Lana Del Rey is an artist I am rather ambivalent about. I listen to her music when the mood strikes me – usually when I want to wallow in my feelings, or she randomly appears on a soundtrack. A running motif throughout Rey’s music is taking pain and transforming it into something warped, but romantic. Her music heavily mixes tragedy, love and moodiness, a perfect indie aesthetic for a Tumblr page. These past few years have swarmed Rey with questions about her lyrics and the ideals that she promotes. It seems reductive to characterise lyrics around submission as anti-feminist, but when it is left there to be fetishised, is it really unfathomable to question whether Lana Del Rey undermines feminism?
She recently brought those questions to light herself, in a series of Instagram posts addressing past criticisms of her artistry. Discussions of Lana Del Rey – her approach towards feminism, race and being a woman in the music industry – have been sparked again after the Instagram posts. From analysing her artistry, the initial post, and the delivery of her sentiments, it is clear that Rey is undermining the feminist principles she wants to serve.
Lana Del Rey’s Artistry
Her albums, Born to Die (2011) and Ultraviolence (2014), contain lyrics that arguably glamourise abuse, according to her critics. The title track, ‘Ultraviolence’, incorporates the line “He hits me and it feels like a kiss” into the chorus. That one line itself has a loaded history, it is a story that excuses domestic violence, and it is casually slipped into Rey’s song. This line directly references The Crystals’ song, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’, from 1962. For context, the song was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, after they discovered that singer “Little Eva” Boyd was being regularly beaten by her boyfriend, who used the excuse that his actions were motivated by his love for her. The motif of bad lovers and accepting the hurt they cause is prevalent throughout Rey’s artistry.
Rey’s aesthetic focuses on painful relationships and how they can be transformed into toxicity. However, as we listen to her music, we have every right to question whether she is glamorising abuse. We reserve the right to question whether she is saying it is okay to fall into repeated patterns of suffering perpetrated by men. Upon every album release, I can find Twitter threads on whether Rey is supporting or undermining feminism. Rey will be following the release of Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019) with Chemtrails Over the Country Club (2020) in September. So, it is not out of nowhere that we finally found an Instagram post addressing the anticipated criticism she receives with every release.
When analysing much of her repertoire, there is no complexity in these songs. They focus solely on these regressive sexual relationships. In her songs, Rey reduces herself to nothing more than a Lolita figure, sucking on a lollipop with her heart-shaped sunglasses and being the object of perverse male desire. Rey even has a track called ‘Lolita’ on Born to Die – a direct reference to Nabokov’s 1955 novel and the 1962 film adaptation. It is a controversial story charting a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with an adolescent girl. There are references to Lolita in her other songs, such as ‘Carmen’ and ‘Off to the Races’. She is talented, but her music makes self-destruction desirable.
From my own assessment of Rey’s music, there is not a fundamental understanding of feminism present in much of it. She largely showcases the dynamics of inequality, but there is no struggle to fix this, but rather to help one’s self through the freedom to self-destruct. Her music is about struggling but not about overcoming them. It is ultimately unhealthy for young girls to listen to it. After all, I was one of them, and in my moments of struggling, I listen to it, though I do not follow through with self-destruction. The desperation, telling lovers not to leave, and the idea that she is nothing without these men, does not make for productive music. This self-destruction is found in her merchandise. Remember that heart-shaped necklace she was selling as merchandise? It had a detachable cocaine spoon.
The Instagram Post
What does she cover in her lengthy post? She argues that “there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me”. Rey directly addresses the critics who focus on Rey’s “minor lyrical exploration detailing [her] sometimes submissive or passive roles in [her] relationships”. Her defence against these critiques: “I’ve been honest and optimistic about the challenging relationships I’ve had. News flash! That’s just how it is for many women”. I understand that she wants to channel those realities of her own relationships into her artistry and showcase emotionally abusive relationships. Yet, I do not understand why it must simply stop there, and why it has to become her go-to aesthetic. She bundles her points as shown by the immense backlash which focuses on the comparisons she made to women of colour. These criticisms surrounding her post are valid. The post is problematic, even though she makes valid points, but she fails to get them across on the basis of how she approaches her subject matter.
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Despite all my criticisms, the overarching point in Rey’s messy and lengthy posts is valid, because feminism means including all women. Rey deserves to be included regardless of her past. Not every woman has been fortunate to have healthy relationships. A woman’s journey in life is allowed to be complex, it can be messy, and they have every right to progress forward. Even though her music does not execute the concept well, she has a point, women have their own journeys to make from being “submissive” or “passive” to become independent.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on Rey. Beyoncé released Lemonade (2016), sang of her husband’s infidelity, then sang of her decision to stay with him. She received backlash for the decision to stay with him, much like Rey’s decision to not stand up to the men in her life, and for not leaving them. That’s an argument that Rey’s supporters have written. I would counter that by then analysing Beyoncé’s entire body of work and her public persona, it is one about overcoming problems, and she does not fetishise all of her music with problematic sexual regression. I understand where Rey is coming from though.
However, it is how she delivers her message that is telling of the relationship between race and feminism, and the fundamental differences between white feminists and feminists who are women of colour.
Double Standards in Feminism
There is a double standard in regards to feminism. Lana argues that she is “authentic” and herself, whereby she does glorify, desire and thrive off of male attention. She is criticised for not being a woman that is powerful or sexually liberated. Lana has every right to defend her artistry. She is among many female artists who have had their words used against them. Although, Rey blunders the entire situation through her posts, and has made no impact with her preemptive strike against criticism.
These are the women she calls out: “Doja Cat, Ariana [Grande], Camila [Cabello], Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé”. The majority of the list features women of colour. She carries on saying that they “have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc”. Rey has fallen into the trap she is in the middle of criticising. Feminism is about equality among sexes, but it is also about equality between women, and her words work against that. The industry, the media and standards pit women against each other. Many artists before Rey will address this, pointing out how they are only trying to create news that will sell, many artists after Rey will continue to address this.
The disheartening part is that Rey uses this media dynamic to her own advantage. She uses women to build momentum for her point, however, she ends up stalling the car. The lengthy post ends up going nowhere and is instead consumed by controversy. Her monologue compares sexualised perceptions of women of colour to her lyrics about bad and violent men. Rey is a cis white woman. She will never experience the historic and racist trope of being characterised as an over-sexualised woman of colour. These performances face harsher ridicule than her performances and lyrics.
She shares so much with the women she has listed. Rey aligns herself as a feminist. These artists share the same experiences that she has described herself as being a victim of:
“There has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me – the kind of woman who says no but men hear yes – the king of women who are slated mercilessly for being their authentic, delicate selves, the kind of women or by men who hate women”.
They are in the same category of sharing unnecessary criticism and backlash over their artistry and personal lives. Kehlani has received so much ire for her former relationships while Grande received death threats after Mac Miller’s death. Her commenting on women of colour makes her valid points reductionist. In 2017, during her interview with Pitchfork, she admitted that she no longer sings “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” in her song ‘Ultraviolence’. Rey is alienated and is correct for speaking her mind on the narratives that continue to isolate her. Her music is now undergoing its own evolution and finally making progress. Lana Del Rey’s points are not acknowledged because her post is entirely about the self.
This is not about feminism for Rey. This is about how she is viewed by audiences and consumers. This is an individualistic attempt at rehabilitating image through poor comparisons and reductive remarks in the face of some fundamental points about the relationship between feminism, the music industry and our entertainment publications. She says her music has “really paved the way for other women to stop ‘putting on a happy face’ and to just be able to say whatever the hell they wanted to in their music”. I hate to be the one to break it to her, and to her other fans, but she is actually the latest of the women who were fundamental on that path before her.
Lana Del Rey could have done so much more with her post. You can see she is aware of the complexities in growing up and her portrayal of femininity challenges certain archetypes of what it means to be a woman. She is now in a position of understanding and growing in her music. That individualistic desire, although, has hindered her ability to change another person’s understanding of the complicated and nuanced relationship between art and feminism. Rey overlooking commonalities with her female counterparts and perpetuation of racial cliché’s to demonstrate and condemn her own public mistreatment has her undermining feminism.
View Del Rey’s responses to the controversy below:
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