After reading it multiple times, I still can’t tell what point Lana Del Rey was trying to make by invoking her peers to kick off a freshly Instagrammed screed about how she feels villainised as an anti-feminist pariah. Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé – almost all women of colour – “have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc”, Del Rey wrote. “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?
“Anyways,” she wrote after several more paragraphs of bile further directed at the critics she says have accused her of glamorising abuse, “none of this has anything to do about much.” On the second page of her Instagram post of a text screenshot, she shrugged out the fact that she is releasing a new album and two books of poetry later this year. There it is. Female pop stars regularly criticise the media pitting them against one another to sell magazines and drive clicks. It’s depressing to see a critically acclaimed musician exploit that dynamic, mobilising those artists’ noisy fanbases for publicity.
It’s especially depressing that Del Rey targeted women of colour, in doing so undermining a legitimate argument about contemporary culture’s restrictive insistence on female #empowerment to the exclusion of messier experiences. It is hard to avoid the suggestion, from an artist who has heavily used black culture in her work, that these performers’ sexualised images are more damaging for feminism than her lyrics about violence and bad boys. The malignant characterisation of black women as oversexualised 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.
There’s no shortage of things that bind them. “I’m not not a feminist,” Del Rey wrote. “But 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 kind of women who are slated mercilessly for being their authentic, delicate selves, the kind of women who get their own stories and voices taken away from them by stronger women or by men who hate women.” Almost all of the artists that Del Rey names share those experiences. As one Beyoncé fan tweeted, she was threatened after calling out police brutality – not to mention that she wrote Lemonade, a generational opus on her conflict over whether to stay with her husband after he cheated. Grande received death threats following the fatal overdose of an ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller. Kehlani has been subject to routine abuse over her former relationships. You could continue (and note the emphasis on white fragility implied by “delicate”). “All the women Lana mentioned have been through hell,” the fan said.
I understand Del Rey’s resistance to the kind of pop feminism that considers her sometimes submissive and passive stance in the face of difficult men to be a betrayal of the cause: it isn’t productive and, as she states, the dynamics that underpin her songs are the reality for many women. Being on the receiving end of that commentary, and subject to those painful relationships, must have left her feeling incredibly alienated, especially as she publicly evolved in a culture that interprets women changing their mind as “proof” of their inauthenticity. In 2017, she said she would no longer sing “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” from her song Ultraviolence. “I don’t feel comfortable with that lyric any more,” she said. “Whatever my concept of affection was at the time, it does not serve me any more.” But her concept of feminist solidarity, who owes it and who is owed it, feels off. Her perplexing comments about her peers of colour are as kneejerk and reductive as the characterisation of her submissive lyrics as anti-feminist.
Del Rey’s focus is individualist, to the degree that she takes credit for “[paving] 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 – unlike my experience where if I even expressed a note of sadness in my first two records I was deemed literally hysterical as though it was literally the 1920s”. Blues pioneer Ma Rainey made her first recording in 1923, her lyrics “at once defiant, bruised, brave and bemused”, wrote the academic Anna Norberg. Del Rey definitively lowered pop’s temperature in the 2010s, but whatever paving slab she laid was just the latest on a path started more than 100 years earlier. Meanwhile, the chart success of her peers has come, in part, because legacy black female artists got behind their younger successors: Nicki Minaj added a guest verse to Doja Cat’s Say So; Beyoncé to Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage.
Beyond this being an unparalleled example of lockdown cabin fever, it’s an odd time for Del Rey to make these complaints. For one, there’s people that are dying. We’re also years on from her early albums being mocked by critics for their sometimes flimsy affectations. By the time she released last year’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, she was feted not only as one of the 21st century’s greatest artists, but a peer to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. The album ran away with the critics’ year-end polls (including ours), and was subject to lavishly attentive reviews. Yet still, she raked NPR’s Ann Powers over the coals for her assertion, in a thoughtful career retrospective, that Del Rey had used persona in her work. It suggests a raw nerve that might not be soothed by public recriminations.
It is curious to see Del Rey specifically indict “female writers and alt singers” for accusing her of “[setting] women back hundreds of years” (although her omission of male critics – who have written plenty of demeaning criticism of her work – is in keeping with the low expectations of men that runs through her material). Del Rey’s career has run in parallel to the most warp-speed evolution in feminist thought of any decade. For many millennial fans and critics, her complicated lyrical stance and aesthetic have been key to their understanding of those shifts. I have seen plenty of my peers who bristled against the portrayal of femininity in her first two albums later come to understand the challenge they presented (I’d include myself in that). Del Rey insists fiercely on understanding and the possibility of growth – her Twitter bio quotes Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multitudes.” She could extend her awareness that time and experience change a person’s views on life and art. Hopefully this experience changes her views, too.