The Plot Against Persona

It’s preposterous for Lana Del Rey and other musicians to deny that they’re playing characters. But in this pop landscape, that denial might be necessary.

Lana Del Rey at the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2019.
Del Rey's defenders have always said that it shouldn’t matter that she’s artificial. But the singer rejects that premise entirely. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

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.

Del Rey’s assertion that she’s never had a persona is laughable given how much flak she’s gotten for seeming to live in costume. She has a stage name that she said the music industry coaxed her to adopt. She has a fashion shtick so well-defined that people can go as her for Halloween. She writes lyrics in a style that makes it seem like she wormholed from an early ’70s LSD cult and then tried to learn modern slang from a Rihanna song. Her defenders have always said that it shouldn’t matter that she’s artificial, as all great pop musicians are. But it’s clear now that that’s not actually how she wants to be defended: She rejects the premise of the entire conversation.

In 2013, an old song by Lana Del Rey leaked, and it was a doozie: a diss track against Lady Gaga. Before either woman had become famous, both had played in New York City nightlife circuits. It appeared they were friends, but the Del Rey song, “So Legit,” seemed to blast Gaga as talentless and fake. “You’re looking like a man, you’re talking like a baby,” Del Rey sang, airing some very-common-in-2009 idiocies directed at Gaga. “How the fuck is your song in a Coke commercial? Crazy.”

The notion of a divide between Del Rey and Gaga—both of whom have grappled with charges of inauthenticity over the years—is instructive. Back at the start of her career, Gaga entranced the press as a shapeshifting cartoon creature who gave sassy-cryptic interviews. There was no doubting that the “fame monster” Gaga was an entertaining fabulation, even though she’d go around saying things like, “The largest misconception is that Lady Gaga is a persona or a character. I’m not—even my mother calls me Gaga. I am 150,000 percent Lady Gaga every day.” Such statements could be brushed off as method acting. After all, her obvious predecessors—Madonna, Prince—often didn’t break character in their early days. David Bowie held funerals for his personas once he was ready to move on from them.

Move on, Gaga did. After pushing her couture and her sonic bombast ever more outlandishly through 2013’s Artpop, she began an act of striptease, with pared-back albums and a documentary that purported to show the “real” her. She talks now about Gaga as, yes, a persona, something outside of herself. “It is a bit of a creation,” she said in 2016. “But it’s other people that have created [it] through what I’ve made; their perception of what Gaga is, is a separate entity from me.” But the persona isn’t gone: See all of her high-concept runway moments promoting A Star Is Born (the showtunes-singing Italian American family girl we see in latter-day Gaga projects is a performance, too). In taking on that movie role, Gaga underlined the idea that she, like her character, Ally, built up a persona that she could then remove at will.

Del Rey arrived at fame in 2012, and she seemed both out of time and perfectly timed. Just as Instagram’s nostalgic filters and the bricolage identity-curation platforms like Pinterest were catching on, here was someone gluing together disparate references using a Super 8 aesthetic. Her music combined Golden Hollywood strings with hip-hop skittering, which fit the lyrics of someone who called herself “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” If this was “pop,” it was also weird. The music unfolded too slowly to fit with the untz-untz trends that Gaga led. Del Rey was out of step in a deeper way, too: her politics.

Del Rey’s shtick was insistently feminine—“This Is What Makes Us Girls,” went the title of Born to Die’s glorious closing track—but it wasn’t feminist in an obvious way. In her breakout single, “Video Games,” she doted on a remote, neglectful man. Most of her debut’s songs did something similar to this while also contemplating death and suffering as something glamorous. This was unusual in the 2012 moment, when explicit embraces of “empowerment” had become key to pop performance. Sympathetic reviewers over the years found ways to read Del Rey as subversive: She satirized that which she sang about, and she made space for female sadness, and she embraced the freedom to be whoever she wanted. All such readings required leaning heavily on the notion of persona. Del Rey had to be singing one thing when she really meant another.

She didn’t say that was so, though. In 2015, she said, “I definitely don’t need a persona to create music, it’s not a David Bowie type of thing necessarily.” In another interview she brushed off the idea that she was working in the realm of exaggeration, instead hinting at biography: “You know, there’s a lot of stuff I could’ve not said in the songs and I said it anyway. It didn’t always serve me to talk about some of the men I was with and what that was like, and then not comment on it further.” One track that surely seemed like parody, 2014’s “Fucked My Way Up to the Top,” she clarified, was truth telling about a relationship she had with a label executive.

Maybe Del Rey’s just trolling. But at a certain point it becomes weird to not take her own words at face value. Over the years, she’s basically kept singing about the same things, with ever so slight shifts. On the title track of her new album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, she mocks the overconfident male type who she would have once swooned for—but she does, however, still swoon. Though her four albums since Born to Die have been very good, they’ve not been very evolutionary. One album will lean more pop and one will lean more opera. There’s more space, and nuance, and harmonic yumminess on Norman Fucking Rockwell than ever before. Mostly, though, there’s Lana Del Rey being Lana Del Rey. Which is who?

Ann Powers’s essay imagined that Del Rey is exactly who she’s said she’s been. It started by taking something the musician said in an interview, about spending most of her time at the beach, not as some fabulous exaggeration from a pop trickster but as an actual biographical tidbit—and then speculated on which beach might suit her. It went on to evaluate Del Rey on the terms she’s always asked to be evaluated on: as a “singer-songwriter” in the lineage of “Joni Mitchell or Tori Amos” with “piano, lyric poetry, a voice cultivated by singing hymns and lullabies” to achieve “legible expressiveness.” Across Norman Fucking Rockwell, Powers wrote, Del Rey presents herself as “a woman sitting at a keyboard, singing what she needs to say.”

Powers went on to say, however, that Del Rey’s singer-songwriterliness wasn’t what made her “an interesting artist.” Instead it was “her compulsion to collapse logic, to violate boundaries musically, through imagery and within her storytelling.” This is correct. It’s Del Rey’s meta-meanings, the way she signals and evokes and alludes, that make her obsession-worthy—not what’s in the words but what’s in between them, and around them. When Del Rey picks Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” up from the used-CD bin and delivers a deadpan femme-fatale version, she is conveying not just a melody but also something more ambiguous about gender and place and genre and love. “For Del Rey, the mash-up of affects and references is the point,” Powers wrote. “It is emotion’s actuality.”

Emotion’s actuality should be the songwriter’s dream, and Powers said Del Rey achieved it. So why the singer objected isn’t quite clear—though her clapback gives the impression that she thinks Powers overcomplicated things. “My gift is the warmth I live my life with and the self reflection I share generously,” she tweeted, which is a funny statement on multiple levels. The Del Rey who comes across in song is many things, but “warm” is not among them. She certainly doesn’t seem to be simply sharing her feelings, like a diarist. She is mediating them. She is slotting them in a cultural context. They’re all the more powerful for that. It’s tempting to wonder if Del Rey bristled because Powers got it right: She noticed how the magic trick works.

Or the disagreement could really be about persona. Powers wrote of Lizzy Grant creating a “character” out of her subconscious (and America’s), but what if it’s not a character? What if it’s literally her? In Del Rey’s Twitter bio, there is a quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large - I contain multitudes.” That’s a Walt Whitman line that’s become such a platitude—who earnestly quotes Whitman in 2019 other than TV parodies of pretentious literary men?—that to a clever critic/listener/fan, it might seem like an in-joke. But maybe the hackneyed nature of Del Rey’s reference points—as Powers wrote, “no shout-out to Sylvia Plath can feel new, not since about 1981”—is not knowing after all. Maybe Del Rey has no interest in cliché as cliché. Maybe she wants to remove the meta-meaning and get back to the meaning. She just wants to say that she contains multitudes.

Discussions of “persona” in 2019 can’t help but entail citations of another dead male intellectual who’s been over-quoted of late, Carl Jung. In Jung’s schemas, the perfection of the self requires bringing one’s persona—their “mask”—into accord with their ego and shadow. Identity crisis is ongoing, productive, and all-encompassing. In Del Rey’s music, however, there are no identity crises. She is not torn between being who someone else wants her to be and being who she is. Who she is is someone who wants to be what someone else—some man, usually, historically—wants her to be. In an era of people willfully working out their identity in public, this steady blankness has made her one of the most striking and strangest figures around. We have no choice but to wonder if she’s kidding. That’s her intrigue.

Other players in pop music have, in disparate but related ways, moved to sideline persona as a helpful schematic: Fans are forbidden to separate the art and the artist. Take Billie Eilish, one of the most fully realized, outlandish, superstar-level characters to arrive on the scene since Gaga. Blocky-graphic clothes and dead-eyed ghoul grins and music videos laden with spiders and goop—she’s a performance artist, most obviously. But she’s also a performer of great intimacy. On social media, her aesthetic is shaky verité. She insists that her goth-pop, hodgepodge songs connect to her actual experiences of nightmares and mental illness and ambition and heartbreak. You follow her and you do not get the sense of someone playing a role. You do not get curious about who she really is. You are instead mesmerized by her appearance of internal and exterior unity.

Go down the list of today’s trending pop stars and you see similar stories of persona and person expertly made indistinguishable so as to inspire obsession among followers online. Ariana Grande once had the feel of being the Nickelodeon character she played and just transferring over to the music world; now, she mines the actual (or reported) drama of her grown-up life for quirky singalongs that tie in with whatever story she’s telling on Instagram. Cardi B’s music is absolutely an extension of the too-fabulous-to-believe human audiences have been shown on reality TV. Few mind the didacticism of the messages Lizzo slings in song because they are so deeply, ebulliently rooted in the life that we see her living in the public eye. These stars put on highly constructed spectacles for a living. They also insist on being seen as that thing once considered anathema to such spectacles: authentic.

It’s always been the case that personas are something for critics to investigate and for stars to deny the existence of. But such denials have never been as imperative for success as they are now. If Del Rey’s music has all along represented some credible version of her own reality, it’s all the more dazzling. Just imagine if this glamour, the pathos, the tragedy were actually real? And if it is fantasy, as so many have suspected, it is a fantasy of cohesion: life lived according to the tropes of art. Either way, it is not in her interest to encourage deconstruction. Firing off a logically preposterous, ethically dubious, but alluringly vicious barb at someone who earnestly attempts to do so is very much the kind of thing a Lana Del Rey would do.