Critiquing Lana Del Rey

Sep 7, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 5:19 am

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the most anticipated pop albums of the year was released last week - set off one of those social media firestorms. The album is by Lana Del Rey. We can't say its full name on the air. We'll just call it "Norman Rockwell." We won't use the profanity the artist placed between the painter's first and last names. Her album received a lot of praise.

NPR's music critic and correspondent Ann Powers also reviewed "Norman Rockwell" and liked it. Her essay looks at how the album fits into the context of Lana Del Rey's career. The artist did not like it. Ann Powers joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Why were people looking forward to this album?

POWERS: Well, Lana Del Rey has really created a singular space for herself since 2011 when she burst onto the scene with her song and video called "Video Games." And, you know, she is part of the pop pantheon, for sure. She is also a brilliant singer-songwriter and an experimenter with sound. She has some very strong singles that came out before the album released that suggested this might be what many people call a masterwork. And, in fact, it is being called a masterwork.

SIMON: Let's hear something from her album. What do you suggest?

POWERS: Let's hear "The Greatest." It's a beautiful ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GREATEST")

LANA DEL REY: (Singing) And I pray that you stay. Don't leave. I just need a wake-up call. I'm facing the greatest, the greatest loss of them all.

SIMON: You published your review Wednesday. Hours later, Lana Del Rey responded with a couple of posts on Twitter. She made it clear. She took exception to what you wrote.

POWERS: Yes, she did, and I felt sad. As a person who really thinks Lana Del Rey's work is beautiful and often profound, I was sad that this person who made this work didn't appreciate my view.

In my review, I discussed some central concepts in popular culture, like authenticity, for example, the use of a persona. I made some comparisons that I think she didn't like. And she said in her tweet that she doesn't have a persona.

Her tweets felt so genuine to me. And, you know, I immediately began thinking about my own work in relationship to what she'd said. And I thank Lana Del Rey for making music that makes me think about what is truth, what does it mean to be a woman telling your truth. She does that in beautiful ways. But she disagreed with the way I explored those ideas in my piece.

SIMON: Well, and let's explain; this happened on Twitter...

POWERS: Yes.

SIMON: ...Where Lana Del Rey has 9 million followers. So this wasn't just between you and her. Her fans defended her.

POWERS: They are defending her (laughter).

SIMON: They are defending her.

POWERS: Still happening.

SIMON: Number of critics spoke up for you, too.

POWERS: Yes. I really think what we see in the ongoing conversation about Lana Del Rey's displeasure with my review is a kind of a discussion about the role of the critic in culture. And first, we should say that critics and artists have always, you know, occupied - some would say oppositional roles. You could say complimentary roles. I'm hardly the first critic to face an artist's disapproval.

SIMON: I mean, you know the famous story. George Bernard Shaw wrote a critic who didn't like one of his plays and said your review is in front of me. Tomorrow it will be behind me.

POWERS: Exactly. And, you know, one thing about this discussion around my appreciation of "Norman Rockwell," I think, is that it is an appreciation, you know? The only thing I really want to say, and I want to say it over and over again, is I hope the people who've never listened to her before, the people who maybe didn't like what she used to do - everyone should listen to "Norman Rockwell." It is an album that says so much about our time. And if my writing about it illuminated anything for anyone, then I'm happy about that.

SIMON: NPR's music critic and correspondent Ann Powers, thanks so much.

POWERS: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.