Lana Del Rey: The latest powerful woman that we want to see as just another toy

What is it that some people find so threatening about a successful, talented artist?


Lana Del Rey’s new album is out, which means people are worrying. She’s provoked anxiety, right from the start. She’s also been marvelled at – she’s a phenomenally talented artist, conjuring a strange and unsettling world. The new album, like the first, is narcotically compelling, full of heavy-lidded languor. But it’s also fiercer and deeper. Her voice is stranger and harsher, as well as more expansive – she’s manipulating it with a playful insolence. The hallucinatory weirdness pulsing through the album makes it eerie and intensely beautiful. That’s also true of the persona – the ‘lonesome queen’ – she’s created. Lovelorn, enthralled, hurt – she’s an immobilised animal, dispassionately, poisedly observing her own wounds.

Criticisms of Del Rey are often well-intentioned – they come out of concerns about representing women as passive and inviting domination or violence, as well as about the pressures on women in the music industry. But they end up perpetuating the very ideas about women that they claim to be concerned about.

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For one thing, there’s been a desire to insist that she is someone else's puppet, rather than the driver of her own work. The glee with which some tried, at her first success, to establish that she was in some way fake, a persona engineered by others, should make us suspicious. Why do we so keenly want to see Del Rey as someone else’s toy? Why are we so gleefully obsessed with the search for the figure behind the woman? Not just, I think, because we want to point out abuses of women by powerful men – but because, more deeply, we’re attached to the idea that women are puppets. We not only find it hard to see women as powerful agents of their own lives; we also feel a triumphant satisfaction in proving that a woman has been someone else’s plaything all along. Some of the criticisms of Del Rey, supposedly pointing out her lack of autonomy, are in fact animated by a need to undermine women’s autonomy, and by a need to punish and humiliate a successful woman. She can’t be the force behind her own oeuvre – she’s just a girl.

There’s also much concern that Del Rey is glamourising a damaged, passive femininity. But the insistence of concern about her persona - lovelorn, jaded, death-weary – is not just an anxiety about power and vulnerability in representations of women. It also trades on a reluctance to allow women artists to deal in the strange, dark feelings that are part of life. We ask them to perform a life that is neat and tidy, that is logical and politically justifiable – with no unpalatable or destructive urges. And this, in fact, requires precisely that they become puppets - dancing to our anxieties about what women should be feeling and saying. If our immediate response when a woman artist touches the darkness inside herself is to demand she sanitise that darkness, we’re perpetrating yet another violence: an erasure of her experience, and of her artistic vision.

Del Rey has created a beautiful, hurtful world. That we should panic in the face of its darkness is like watching Lynch and complaining that it's creepy. And in any case why should we want our art to be comfortable? Art should hurt us a little. Poet Frederick Seidel says: 'I like poems that are daggers that sing.' Underestimate Del Rey at your peril. She’s the real deal. She’s a dagger that sings.

Unmastered: A Book On Desire, Most Difficult To Tell (Penguin), is out in paperback on 3rd July

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