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Music In defense of Lana Del Rey

Dec. 16, 2020
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Coined as queen of her own stylistic subgenre deemed “Hollywood sadcore,” it’s undeniable that American singer Lana Del Rey has made a tremendous impact on the music industry. Credited as influencing artists from Miley Cyrus to The Weeknd, Billboard wrote that Del Rey has paved the way for a new generation of pop music that is characteristically moodier, more melodramatic, and markedly individualistic. Notably, the impact she’s leaving has sparked controversy in recent months—for issues that go far beyond her musical talent.

As Teen Vogue’s Dani Kwateng put it on Twitter, “Lana Del Rey erased the work of Black women and played the oppression Olympics, just to promote two poetry books and an album. The Caucasity of it all.”

Although the singer has been long been labeled as an “antifeminist” and criticized for romanticizing abuse, objections to Del Rey and her work have increased over the years as racial equality, women’s rights, and sexual misconduct have been more publicly discussed. As Pitchfork contributor Ian Cohen wrote in his essay about her breakout classic “Video Games,” Del Rey’s style “flits between surrendering to romance and depression.” The seductive, gloomy air that encompasses Del Rey’s music is important, but perhaps a more telling aspect of Del Rey’s legacy is the persona she creates outside of her music—and as Twitter’s @Nefertitties wrote, “Lana [is] disappointing the shit out of me right now.”

In May, Del Rey announced the release of her seventh studio album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, which was set to have been released on September 5th. The album is bound to serve as a critical turning point in determining her future identity—not because of the music itself, but because of the overarching message it sends to listeners.

When announcing the release of this album, Del Rey vocalized frustration regarding the criticism her work has been receiving in recent years. She claimed that she was “not not a feminist,” but uses her work to express the stories of “women who get their own stories and voices taken away from them, by stronger women or by men who hate women.” 

As if that wasn’t controversial enough, Del Rey added to the debate by questioning why other artists don’t receive similar criticisms for their work—and predominantly called out women of color. She wrote, “Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyonce have had number ones about being sexy, wearing no clothes, f**cking, 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 glamorising abuse??????”

I don’t believe that Del Rey’s work glamorizes abuse or that she earns the title of being an antifeminist. I don’t even believe that she deserves to be labeled as submissive. As someone who has personally experienced intimate partner violence, my opinion may come to some as a surprise.

Del Rey undoubtedly brings to light gut-wrenchingly dark topics and expresses them in a manner that she seems to own almost all too confidently. “All my friends tell me I should move on, I’m lying in the ocean singing your song… loving you forever can’t be wrong… but I wish I was dead,” she elegantly sings in 2012’s “Dark Paradise.” The graceful poise that Del Rey holds may be the very reason she’s targeted.

I don’t believe that every phrase of Del Rey’s work (or any artist’s work, for that matter) should be taken literally. There are many layers not only to the lyrical expression of songs, but to the underlying meaning behind them and the artistic manner in which they are expressed. 

While I do stand in Del Rey’s defense, I don’t agree with her decision to name other artists in her post. As The Guardian’s Laura Snapes wrote, “the malignant characterization of Black women as oversexualized is a historic, racist trope and a persistent one that has seen those performers subject to far greater media derision than Del Rey will ever experience.”

Even if the comparisons Del Rey made were to convey a legitimate argument regarding the need for a wider expression of female experiences within the music scene, the overall impression that her Instagram post made is certainly not positive. As shared by award-winning Black writer Jamilah Lemieux in a Twitter post: “I don’t know who was giving Lana Del Rey a hard time but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Black women. Girl, sing your little cocaine carols and leave us alone.”

Whether Del Rey’s latest album will stand in alignment with her previously established public identity is still to be determined, as September 5th came and went with no album released. I still selfishly anticipate her latest work, should it ever come out, to be a continuation of the melodramatic queen that I fell in love with years ago—because no one else can wear her crown. At the heart of feminism lays the belief that women should feel empowered in making their own decisions and expressing their identity within the world. That involves appreciating the unique dynamics that each of us bring to the table. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to be a woman, and what that looks like lays on a very beautiful spectrum.