Hey, remember when that successful white lady criticized women of colour, mistakenly believing that they were getting something that was rightfully hers? No, not the food one. This week, we’re talking about Lana Del Rey.
On Thursday morning, Del Rey (government name: Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, nickname: Lizzy) posted what I’m sure she thought was a scathing takedown of the music industry to her Instagram account. “Question for the culture,” she wrote. “Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have had their number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc - 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 glamorizing abuse??????”
It really just gets more ridiculous from there. She goes on to say that she’s “fed up with female writers and alt singers saying that [she] glamorizes abuse when in reality [she’s] just a glamorous person singing about the realities of what we are all now seeing are very prevalent emotionally abusive relationships all over the world.” (I don’t think you get to characterize yourself as a glamorous person, but okay.)
And apparently, she thinks she “paved 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,” which… no. For example, Lesley Gore pivoted from manufactured bubblegum pop to a more authentic, emotionally-driven approach with “You Don’t Own Me,” which she recorded in 1963. And as singer Jessy Wilson pointed out in a now-deleted Instagram comment, Black women have been “singing about sex, abuse, being submissive and aggressive in relationships, and being glamorous for DECADES.” Also Lana Del Rey did not pave the way for any of these women, especially not Beyoncé, who had already won 10 Grammys by the time Del Rey released “Video Games,” her breakthrough single, in 2011. I mean, really.
So… this is a lot. The way that she framed this entire sob story erases Black women’s work (and struggle) in the music industry, and it’s super ironic that she’s both rejecting feminism and angry that she doesn’t see a place for herself in feminism. But we should also understand where this is coming from, and how Del Rey’s feelings about being critiqued plays into it.
As Ashley Reese pointed out in Jezebel, Del Rey’s screed likely stems from Ann Powers’ review of her 2019 album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Powers’ review of NFR! was very complimentary, favourably comparing Del Rey to Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple—but she also used the review to look at the singer’s entire body of work and the construction of her public image/persona. The artist was not pleased and tweeted at Powers to say, “never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” (Just a reminder, her name is actually Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, so “Lana Del Rey” is already some kind of [constructed identity] (https://www.vogue.com/article/five-things-lana-del-rey-real-name).)
This ended up turning into a larger conversation about the role of critics and the value of professional criticism, and even how we think about pop stars, period. Some used the whole conflict as an opportunity to point out that many people, Del Rey included, didn’t seem to totally get what criticism is. In the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara argued] that there is “an often politically motivated belief that journalists in general are part of a pandering elite [that contributes to] an atmosphere in which any criticism that is less than glowing is seen as an attack. Not just of the artist personally but anyone who enjoys the work.”
Ashley Nicole Black
hmmm… how do I want to put this? I guess… If the thing that bothers you about your industry is that some woc manage to succeed in it, maybe don’t tell everybody?
May 21, 2020, 3:15 p.m.
I’m obviously personally interested in this clash because this newsletter is all about cultural criticism. But I think there’s also a direct line between what happened last year and what happened yesterday.
Actually, I think it goes even further back than that. Last fall, Vox compared early reviews of Del Rey’s work (“She’s a failed pop singer 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 Levi’s”) with more recent articles, which variously refer to her as a “fully-realized artist,” a “21st-century pop-poet” and “one of the most consistent album artists and world-builders of this decade.” It wasn’t that Del Rey changed, the writers argue. It’s that we used to venerate authenticity and despise poseurs, and now we understand that existing in the world (and particularly online) requires at least some level of performance.
But Del Rey’s still stewing over those early, harsh reviews; as McNamara posited, she clearly believes that any criticism is unfair. Only, the last time she lashed out—at a white woman, it’s important to acknowledge—she was publicly shut down. It’s a function of the racist society that we live in that when she decided to bring this topic up again, six months later, she directed her anger toward a group of mostly Black women, even though none of them are the “female writers” or “alt singers” who so wronged her. Even the white women who she included are telling—Camila Cabello is a Latinx immigrant and Ariana Grande blackfishes with the best (AKA, worst) of them. I’m honestly not sure she even realizes those two women are white.
Instead of keeping these women’s names out of her mouth entirely, she dragged them into a conversation that had nothing to do with them and she ignored facts to do so. They haven’t been criticized the way she has? Um, after Beyoncé’s “Formation” video and Black Panther-inspired Super Bowl halftime show, a Miami police union urged law enforcement across the country to boycott her world tour by refusing any opportunities to “work paid off-duty security” for her shows. Nicki Minaj has faced all kinds of criticism, much of it fair, some of it not. And are we actually going to pretend that Black women—including B and Nicki, as well as Doja Cat, Kehlani and Cardi B—don’t face intense trolling on social media every day?
This all feels especially problematic to me because, while she’s positioning this as a response to her critics, Del Rey’s motives aren’t as pure as she is making them out to be. She isn’t reacting to any new slight—she’s promoting her new album and two new poetry books. She is literally dragging down a group of mostly Black women for financial and professional gain.
That being said, I doubt she consciously understood what she was doing when she named Black women—or women who she might (ignorantly) read as Black—in her rant. On Thursday afternoon, she added several comments to her post, all of which claim that these particular women are her favourite singers, and that’s why she mentioned them. This… does not make sense when you take her original framing into consideration, but whatever. It doesn’t actually matter if she intended to be racist or not. Her actions exist within a well-established system where white women using feminism as a way to exert their power over women of colour. It’s bizarre that, in this case, she did so while also rejecting feminism as a movement, but it doesn’t change the fact that she still upheld the system.
Literally—it does not matter whether she didn’t mean for it to be a “WOC issue.” By almost exclusively mentioning Black women in her very first sentence, she made it one.
And Did You Hear About…
Your Toronto real estate hate read of the week.
The adorable baby (and her extremely handsome dad) who love In N Out.
Skeet Ulrich’s hilariously honest reason for leaving Riverdale.
How the lockdown has created new opportunities for microinfluencers—especially since mega-influencers keep messing up. (Ahem, Arielle Charnas.)
NYT media critic Ben Smith’s not-terribly-convincing takedown of Ronan Farrow.
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