Editor’s note: Del Rey responded on Nov. 17 to clarify that the mask worn during the book signing included a plastic lining. Her response on Twitter can be read here.
It all started at a book signing in Los Angeles, Calif., where pop icon Lana Del Rey read passages of her new poetry book, “Violets Bent Backwards Over the Grass.”
Pictured on Twitter: Lana Del Rey in a mesh face mask. Then all hell broke loose.
In a move surprising to none, criticism from fans came down hard and fast. Most (if not all) of the comments emphasized the irresponsibility of Del Rey’s choice of mask during a global pandemic. The nature of the event made the incident more incriminating –– a book signing by nature involves intimate one-on-one social interaction, and multiple photos of Del Rey posing with fans only added fuel to the fire. Swift as a California forest fire, Del Rey’s Twitter fans tore her down.
Here, a familiar pattern breaks out: cancel culture. Social media has allowed a system of extremes to develop, an environment where declarations of allegiance are a necessity to claim “citizenship” of “woke culture.” If you don’t love somebody, you have to hate somebody –– the middle ground is no longer acceptable. Judgement calls can be made by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Online platforms act as personal megaphones. Often, the loudest voices are not the most accurate voices. And when it comes time to bring the gavel down and mete out justice, it becomes the shot heard around the world.
Can we still love our icons when they become “problematic?” This is often asked in a global culture which is increasingly black-and-white when it comes to identifying what behavior is right and what behavior is wrong. Questions whispered in layered guilt by fans who have found their favorite icons suddenly struck from favor. In a way, online justice feels as fickle and unyielding as that of an emperor or king.
Now, Del Rey stands before the chopping block, and her legions of fans watch in fear and anticipation to see if her “head will roll” next. Does a mesh mask disqualify her from our love? It seems such an insignificant misstep for an idol who the world has cherished for so long. But the pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people –– a number so large, it seems unfathomable. Mask etiquette has become synonymous with compassion, intelligence and human decency. Del Rey’s fashion choice feels like a slap in the face for those who have been intimately hurt by COVID-19 and for those who wear their masks without issue. Celebrity status does not exclude Del Rey from responsibility.
Other whispers online have suggested that Del Rey glamorizes abusive and toxic relationships; some have accused the artist of being a secret “Trump supporter,” going so far as to say that Del Rey’s American vintage style is indicative of her personal politics (“Harken, ye old glory days”). However, all of these accusations and musings on the internet are just that –– whispers. One can’t help but wonder if fans and critics alike are simply fishing for some fresh meat to bite. With tensions high and safety protocols demanding frequent isolation, the spotlight turned towards the internet. Everyone loves a good Twitter fight, too.
Should Del Rey be deemed “problematic” by the “high courts” of the internet? Do we abandon her completely? Do we shun her music and her poetry? Does this become a hard break-up, with deleted phone numbers and zero contact? Or is it a cowardly retreat, where Del Rey is publicly shamed and ostracized in daylight while the world continues to indulge in her music as a guilty pleasure.
This article poses a lot of questions, I know. Cancel culture paints itself as progressive and self-reflective: On the positive side, society has learned to hold the powerful accountable, to critique the heroes and reflect on how their larger-than-life reputations actively shape reality; on the other hand, cancel culture can be trigger-happy, overeager to place blame while enabling (sometimes anonymous) individuals to boost their own egos by tearing others down. In the spirit of modernity, then, I pose these questions to urge this type of reflection as well.
So, what’s left? A music icon who made a bad decision, a bad tweet. Excitement has soured, but has it gone rotten? Not just yet. It feels too early to call the shots on where Lana Del Rey is heading; popular opinion sways too easily to know with any certainty. By the time this article is published, there might be a new Twitter fight, Reddit post or Instagram reel thrusting Del Rey back into the harsh spotlight of fame.
In one of her first breakout songs from 2013, “Young and Beautiful,” Del Rey once asked us in that trademark glamorous lament: “Will you still love me / When I’m no longer young and beautiful?” It feels like only months ago, the answer would have been a confident “Yes.” Now? It seems fans are not so sure.
Daily Arts Writer Madeleine Virginia Gannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.