as it has been perceived by the public. She seems to equate Del Rey's public persona—and the way that her music resonates and refracts artistic legacies and cultural values—with Del Rey's actual self.
It's very possible that the real Lana Del Rey is a completely genuine person who has never intentionally put on a show of artifice in her life and who has never intentionally channeled Andre Breton or used her music to process trauma. Perhaps she believes that her gift to the world is the "warmth I live my life with," as she wrote, and her fans would agree, and there's nothing wrong with that.
In the end, one thing that Powers gets right about Del Rey is that nothing about her is ever really as it seems. She evades snap judgments and precise analysis. Lyrics that seem shallow at first can take on cosmic significance, and black-and-white perspectives can shift form over time. American dreams can morph into nightmares or show their bloody underbellies. Del Rey can be sweet and violent, submissive and powerful; she can see her music and herself one way, and the world can see her another. That's part of her magic. That's what makes her music feel connected to something divine. There is always a gap between divinity and the real world we live in, just like there's a gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.
So, in that spirit, perhaps Del Rey's comments weren't impulsive or unmerited. Del Rey is well aware of her complexities. Her Twitter bio is the Walt Whitman quote, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large - I contain multitudes." Perhaps Del Rey realized that Powers was equating her actual self and her process with her public image (though really, with Lana, who knows?)
After all, you'd never view a book as an exact representation of its author's identity, though they are connected. You'd analyze the work first, and Powers' review admittedly doesn't do that much deep musical analysis—but, then again, neither does most modern criticism. That's the nature of being a public figure in today's world. Your persona cannot be separated from your work, and as long as your work is being seen and heard, you will always be projecting a persona.