It’s always been intuitive to think of Lana Del Rey as a “character”: some fiction combining Jessica Rabbit and Joan Didion, drawn up around 2010 by the real human Lizzy Grant. And it’s always been wrong, supposedly. “Never had a persona,” Del Rey tweeted earlier this month. “Never needed one. Never will.”
That statement came amid Del Rey’s diss of an essay by the NPR music critic Ann Powers. In more than 3,500 careful words about the new album Norman Fucking Rockwell, Powers had saluted Del Rey’s use of pastiche, cliché, and, yes, persona. She also said that some of the songwriting felt “uncooked.” Del Rey didn’t like that. “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music,” she tweeted at Powers. “There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me.” Another tweet: “So don’t call yourself a fan like you did in the article and don’t count your editor one either – I may never never have made bold political or cultural statements before- because my gift is the warmth I live my life with and the self reflection I share generously.”
Artists have always had reason to trash their critics, but Del Rey’s attack came in a year when musicians have seemed especially defensive. Lizzo lashed out at a mixed take on her new album, Ariana Grande blasted “the blogs” as “unfulfilled” and “purposeless,” and Chance the Rapper suggested that his skeptics wanted him to die. Music criticism is in a relevance crisis—publications are closing and streaming threatens to render parts of the job obsolete—so why are musicians sweating negative feedback so much? Maybe the world of social media makes artists more exposed and encourages them to hit back. And maybe the role of the persona, a crucial concept in pop history, is in flux.