An old controversy bubbled up around her lyrics, and she kind of bungled her response.

By Sam Reed
Updated May 21, 2020 @ 4:00 pm
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Credit: Mat Hayward/Getty Images

Like many depressed college freshmen in 2011, I, too, went through a Lana Del Rey phase. There was something irresistible about her, about how she spun her pain into something twisted yet romantic. I was sad, and sadness loves a tragic story and a matching moody aesthetic. (See: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, or any member of the 27 Club.)

In recent years, however, Lana has been called on to answer for certain lyrics from her 2011 album, Born to Die, as well as her 2014 album Ultraviolence. Does the lyric, “He hits me and it feels like a kiss” romanticize domestic violence? (In a 2017 interview with Pitchfork, Lana says she no longer sings that lyric at shows.) Is she glamorizing abuse, telling the many young women who listen to her music that it is OK to suffer at the hands of a man?

This debate, and whether Lana Del Rey is Good for Feminism or Bad for Feminism, resurfaces pretty much any time she releases new music. So, on Wednesday evening, as she announced her forthcoming seventh album, she anticipated the hate and attempted to get in front of it with a note posted to Instagram. “I’m fed up with female writers and alt singers saying that I glamorize abuse when in reality I’m just a glamorous person,” she wrote in a supremely on-brand typewritten note, titled “Question for the culture.”

Lana began her note by naming seven women (six of whom are women of color) who have achieved success in the music industry, and calling out the content of their songs. “Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani, and Nicki Minaj and Beyonce have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc. — can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money — or whatever I want — without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorizing abuse??????” This larger idea behind her argument, to me at least, makes sense. But her delivery? Oh boy, was her delivery off.

Twitter lost its collective mind, wondering, rightly, why she had to invoke the names of other successful women while making her point that there “has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me.”

Here’s a successful, white, cis woman, who has undoubtedly fielded her fair share of baseless critiques, remarking on the careers of several successful women of color — all of whom have also undoubtedly fielded their fair share of baseless critiques. Though their songs reach “number one” or garner commercial success, these artists are not, in any way, somehow exempt from racist or misogynistic attacks. Lana’s “crucifixion” looks like child’s play when compared to the 57 varieties of criticism (“too political!” “too sexy!” “too black!” “not black enough!”) faced by women like Minaj and Beyoncé.

The fiasco brings to mind the recent controversy surrounding New York Times food columnist Alison Roman, who, in an interview with The New Consumer, name-dropped Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo to exemplify selling out. “That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do,” she said of Teigen’s Target collection. “I don’t aspire to that.” As women of color Teigen and Kondo have fought the same sexism that Roman may encounter in a male-dominated industry, with the not-insignificant added obstacle of racism. They fought for their successes, and it comes across as incredibly ignorant to cast them aside as sellouts who took the easy road by giving in to a merch line. Not to mention, the women name-dropped in either case didn't do anything to suggest they wanted to be a part of this discourse. Teigen, for her part, is now standing up for Alison Roman in the food-media world fallout after her SNAFU.

For fans of Roman and Lana alike, these remarks were disappointing at best.

Lana Del Rey certainly isn’t the first woman to have her career picked apart by critics for the content of her songs. When she wrote that her years of negative reviews and comments that called her “hysterical” had “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,” a chyron of question marks flashed in front of my eyeballs. I wondered, was she … taking credit for the ability of other women to speak their truths and still have monetary success? Because, I mean, Lilith Fair.

Some of Lana’s supporters have written that she was, by calling out these women, simply making a statement about the double standard of feminism — that feminists only support powerful and sexually liberated women, while picking on women like Lana for being their “authentic, delicate” selves, especially if that authentic self was, at one point in her life, craving (and, some might argue, glorifying) male attention. Immediately, I think of Beyoncé and the backlash she received after Lemonade dropped and she sang of Jay Z’s infidelity — and, more importantly, her decision to stay with him. Beyoncé was very publicly called out by feminists who made the same argument that many have made against Lana herself: That she should’ve stood up to her man and left him. How quickly we forget.

Overall, I am inclined to agree with Lana’s main point — feminism means including all women, even those who make mistakes and may not have the healthiest relationship with love and all the complicated dynamics it entails. Sometimes, a woman’s rise to her own power is circuitous and messy. The transition from “submissive, passive” behavior, as Lana puts it, to independent woman is not as easy as standing in front of a mirror, whispering “Beyoncé” three times. You cannot summon the energy of powerful women and expect your life to neatly follow some prescribed Feminist Approved course. Sometimes you need therapy and medication or a cathartic release — like writing music about your feelings, or about your messy past. Indeed, it is feminist to live through some things and talk about what that battle was like for you, without glossing over the parts where you don’t look like a superheroine.

On this, Lana is right, and it’s her prerogative to defend her art. But she is not the first — nor will she be the last — female songwriter whose lyrics are used against her. And her argument isn’t made any more impactful by attempting to say so.

I can understand telling your agent, privately, “I don’t want my career trajectory to look like Chrissy’s.” Or telling your critics, “others have made the same mistakes I have!” But the words you choose to express those sentiments matter and, especially as a white woman in America, you cannot ignore the impact institutionalized racism and sexism will have on how your message is received. You can’t invoke a more inclusive feminism for your own benefit, while using color-blindness as an excuse to throw other women under the bus. Yes, there is space for all of us here. And that means being just as intentional about bringing others in as it does claiming space for ourselves.

And, by the way, a criticism of Lana and the way she delivered her message does not mean that I’m not currently listening to Norman Fucking Rockwell as I write this. Standoms can be complicated, too.