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Lana Del Rey won't tell a lie, no matter how feminist that is

If singers like Del Rey sing only about empowerment, self-care, self-love, and excelling at relationships, where will all our morose, gut-wrenched, desperate teens find compassion?
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

Lana Del Rey sings about heartbreak, love, loss, and is honest in her songwriting and storytelling about her experiences. Taking to Instagram this week, she revealed how bad it felt to have been hounded, maligned and accused of being a bad feminist for the way she has written about personal, difficult relationships.

In 2014, the singer was called out by The New Statesman for her song “Ultraviolence.” “With lyrics such as ‘he hit me and it felt like a kiss’ it is easy to see why the message could be accused of glorifying physical abuse against women,” wrote Daisy Lafarge. Lafarge’s focus in on a conflicted cultural feminism, that wants women to be one thing—confident, successful, in control—and belittles them for not being happy when instead they experience.

“Her lyrics are focused around drugs and men not loving her back, be it about her dad or her ex-husband that ran away. She milks her daddy issues to the point that it is not sad anymore, it is just annoying,” wrote Melany Rochester in 2017.

“Two of her most popular songs are about the men in her life… To make it worse, she glorifies abusive relationships. She even dedicates an entire song about unhealthy sexual relationships and power dynamics... She fantasizes substance and drug abuse... Additionally, she promotes addiction and glamorizes death,” Rochester went on to say.

Speaking to Fader in 2013, fellow singer songwriter Lorde said “I think a lot of women in this industry maybe aren’t doing so well for the girls. I’ve read interviews where certain big female stars are like, ‘I’m not a feminist.’ I’m like, That’s not what it’s about. She’s great, but I listened to that Lana Del Rey record and the whole time I was just thinking it’s so unhealthy for young girls to be listening to, you know: ‘I’m nothing without you.’ This sort of shirt-tugging, desperate, don’t leave me stuff. That’s not a good thing for young girls, even young people, to hear.”

There’s only one problem with all of this critique, and it’s that Del Rey isn’t responsible to feminism, college girls, young people, Lorde, or anyone else. She is responsible to her own heart, to creating work that speaks to her own experience, and to be honest about it.

Artists do not exist to tell us how we should live our lives, and they certainly don’t exist to tell us how to live our lives in adherence with an ideology, such as feminism, that dictates behaviours and attitudes that command a political perspective.

Del Rey caught hell for being true to her experiences, yet these are the artists who have a lasting impact on audiences and culture, those who forge in the smithy of their souls the honesty of their lives.

Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Lauren Hill, Grace Jones, Kat Bjeland, Cat Power, Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse... should these women have stuck to the party line so that feminists would say "now there's a singer who cares about female empowerment?" Speaking truth about crazy experiences, feelings that don't make sense, and loves that hurt isn't anti-feminist, and it isn't necessarily empowering, either. It is life.

Women artists are held to a different standard than their male counterparts—they're for some reason asked to speak for the whole of their sex, and the experiences thereof. It's not only an unrealistic expectation, it's a sexist one.

Young people are not fools. In hearing a singer or writer tell of her life, loves, and troubles, they won’t seek to emulate it, but perhaps will find solace in knowing that someone else shares their experiences. Not writing about the experiences of abuse, with drugs, violence, or rough relationships, won’t make them go away. But if singers like Del Rey sing only about empowerment, self-care, self-love, and excelling at relationships, where will all our morose, gut-wrenched, desperate teens find compassion?

We can’t all go out there like Beyonce and Cardi B and strut our stuff with confidence, secure in our looks, brains, and bodies. A bunch of us are out here muddling through, unsure, insecure, wishing for love, and embracing it no matter how much it hurts. Del Rey gets that, and while it may not be fashion forward to say it, it’s truth, and that’s more important in art than anything else.

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Libby Emmons
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