State of the Arts

Lana Del Rey’s defensive woundings come from a decade of harsh criticism

The singer songwriter, whose new album is released this week, has walked into several damaging controversies – but she’s had to live with repeated attacks in a culture that prefers women to be uncomplicated, says Fiona Sturges

Saturday 20 March 2021 07:45
<p>Lana Del Rey has spent a decade battling other people’s ideas of who she is</p>

Lana Del Rey has spent a decade battling other people’s ideas of who she is

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n 2011, Lana Del Rey released her breakthrough single “Video Games”. A woozy declaration of love for a man who seemed entirely unworthy, it was our first glimpse of Del Rey’s retro fantasy world of bad boys, femme fatales and frolics at the Chateau Marmont. Ten years and seven albums later, Del Rey’s preoccupations remain broadly the same. The singles from her new LP, Chemtrails over the Country Club, show that elegantly soaring melodies, plangent orchestration, and videos styled as sun-dappled home movies remain her stock in trade. Desire and darkness continue to bubble under the surface of songs inhabited by atrocious men.

I’ll leave it to my brilliant colleague Helen Brown to dig into the new album, but what has become clear is that Del Rey has, over a decade, become a strange and disturbing case study of a career spent battling with other people’s ideas of who she is and, more pointedly, who she should be. From the off, the fascination with the singer revolved not just around her songwriting but her perceived authenticity. “Video Games” wasn’t her first run at success – that had occurred in 2010 under her real name Lizzy Grant. One reviewer clearly not au fait with pop music’s rich history of cosplay called her “a failed pop star who got lip injections, changed her name and now has a great backstory about living in a trailer that makes her New Jersey chanteuse schtick as Urban Outfitters-ready as a pair of tight Levis”.

There was criticism, too, about her passivity in relation to men as outlined in her songs, and what was deemed a glamorisation of abuse (the artwork to “Blue Jeans”, the B-side to “Video Games”, featured a tattooed hand around her neck to signify choking, while, on the album Ultraviolence, she borrowed The Crystals’ line: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.”) As allegedly objectionable were her feelings about feminism – this being a time when impertinent interrogations from interviewers regarding an artist’s feminist credentials were seemingly enshrined in law. Del Rey said she wasn’t interested, as was her absolute prerogative.

More tricky is that the career of this self-styled “24/7 Sylvia Plath” has been punctuated by a series of mishaps and errors of judgment that have seen her hauled over the social media coals. Transgressions have included wearing a native American headdress and participating in an unreleased film for Marilyn Manson, directed by Eli Roth, that saw her acting out a rape scene. More recently, there was a feud with Azealia Banks – triggered, seemingly, after Del Rey challenged Kanye West on his support for Trump – during which neither singer emerged smelling of roses.

Lana Del Rey in artwork for ‘Chemtrails Over the Country Club’

Last year, the litany of controversies reached a grim apogee with a garbled rant from Del Rey on Instagram about the ways she has been scolded for her anti-feminist stance while other artists “have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, f***ing, cheating etc”. It happened that most of those on her list, who included Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, were women of colour. While Del Rey may have reason to feel aggrieved over misogynistic assessments of her and her work, there could be no justification for denigrating her female peers and drawing on the racist stereotype of the over-sexualised black woman. It was not her finest moment.

What is clear from all this is that, 10 years into her career, Del Rey now operates in a largely defensive mode and, in the case of her dressing down of the NPR critic Ann Powers, who had written a long, thoughtful and positive review of her 2019 album Norman F***ing Rockwell!, finding slights where they don’t exist. But should she be cut some slack? On one hand, Del Rey’s career has unfolded in a time where an artist’s every misstep is amplified and exhaustively analysed. The multiple internet floggings have clearly left scars. She has also been accused of using a boyfriend to get a foothold in the industry – she clapped back with the song “F***** My Way to the Top” – and criticised both for her opaqueness and her self-invention by a culture that prefers women to be uncomplicated, an open book through which anyone can thumb.

But despite all this, Del Rey has enjoyed many successes, among them Brits, Ivor Novellos and Grammy awards, and bountiful sales. While cleaving to similar themes and styles, every one of her albums during the 2010s was an improvement on the last, a fact reflected in the reviews that have increasingly applauded Del Rey’s depth, complexity and staying power. Norman F***ing Rockwell! rightly featured heavily on critics’ end-of-year lists in 2019, with the NME calling its author a “21st-century pop poet”. It would appear that just at the point that Del Rey has become artistically feted, she has decided to push back at a decade’s worth of criticism, often in bewildering ways. The singer has every right to defend herself when the situation warrants it, but now would seem a good time to draw a line, sit back and simply bask in all she has achieved. 

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