Share this article

print logo
Jeff Simon

New readers for a great critic, new listeners for a singer-songwriter

Jeff Simon

Here is part of what NPR music critic Ann Powers said recently about the fifth and newest record from 34-year old singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey, which is provocatively titled "Norman (Expletive) Rockwell."

It's the record, said Powers of Del Rey, that "has cemented her status as a serious artist among critics who may or may not have thought her previous work problematic, or at very least, incomplete."

Powers found no difficulty praising "Rockwell" for its "sensitivity and compassion."

Not too bad from one of the best living critics for a popular recording artist, even one with a Twitter following of 9.5 million.

Ms. Del Rey begged to differ. And, this being 2019, she tweeted about it.

The phrase "self reflection I share generously" has faint echoes of the mind-boggling self-praise America has become used to from the most famous address on Pennsylvania Avenue. In Del Rey's case, though, she is not being at all inaccurate, for all its clumsy self-declaration.

Self-reflection a constant in Del Rey's work.

She also tweeted this to critic Powers:

At that point, in her wounded sensitivity, Del Rey is being, I think, either disingenuous or completely thoughtless. There isn't a pop star in the world -- especially not a "singer-songwriter" known for her "sensitivity and compassion" -- who never presents the world with a public, performing "persona" whether on record or in live performance.

I understand Del Rey's insistence on maintaining the emotional and intellectual authenticity in every song she presents to her listeners, but that doesn't mean that the Lana Del Rey who shares pillowtalk at 2 a.m. or sips morning coffee is the exact same woman who records emotionally complex work in a recording studio. A "persona" is as basic to a pop performer as a voice.

It goes without saying that artists of all sorts have every right in the world to confront their critics with objections. In doing so, in fact, Del Rey was doing so both mildly and interestingly.

She was trying to institute clarity about herself where she'd felt Powers had been inaccurate.

The trouble with Powers' brilliant review of Del Rey -- and something, in my opinion, the "sensitive" and "literate" singer should have recognized immediately -- is that Powers' review was as much a work of creative and written art as Del Rey's record.

I've heard the record now, a few times, and it is certainly interesting and engaging. I have no interest in living with it regularly, but that's mostly because it is, predictably, more than a little monotonous musically (you don't exactly expect all that "self-reflection" to suddenly burst forth with bebop scat or a joyful tarantella, after all).

But lyrically it can't help, I think, but be moving to even to those most dreaded American creatures in the current cultural world -- i.e. males unmistakably in their senior years.

Here are the lyrics to Del Rey's song "The Greatest."

"I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go / Dennis' last stop before Kokomo / We didn't know that we had it all / But nobody warns you before the fall.

"Don't leave / I just need a wake-up call / I'm facing the greatest loss of them all / The culture is lit and I had a fall / I guess I'm signing off after all.

"I miss New York and I miss the music / Me and my friends we miss rock and roll / I want [stuff] to feel just like it used to / When I was doing nothing the most of all."

I don't now if I go along with her saying "the poetry inside me is more a gun," but that I submit is an uncommonly interesting singer-songwriter. Which is what makes Powers' essay about her so extraordinary.

What happened after Del Rey tweeted her objections was what you might well imagine with an artist who has 9.5 million followers, many of them young and inexperienced, both emotionally and intellectually.

Powers was accused of all those knee-jerk things critics so often are -- narrowness, insensitivity, elitism, bullying, etc., all the malignancies so often blasted in reflex troll-eries online (with the exceptions, of course, of those aimed at those poor hideous blockheads whose major debilities are maleness and durability).

Then something wildly unpredictable happened: The backlash against Powers created a large backlash of its own.

The commonplace excellence and complexity and ambition (and sensitivity and compassion) of Powers herself began to be abundantly apparent to many readers who had never before had major reasons to think about them.

Few artists ever find it easy to ignore completely what a brilliant critic might have to say, no matter what those artists' "personas" might be.

Del Rey's objections were more than a little on the touchy side, but were also understandable and sympathetic, too.

The dunderheaded rolling thunder of the trolls and bullying from her army of followers, though, succeeded more than anything in focusing a spotlight on one of the best pop music critics America has at the moment and one of the most brilliant critics in any field.

Powers suddenly reminded the world how deeply it needs critics, even though it doesn't always think so.

I've always been a fan of Powers -- her previous work in the Los Angeles Times, her book "Good Booty" and now her long-form reviews for NPR.

On top of that, though, I have developed a brand new respect for what NPR is doing for pop music criticism in an era when the backward and thoughtless clobberings of most critics in the Twitterverse have become background noise.

What Powers vs. Del Rey proved gloriously is the oldest truth about what readers are well-advised to adopt about finding one's way through the world of cultural opinion: i.e., find the critics you like, the ones whose ideas and style and ways of apprehending the world jibe the most with your own, and stick with them to discover how much you're likely to learn.

Del Rey might not have thought so, but in my opinion she gained a lot of sympathetic listeners from what Powers wrote.

But then so did Powers gain a lot of readers from what Del Rey tweeted.

There are no comments - be the first to comment