Lana, Taylor, & Miley: Navigating Modern Music Criticism

Childish rants on Twitter don’t solve the problem, but only grow tensions. It’s the key virtues of restraint and maturity which will allow artists to navigate the constantly changing world of modern music.

Last Friday, Lana Del Rey dropped her fifth studio LP, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Just a few days later, legendary pop music critic, Ann Powers published a fantastically in-depth review of the LP. The review featured all of Powers’ trademark nuance and intelligent deconstruction and celebrated the album is an impressive step forward for Del Rey. She did, however, draw a few unflattering comparisons of Lana to singer/songwriter legends like Joni Mitchell, and called some of the ideas on the project “uncooked,” and criticized her reliance on her “persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done.” This was a relatively benign criticism, especially when set against the backdrop of a rather flattering review, but Lana certainly didn’t think so.

“Here’s a little sidenote on your piece,” the vocalist tweeted in response to the review, “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.”

“So don’t call yourself a fan like you did in the article and don’t count your editor one either,” she continued. “I may 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.” Needless to say, this is not a good look for Lana Del Rey. The majority of the music industry seems to agree as Twitter has been flooded with support for Ann Powers and defense of the critic’s excellent catalog of work and right to voice her opinion however she sees fit.

This kind of vitriolic backlash to negative criticism, however, is becoming more and more common, particularly in the increasingly competitive world of pop music. Earlier this year, Miley Cyrus responded to a relatively brutal critique of her newest EP, She Is Coming from online blog, High Snobiety. “I finally found a shitty review of SHE IS COMING,” Tweeted Cyrus, before adding “Ps thanks for putting buy/stream link at the end of your shitty article although I’m pretty sure everyone has bought and streamed but I’m sure it was helpful for those who are as out of touch as you are.”

In all fairness, this is not new by any means. Tool’s 2001 track “Ticks and Leeches,” was a clear shot at the industry as a whole and more directly at metal critics who had accused the band of going soft. Sonic Youth directly name dropped longtime critic Robert Christgau in their 1983 track, “Kill Yr Idols.” Even the great Bob Dylan went after music journalists in his song “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”

Love it or hate it, music criticism and the artist’s response to this criticism, has long been an integral part of popular music. But like every other aspect of life, social media has dramatically changed the landscape of this relationship. When Dylan wanted to respond to a journalist, this had to be done either through a new release. Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey, on the other hand, can fire off a tweet without a second thought and make their displeasure known. Unfortunately, this won’t change anytime soon.

And so, it may be time that every participant in the music industry, from the artists down to the fans and even the critics themselves, come to a robust appreciation for the role which critics play in the ever evolving world world of music.

First and foremost, critics can act as a trusted curator in the crowded field of new releases which come every week. Sometimes, a strong review may tell readers about an obscure project which they may not have found on their own. Other times, critics can let you know which of mainstream records may not be worth your time.

Additionally, when an otherwise successful artist drops a project which doesn’t live up to expectations, thorough, constructive critiques of the album can help that artist get back on track. All too often, when a musician is surrounded by a team, the lack of objective, outside opinions can begin to weigh on the creative process. In this instance, thoughtful reviews like those written by Ann Powers can help an artist course correct.

Of course, not all reviews are created equal, and there are plenty of awful sights who focus on sensationalized, simplistic reviews which add virtually nothing to the discourse. However, it’s the job of artists to tell constructive criticism from sensationalized nonsense, and it’s the job of respectable critics to combat the voices of those who only cloud the water.

Perhaps no modern artist had toed this line quite as well as Taylor Swift. Her first public run in with criticism came in the form of her 2011 mega-hit, “Mean,” which, though a bit cheesy, does quite a great job of pinpointing the distinction between thoughtful critique and vitriolic nonsense. However, it’s her newest album which shows her excellent ability to take in criticism.

When her 2017 release, Reputation was released, it performed predictably well on the billboard charts and caught the usual, fawning reviews from several mainstream outlets. However, many independent critics and writers for smaller publications were clear in articulating a concern with the inorganic and forced direction which Swift seemed to be taking.

And so, just two years later, Taylor’s newest release, Lover seems to planted her directly back on track with yet another enjoyable LP which addresses nearly every complain brought forward by Reputation’s negative reviews. Taylor’s perfect 180 is a perfect example of an artist taking in critiques and adjusting in the perfect way.

Ultimately, tension has always been thick between those who make music and those who review it. That hasn’t changed, nor will it anytime soon, and so artists will need to learn to take criticism in stride and use it to improve their sound.

Childish rants on Twitter don’t solve the problem, but only grow tensions. It’s the key virtues of restraint and maturity which will allow artists to navigate the constantly changing world of modern music.

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Taylor Swift Returns to Form With Her Seventh LP

Ultimately, Lover is everything fans could ask for from a new Taylor Swift album and just a bit more.

Taylor Swift needs very little introduction at this point. The pop singer-songwriter from Reading, Pennsylvania has become something of an icon in the genre and has likely done more than almost any other artist to shape the current landscape of radio pop. Prior to this newest release, the six LP’s to her name thus far have netted about 42 platinum certifications with 2008’s Fearless being one of the few albums to ever reach diamond certification. That being said, the last year has been something of a rough time for Swift. She left her longtime label, Big Machine Records only to have her music bought out from under her by longtime enemy, Scooter Braun and her most recent release, 2017’s Reputation was her least successful to date, both critically and financially. With all this piling up and the pop landscape shifting drastically below her, Taylor needed a win and she got it in Lover.

If anything, this album is a testament to Swifts ability to process criticism and improve because of it. Where her previous release was entirely too dark and lifeless, Lover is a blast! Tracks like the opener, “I Forgot That You Existed,” “Paper Rings,” and the better of the lead singles, “You Need To Calm Down,” will have longtime fans and casual listeners alike dancing immediately. It’s a stark contrast and absolutely the right choice for Swift as its her ability to write feel-good jams which has delivered her lasting status in the industry.

That ability hinges, above all else, on excellent pop songwriting. Songs like “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” and the album’s title track feature tight rhyme schemes that color in nearly every line with exciting moments. It’s the care she puts into every couplet which has garnered Swift such a reputation as a songwriter. Though most of her writing isn’t life-changing or especially moving, it is tight, catchy, and dynamic.

Unfortunately, this talent seems to fall apart on a handful of tracks. “The Man,” and the lesser of the lead singles, “ME!” Were particularly frustrating for me. Here, Taylor tries her hand at a more opinionated style of writing, as apposed to her usual storytelling, and in both cases, the  results feel shallow and uninventive.

On the other hand, much of this record eschews the tendency toward upbeat, danceable music and instead focuses on slow, growing waves of sound which seem only to keep building. Tracks like “The Archer,” and “Cornelia Street,” are bright and enveloping with warm, towering synths coloring the soundscape. The pallet is, admittedly, a bit narrow, but the overall sweetness of the sound makes up for any shortcomings, and when the pallet does expand, as in the addition of the Dixie Chicks on  “Soon You’ll Get Better,” it does so quite well.

This is all made infinitely better by the records’ strongest quality: the bright, shimmering production. The shift to Republic Records is felt in the pristine clarity of tracks like “Cruel Summer,” and “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince.” The tuning on Swift’s vocal is warm, the buzz of the synths is interesting, and overall mix is just perfectly balanced.

The record’s weakest point, on the other hand, is the bizarre percussion that litters several of the albums better cuts. Tracks like “I Think He Knows,” or “London Boy,” would be perfectly respectable if not for the strange and often annoying trap drums which feel entirely out of place. For a record with such well produced instrumentation, this poor percussion robs nearly every track of any organic feel that was possible.

Overall, this album is a success. There are a handful of poor choices in the lyrics and the 60 minute runtime definitely drags as the final few tracks feel totally unnecessary, but these issues can’t outweigh the album’s strengths. The fantastic songwriting, lively production, and carefree tone carry the day and even the worst tracks have a strong moment or two.

Ultimately, Lover is everything fans could ask for from a new Taylor Swift album and just a bit more.

6/10

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