Lana Del Rey : A Critic Atones

Lana Del Rey performs in France in July. Her album, Born To Die, came out in January, to mixed reviews.

It’s beginning to look a lot like craziness — end-of-the-year craziness, to be precise. Now that Gray Thursday has officially reduced Thanksgiving to carbo-loading for the holiday shopping marathon, many people’s winter holidays have become little more than a massive spinout. We’re supposed to slow down; instead we gobble and run — consuming food, the spoils of shopping, and the pleasurable presence of each other, then speeding on to the next party or purchase without taking time to digest. The pause to reflect often only comes in the act of making lists. Checking them twice, we can contemplate our own needs and those of our loved ones. Sometimes a glimmer might break through the chaos: a dim realization of deeper wishes and needs.

Even organizing priorities, though, can turn competitive. Shared lists become status symbols. This is most true for critics, who are in part professional list-makers. By the time the turkey hits our tongues, we’re already deep into the ranking game. (Keep track here, where David Gutowski of the Largehearted Boy website graciously aggregates most year-end music lists.)

What was the best album/film/television show/book/unclassifiable event of the year? Whose debut changed the game? What mattered? These choices are fundamentally personal, but once they enter the world, they form arguments that can quickly harden. In the midst of the holiday rush, critics can also forget to take a breath. The hunger to impress, to have the most original, brash, complete or simply authoritative list, can become as addictive as the urge to purchase.

The thing about authority is that no one wields it flawlessly. Making mistakes is a key part of learning, and if you want to stay good at what you do, learning never stops. Critics trying to absorb the vast fields about which they write can’t help but fail, often: missing good stuff when it first comes out, overestimating mediocre work, and even occasionally making a grab for the truly heinous.

Year end critics’ lists, however, don’t usually include a mechanism for acknowledging mistakes. Partly this is because we’re a prideful bunch, not eager to dwell on blunders. But the way we think of lists — as solid things, powerful because they are definitive — also undermines the process of self-questioning. Caveats can make a list seem weak.

Wouldn’t a year-end list of favorites be more realistic if it somehow included a glimpse into what shifted in a critic’s mind during a given year? I think so. In that spirit, I’d like to make a suggestion: let’s incorporate a custom borrowed from a different New Year into our season-capping work.

The Jewish New Year is all about reflection. Atonement, central to the holiday of Yom Kippur, focuses on admitting transgressions and sins of omission. My daughter came home from Hebrew school in September with a piece of paper inscribed with blue ink; as instructed, she placed it in water and watched her sins fade into liquid turned azure. This ritual wasn’t just about forgiveness, but about realizing the impermanence that both haunts and opens up every decision. I wonder what my fellow music critics would write on that slip of paper and let wash away?

I’ll start.

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