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.

Advertisements

Lana Del Rey Drops Uninspired Sixth Album

Norman Fucking Rockwell! Has a handful of pleasant elements, but ultimately it is poorly written, poorly performed, and just plain boring.

Lana Del Rey is baroque pop singer/songwriter from New York City. She debuted in 2010 with a self-titled LP which largely flew under the radar, but her 2012 follow up, Born to Die scored a platinum certification thanks to her signing with Interscope Records for the release. Since then, she hasn’t quite recaptured the success of her sophomore record, though her last three releases are certified gold and two have peaked at number one on the Billboard charts. She’s also landed a handful of massive performances like a slot at Coachella in 2014 and the Flow Festival in 2017, not to mention several successful tours. I must admit that I’ve never been a massive fan of Del Ray as I’ve always found her music to be a bit more aesthetic over quality. Unfortunately, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Is yet another example of this.

It’s not all bad! There are a few elements that I enjoy, and a key one is certainly the swelling strings which adorn the majority of the album. Particularly on the front end, tracks like the opening title track and “Mariners Apartment Complex,” feature orchestrated violins which bring a real sense of weight to songs which, otherwise, may fall flat.

In addition, there are a few enjoyable melodies to be found, especially near the end. Cuts like “Happiness is a Butterfly,” and the atrociously titled closer, “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – and I Have It,” have nice, ear-worm choruses that definitely linger in the mind long after the first listen. Without a doubt, the album could do with several more of these catchy choruses.

Easily the highlight of the LP is the genuinely great production from Jack Antonoff. The Bleachers frontman has recently made quite a name for himself in the world of production, and this project is no exception! A quick listen to cuts like “How to Disappear,” and “California,” gives a great taste of Antonoff’s care-free style. While there are a few nitpicks in terms of technical missteps, he makes up for this with a very natural mix which catches a lot of the small imperfections that make the instrumentals sound very natural.

Regrettably, none of this can save the album from the litany of issues which plague nearly every track. Perhaps the first downfall that a casual listener might notice is Lana Del Rey’s positively terrible vocal performance. Some of the worst examples come on “Love Song,” and “The Next Best American Record,” but on track after track, Del Rey acts as nothing but a wet blanket to the genuinely interesting instrumentals beneath her thanks to weak falsettos and a lack of any impressive power or range in her overall low energy vocal.

Beyond this, the lyricism leaves quite a bit to be desired as well. Songs like “Fuck It, I Love You,” and “Cinnamon Girl,” are filled with some of the most cliche and least interesting lyrics I’ve heard in a very long time. Her writing mostly consists of references to other, better songs and appeals to aesthetic which lack any real emotional weight. It’s a kind of faux depth which just doesn’t stand up to any thoughtful listen, but also keeps the record from being just mindless fun.

Worst of all, the album commits the cardinal sin: it’s boring. This is apparent on every single cut as they seem to build without ever reaching any climax or even mildly exciting moment. It’s painfully noticeable on her cover of the Sublime classic, “Doin’ Time,” as the spacey instrumental and Lana’s unenthused performance zap all the energy out of the iconic track. Perhaps the worst offender, however, is “Venice Bitch,” which, for reasons that I cannot fathom, runs for an entire nine minutes with only enough material to fill about three. The rest of the track is just middling, directionless strings and a repetitive chorus.

All in all, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Feels like a disappointment. As I said, I’ve never been a Lana Del Rey fan myself, and so this may be exactly what fans were hoping for. But, for my money, there are several artists working today to execute this sound far better while eschewing the faux-vintage aesthetic which drips from every second of the LP.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! Has a handful of pleasant elements, but ultimately it is poorly written, poorly performed, and just plain boring.