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A few weeks ago, professional sad-girl Lana Del Rey turned her melancholic fury on an unexpected victim — not men, summer, or drug store eyeliner, but the unwitting author of a lukewarm NPR review.
“Here’s a little sidenote on your piece,” Lana tweeted out at her 9.6 million followers, tagging writer Ann Powers directly.
“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,” Del Rey said. “Don’t call yourself a fan like you did in the article and don’t count your editor one either.”
What earned an ordinary thinkpiece a personal twitter rant? Powers hardly gave Lana’s album “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” a bad review. She started off saying saying the album “cemented Lana’s status as a serious artist,” and that “Del Rey is at her most instantly compelling.” The thing Lana took issue with, seemingly, was the way Powers described Lana and her “persona,” or brand. Powers only once referenced “Del Rey's persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done.” She did, however, toe the line between describing Lana’s brand as “nostalgic,” “veer[ing] into cliche,” “derivative,” and “uncooked,” and said it redeems itself with her “compulsion to collapse logic” and “violate boundaries musically, through imagery and within her storytelling.”
What Lana seems to be taking issue with, fundamentally, is the right of any critic who doesn’t know what it’s like to “be with” her, or who she really is. She is challenging any definitive critique of her evolution, or what she, as a cultural figure, represents.
It’s certainly true that the alleged “persona” Powers referenced has, at times, seemed to become the only media narrative about Lana, distilling her from a human being to an eyeliner-drenched embodiment of the sad cool-girl. Is this kind of music criticism, then, unwarranted? Do outside voices have the right to try to define, contextualize, or explain who an artist is and what their music is supposed to be about?
That’s the same question Lizzo, self-love guru and “100% that bitch,” posed in a recent tweet also aimed at a critic. “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED,” she said, in a now-deleted tweet to her 1 million followers. In this case, the Pitchfork review she was responding to was, perhaps, a little more harsh. Though the reviewer, Rawiya Kameir, described Lizzo as having both an “obvious skill and charisma,” she criticized the musician’s new album, “Cuz I Love You,” for having “overwrought production, awkward turns of phrase, and ham-handed rapping.”
In response, Lizzo’s comment cuts deeper than just an attack on whether a music critic has the right to define an artist’s work, or tell readers they have some kind of definitive understanding. Rather, with all the fresh energy that has made her such an irresistible new voice in pop music, Lizzo took aim at music criticism in general.
Music criticism, particularly as a profession, certainly has its flaws. Has the industry been dominated by white men dismissing, patronizing, and sexualizing female musicians? Of course. Has art criticism itself been synonymous with gatekeeping leaving the unconventional, less powerful, and marginalized on the outside? Without question. Lizzo’s logic, then, makes sense for a little while — what right does a stranger have to define her?
But then, what right does an artist have to tell any writer what they can and can’t say? That seems a particularly Trumpian idea. Take a look at something he tweeted just last week at a critic: “Who the hell is Joy-Ann Reid? Never met her, she knows ZERO about me, has NO talent, and truly doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor needed for success in showbiz.”
It still remains that no one — not Donald Trump or Lana Del Rey — is justified in saying that a person doesn’t have a right to their opinion. The bounds of that right may be murky, of course — an artist certainly has the right to dislike a critic’s opinion, and maybe even share that dislike with their friends. But, at the end of the day, they’ve also got to live with it. And that, it seems, is the thing all of them got wrong.
Every person, whether they’re a politician, a writer, or a professional musician, has a way that they want the world to see them. There’s nothing wrong with fighting to be taken seriously, as Lana, Lizzo, and hundreds of other female musicians often have to do. But it is wrong to call out a particular critic you don’t like, pointedly make them a target for the harassment of your millions of fans by tagging them, and tell them they’re “not a fan,” “should be unemployed,” or that they “know ZERO” about you. It may be far too late to go back to the way things were before the Internet, when no critic would get thousands of hate messages (as Powers in particular did) for writing a music review or criticizing the President. But it’s not too late to agree that everyone still gets a voice, and trying to scare, bully, or guilt them into silence is never a good idea.
—Staff writer Joy C. Ashford can be reached at email@example.com.
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