Going back to Mark Richardson’s frequently not-terrible Pitchfork review of “Ultraviolence,” one paragraph stands out in particular:
Creating a semi-fictional delivery system for your creative ideas is nothing new, but few have had Del Rey’s commitment to the idea – imagine Madonna sticking with Breathless Mahoney for multiple album cycles. This far in, after so many interviews and so much media attention, we don’t know all that much about Lana Del Rey, and we’re not sure what we’re told is real. She’s become a screen onto which we project our desire and/or our loathing. With “Ultraviolence,” Del Rey has found new synergy between the character she presents to the world and the content of the songs.
Later in his review, Richardson throws out a term that neatly summarizes this line of thought: “persona.” “Persona” has become something of a necessary buzzword in the field of Lana Del Rey Studies – it’s more-or-less impossible to talk about her work without using it. This is unfortunate, given a.) its general inadequacy and b.) its frequent misuse. So before we go about reducing someone’s life’s work to an amorphous Latinate term and reacting to said reduction in contradiction to its basic etymological ontology, let’s look at the actual definition of “persona” and examine its relationship to externalized pop stardom. !!!
Like many words that describe things ordinary people don’t like to think about, “persona” is the Latin equivalent of an everyday English word that technically means the same thing. Like “person,” “persona” seems to have come to us through the elaborate theater metaphor that is Western philosophy – the Latin original (which “person” obviously also descends from) means “character, mask, role.” “Person” has been around since the early days of English, but “persona” wasn’t forced on us until we started to get anxious about essence and appearance in the 18th century. It seems to have come, like so many unpleasant words, through literary criticism, and was first used to describe the role adopted by the writer in regard to his writing (in fact, in an extra-meta- twist, the OED cites its first deployment to Richard Bentley, writing about himself in regard to his own writing as he was writing it – in the preface to his edition of Paradise Lost” (1732): “If anyone fancy this Persona of an Editor to be a mere Fantom, a Fiction, an Artifice to skreen Milton himself”). Stephen Coleridge evolved the term beyond writing and into drama, and soon it came to describe any put-on character, artistic or otherwise.
It’s interesting, and absolutely crucial, to note that our word for one’s basic, innate, human existence comes from a term that describes exteriority (not only exteriority, but artificial exteriority). It’s also important to note that while “person” came to us naturally and therefore unaware of its complex relationship with exteriority, “persona” exists because of that relationship. “Persona” describes explicitly what “person” does implicitly: the thing-that-one-is is a construction. The English adoption of “person” indicates an unspoken awareness of the necessary artifice that constructs delineated individuality, but the self-aware “persona” forces that consciousness to the forefront. Indeed, “persona” minimizes the “persona”-ness of “person” by implying that a “person”- that is, a natural, non-constructed human essence – differs from a “persona” – that is, an explicitly constructed human exterior.
Carl Jung threw another wedge in the conversation when he placed “persona” (“a kind of mask … to conceal the true nature of the individual”) against the “anima” (the sub-conscious essential spirit) in his early work on analytic psychology. On one hand, this forces “persona” closer to the artifice of its Latin definition; on the other, it grants further kudos to the “realness” of individual essence. “Persona,” from a one-off half-reading of Jungian psychology, becomes a dirty word – one’s persona is entirely severed from one’s essence. There’s the actual person – indefinite, honest, “authentic”, and there’s the persona – defined (and definable), false, “inauthentic.”
This brings us to where we are today. Despite our firmly grounded sense of personalism, we’re inherently opposed, on a serious level, to persona. In the world of contemporary critical experience, persona is at best entertaining, at worst malevolent, and, in most cases, useful. “Useful” – that is, easily appropriated for selfish utility – is the key word: when we encounter a persona, our basic reaction is to define it and articulate its use-value (pleasure, joke, support, threat). That which is a mere exteriority (that which lacks essence, and therefore substance) can be easily broken down and appropriated into systemic practicality. It was made this way; it was made for this reason; I will use it this way, for this reason. In its non-essential simplicity, a persona is by its nature a tool, and as a tool it has a clearly designated groove in one’s toolkit.
To label an entity a “persona,” then, in contemporary discourse, is necessarily reductive. The entity you experience is not an exteriorization of said entity’s essence, but a carefully created cover-up. It isn’t real, and doesn’t have to be treated as such – it’s a creation and nothing more. And, as a creation, it can be defined by the nature of its creating. A persona exists for a reason, and it can’t exist outside the bounds of that reason. When it exceeds its boundaries, it fails: a tragic persona fails when it bursts out laughing; a “funny” persona fails when it makes the wrong joke about black people. This makes personas easy to assess, and easy to use. It also makes them easy for us to not take very seriously.
To return to the matter at hand: Richardson insightfully concludes that, with Lana Del Rey, it’s “persona first, music second.” He’s essentially correct, and this explains the problem that so many critics have with her general presence: we don’t want persona. We want real, “authentic” things – we want “music.” To say that Lana is indifferent about “good music” and only interested in “Lana Del Rey: is a damning assessment. And to say that her real art isn’t music but the creation of a persona is a remarkably hard sell.
Conversations about Lana that take lines similar to Richardson’s typically lead to the inevitable question: what is her persona, then? Given the history of the term and civilization’s general sentiments toward it, this is a reasonable thing to ask – “persona” as use-object must have a “what.” Lana Del Rey has/is a persona; that persona must have a definition. The problem with the question, though, is that it doesn’t have an answer. What is Lana Del Rey’s persona? What is she doing (what is she trying to do)? If we’ve learned anything from the past four years of LDR Studies, it’s that we have No Idea. Lana Del Rey is not a definable entity. Her persona is contradictory, weird, and for the most part unlikeable. She does not Make Sense.
This is not a Lana problem. It’s a “persona” problem. “Persona,” in the Jungian(-ish), contra-“person” sense, does not describe What Lana Del Rey Is Doing. There isn’t a definite, useful explanation of her popular existence; she is not playing a role that fits into the dramatic matrix of yr orderly, neo-Socialist Steve Jobs-catered life. If she’s created anything, it’s not a “persona” but a “person,” one that, even if it is constructed, artificial, and purely exterior, is no more constructed, artificial, and purely exterior than any other human life. “Persona” in the Latin sense may be the right word to describe the focus of Elizabeth Grant’s art, but our contemporary definition is all too reductive. If we’re going to keep talking about this, we’re going to need either a better word or better universal OED access. Given overall trends in humanities funding and society’s general lack of interest in using words correctly, I wouldn’t hold out for either.