Op/Ed: Is Lana Del Rey Racist, Feminist, Both or Neither?
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Lana Del Rey is human. A fascinating one, no doubt, and far from perfect. Del Rey is no stranger to cultural appropriation, like wearing Native American headdresses in her music video “Ride.” She even admits to choosing the name Del Rey based on Cuban influences, according to Your Fave Is Problematic, a blog devoted to calling out pop culture icons. But is Lana Del Rey racist? It can be hard to tell as she rarely addresses anything controversial or political in interviews.
In an interview with Complex earlier this year, Del Rey actually touched on some political topics. Del Rey said, “With Obama as the president, me and everybody I know, I think we felt very safe and protected, felt like we were being viewed the way we wanted to be viewed, in terms of the world. So there wasn’t as much to say except, like, look how far we’ve come and it’s getting better, getting even better. I feel like there was quite a shift.”
Things were undoubtedly better under President Obama, but they were far from perfect. This type of complacent neoliberal ideology helped lead to the creation of President Trump. It’s important to use your platform to encourage altruism no matter who is president.
When asked about the possibility of pissing off conservatives, Del Rey responded, “You don’t negotiate when it comes to your work or your art. You stand totally firm and take the consequences. In terms of losing fans I don’t care. Period.”
I respect her stance on this, but I question what in the Lust for Life album would piss off conservatives in the first place.
“When the World Was at War We Just Kept Dancing” is a song about maintaining a positive spirit in spite of political and global events. While the spirit of that is something that we all hold dear, the sentiment is very much born of privilege. To be able to dance and enjoy life during times of war means that you have somewhere to dance. It means that you live in a country that isn’t actually where the war is taking place, and in Del Rey’s case — to live in a country that isn’t perpetuating war.
Perhaps instead of just dancing we should dance and protest.
In a conversation with Stevie Nicks for V magazine, Del Rey said that “I’ve found in the last two years that I’ve really been editing some of the language of some of the songs in light of the political landscape, [because] I don’t want to be a part of anything that adds to that negativity.”
This is a noble goal, but I don’t believe it’s one Del Rey has achieved.
Del Rey is no stranger to singing about negative topics. She sings about abuse, serial killers, bad breakups, suicide and addiction. It’s important to talk about issues like depression, mental illness, abuse and drug use. But it helps if you have something relevant to say and don’t just glamorize these topics.
No one can tell Del Rey how much of her personal story she should choose to disclose, but the way in which she discloses it is what makes many uncomfortable. Why not portray the abusive ex-boyfriend as bad? Why idolize and idealize him?
In Lana Del Rey’s music video “Freak,” she is seen with other women following a long-haired man and taking psychedelic drugs. The imagery is very cult-like, and Del Rey is depicted as one of his followers. She has glamorized abuse with songs that constantly highlight dark and abusive relationships, going so far in her song “Ultraviolence” as to say “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” [a lyric lifted from a ’60s Phil Spector song co-written by Carole King].
The problem with much of Del Rey’s art is that we don’t fully understand what she’s trying to say.
We are left with questions like “Is she intending to glamorize abuse or is she trying to tell a story?” and “Did these events even happen to her?”
Lily Oberman wrote a powerful piece for Mic about Del Rey’s problematic lyrics and their implications for women. But the theory that Lana Del Rey is a persona nothing like the real Lizzy Grant is nothing new. Paul Harris writes a piece for the Guardian explaining how Del Rey manufactured her image in order to achieve success. There is no doubt that “Lana Del Rey” is, in some aspects, a manufactured character.
It is impossible to fully know who the real Lizzy Grant is, but she’s an amazing singer with excellent taste and a very unique style. And as she grows as an artist, hopefully she will actively speak out about the issues in her songs.
Ideally, she’ll stop imitating other cultures and glamorizing abuse. She’ll live up to her promise of standing firm. Let’s see her get unapologetically political. Del Rey should trade in her American flag for a “resist” poster. Let’s hear her talk about feminism in productive and intersectional ways.
But in reality, many of Del Rey’s messages seem to directly contradict each other. Does she want a life of peace and quiet filled with marijuana and gentle music by the beach? Or does she want drama, opulence and all of the high fashion that comes with money, power and glory? Perhaps she wants both, perhaps she wants neither, and perhaps she doesn’t know what she wants.
And yet maybe this is what makes Del Rey relatable to her audience. Her music certainly seems to symbolize the confusion and stress of life, something to which most of us relate.
There’s nothing wrong with telling your story. Just make sure it’s actually your story.