My adolescence was a pitiful mesh of self-loathing and existential despair. The utopian mind-state of childhood unravelled like yarn; all colours muted, all darkness intensified. The care-free campness of school disco playlists had no place in this hormone-fuelled dystopia, so I was left to seek out my own soundtrack.
Naturally, I turned to the bands stamped across H&M t-shirts. Tumblr taught me to pour all parts of myself into their pain-soaked lyrics. Each bleak feeling could easily be defined by a line from a song. Nirvana, Joy Division, Radiohead, all different hues of the same blue. Then came the anthems for the heavy-fringed outcast; My Chemical Romance, Green Day, Linkin Park. For three minutes at a time, there was solidarity in our sadness. But it became apparent that my Spotify playlists were severely devoid of female voices and, for a teenage girl raised by a single mother, I was in desperate need of that sense of familiarity.
Cue Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’; a wide-eyed tale of what it was to be young and in love; a full-length feature of baroque-pop played out in glorious technicolour. Del Rey’s dewy vocals bounced like sunlight off the cinematic highs of orchestral synths, but it was her dying need to be defined by her lovers that drew me in at first breath.
Of course I, aged fifteen, had absolutely no business finding emotional likeness in her recollection of drug-hazed relationships. But the sadness that seeped from her songs was something I hadn’t heard before. It was feminine, and unapologetically so.
Curiousity led me deep into the VHS dreamscapes of her accompanying visuals. Del Rey’s image was as entrancing as her music. The wet-set waves, the babydoll dresses, the Priscilla make-up; Lana Del Rey circa 2012 was a sparkling archetype of Hollywood nostalgia. Everything about her spoke to the aesthetics of the internet-raised. Suddenly I didn’t want to be a red-haired, tomboyish freak with thick kohl eyeliner and crumbling mousse foundation. I wanted to be a feminine woman.
But this realisation was poorly timed with the pop cultural shift in social attitude. 2012 saw third-wave feminism morph into the fourth; a new era of intersectionality, liberation and using the internet as a platform to seek justice against assault and abuse. It was the year Laura Bates created the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project, Eve Ensler founded ‘One Billion Rising’, and Lucy Ann-Holmes started the ‘No More Page Three’ campaign. Beyonce’s ‘Run The World (Girls)’ was a fierce celebration of independent womanhood. The stunning video for M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ featured fearless women drag-racing in Saudi Arabia where, at the time, women were forbidden from driving. In Russia, Pussy Riot protested the re-election of Putin by performing ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ in an Orthodox church. Their consequential arrest sparked outrage in the West. Finally, feminism was mainstream, and the women who represented it were strong, independent and more than willing to toss men to the wayside.
This tone was carried forward well into the following year. The ‘strong (white) female character’ set the tone for what a woman should be. She was everywhere; Katniss Everdeen, Black Widow, Daenerys Targaryen… even Disney defied tradition by having a princess saved by her own sister. Lana Del Rey, meanwhile, was swaying softly in the pale moonlight with varying degrees of daddies; biker gangs, tattooed gangsters, genuine pensioners, and was buffeted by backlash for daring to be the antithesis of the ‘strong (white) female character’. Not just from critics, but from her own peers.
Lorde had just released ‘Pure Heroine’; a brilliant bare-faced teardown of capitalistic ideals. It fit in well with the year of the ‘strong (white) female character’; her aesthetic was refreshing and somewhat asexual. When asked in an interview for Fader about what she thought of other female artists, she said this:
‘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.’
Though Del Rey didn’t directly respond to Lorde’s comments, her interview with the same publication shed some light on her perception of feminism:
‘For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept…I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, “God”. I’m just not really that interested.’
For context, Del Rey had just released ‘Ultraviolence’; a moody rock record overcast by concern for its fetishisation of domestic abuse. The feminists I followed on social media jeered at its passive submission to patriarchal concepts, and music critics yawned it off as dull and repetitious.
It was around this time that I was writing such sorry Facebook statuses as ‘all the Beatles wanted to do was hold your hand’. I’d never actually listened to the Beatles, and my friend’s apt response of ‘and fuck you in the street, may I add’, was enough to prove that. This kind of pretentious feminism was all the rage amongst those bridging the awkward gap between adolescence and adulthood, and Del Rey’s dismissal of it was borderline blasphemic.
Not only this, but rumours of inauthenticity that had plagued her from the very start began to swirl again. It may well have stemmed from her stiff SNL debut, but the issue seemed to stretch well beyond her misuse of in-ear microphones.
Handheld footage of Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Woolridge-Grant, a casually dressed motel singer with a bad bleach job and ‘thinner’ lips, emerged on the internet not long after the release of ‘Video Games’. This was, all red arrows pointing, the real Lana Del Rey. Not long after, her laptop was hacked and personal details leaked. Half-done songs were drip-fed into social media feeds. Ghosts of past pseudonyms came back to haunt; a previously shelved solo project resurfaced, and rumours of the Bank of Dad funding her career spread like wildfire across gossip blogs.
She was a fraud, an ‘industry plant’. Lizzy Grant’s record company had paid for a trip to the salon, the surgeon, and sold her to the masses as a ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’. Good Lord, this girl could not catch a break. All this coupled with the fact that her Polaroid headshot been Sharpie’d over with ‘anti-feminist’ meant that she was, essentially, cancelled.
All of this went against my spoon-fed vision of what I should be as a feminist. Regardless, I didn’t stop listening to her music. If anything, I felt bad for her. Lizzie/Lana took to Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in the summer of 2014. She ‘didn’t belong at Glastonbury’ yet, here she was. Her set, interjected with a series of cigarette breaks, was muted yet somewhat mesmerising. As she paced the stage barefoot, singing with downcast eyes, Lana Del Rey looked like the loneliest woman in the music industry.
She somewhat confirmed this in a morose interview with the Guardian. ‘I wish I was dead,’ she told Tim Jonze, who promptly responded with ‘don’t say that’. She told him how unhappy she was, ‘how she [didn’t] enjoy being a pop star, how she [felt] constantly targeted by critics, that she [didn’t] want to be alive at all.’ This interview was perhaps her most vulnerable, yet, as all things Del Rey-related, she was buffeted online for her comments, and for so easily opening up to a person she’d just met.
It may well have had more to do with the context, Jonze asked her whether her icons; Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Elvis Presley, had any influence on whether she thought dying young was glamourous, which prompted her to say ‘I wish I was dead already’. Following the predictable backlash, she responded on Twitter by saying Jonze ‘set her up’ for the questions, but an audio clip he released of the interview suggests otherwise. The interview played out as worryingly authentic, and her tweets seemed an arbitrary attempt to deflect attention away from her by backtracking. Had she received an outreach of empathy instead, I highly doubt she would have felt the need to retract the comments so quickly.
But why shouldn’t she be allowed to feel that way? She was evidently depressed at the time of the interview. The romanticisation of suicide is problematic, but it’s hardly a new concept. It existed long before the internet, having only been radicalised by the Tumblr generation. At the time I was seventeen and, still incapable of controlling my whirlpooling emotions, writing similar things on social media. Most people I knew were too. Some people meant it, others didn’t, but because we had the privilege of irrelevance, no one tried to shut us down. Absurd as it may seem, it was normal for people our age to talk about dying. Del Rey saying the same thing didn’t strike us as out of the ordinary. If anything it was symptomatic of a greater issue. As a society, we treat our living troubled artists like shit. They’re controversial, repeatedly hitting headlines that maliciously chip away at their character until suddenly, they’re dead. Everyone is shocked, surprised. ‘How could this happen?’. They’re mass mourned; haloed as martyrs, ‘gone too soon’. Had, God forbid, Del Rey acted on these thoughts, she would’ve received the same post-death glorification. Her comments indicate she was aware of this.
It’s these disturbing moments of self-exposure that justify her authenticity. I find it difficult to believe she’s ever played a persona. A pseudonym doesn’t mean you’re faking it. I write under one because I don’t like my real name. It also allows me the freedom of exploring different facets of myself without the burden of living up to the associations with the name people know you by. I’m just another in a long line of writers who do this, and Lana Del Rey is one of many musicians who do this too.
Honestly, I can only asssume that the issue with Del Rey is deep-rooted in internalised misogyny. As I said earlier, she appeared on the scene just as strong, independent feminism was starting to gain traction. Del Rey was hung, drawn and quartered by a certain type of feminism for being so transparently weak. I think a lot of women were put-off by her vulnerability, because it exposed what they believed should be subconsciously suppressed in order to feel truly liberated. Her agony at the hands of men didn’t correlate with its morals, and it was women who were pushing her out. Is it any wander Del Rey was so quick to dismiss feminism when the kind of feminism that was ruling the roost was spewing so much hate her way? Is it surprising she wished herself dead when everything she said and did was vilified? She couldn’t be allowed to co-exist with the ‘strong (white) female character’ because she represented everything this kind of feminism wanted to destroy. Del Rey assumed the role of ‘other woman’, ‘pitiful prositute in love with a client’, ‘willingly abused’ and, worst of all, ‘weak’.
I once said, at the peak of my ridiculous rad-fem phase, that I hated weak women. It was a meek attempt at psychological projection, because really, I hated myself. I am weak. I’ve let men use me, my parts; my mind, my body, my art. When my first on/off boyfriend told me he loved another, I hurricaned into a Catherine Earnshaw hysteria. I begged him not to leave, but as I threw myself around him, his arms stiffened. He never held me back. It was in that moment I understood the wailing crescendo of Del Rey’s break-up blues.
For a long time after I tried to be that ‘strong female character’. It wound up branding me a misandrist, and I was so careful not to expose my weakness that I’m actually weaker for it. I thought I’d find reprieve in same-sex relationships, but I fell for shattered souls and wanted desperately to fill their cracks. I poured so much of myself into them that there’s not much left of me, and although I’ve been single for some time now, I still feel a strong sense of incompleteness. Del Rey encapsulates that lost-out-of-love feeling, over and over again. To the women who want to be respected for being independent of men, it’s repetitious, but when you depend on other people to define you, so are the relationships. That’s what makes her so achingly relatable.
It may or may not be okay to need others. It may be a psychological splinter that can only be drawn out through years of therapy. But I don’t think the kind of feminism that dismisses weakness is helpful. I distanced myself from feminism for a while because there were too many flies in that ointment. It was just the particular sect I was following, though. I’ll never not fight for women, for justice and for liberation, but I only hope that the ‘strong (white- yes, it was always white) female character’ trope is starting to soften. It’s one-dimensional, and can damage young girls as much as its polar opposite. Of course, strength manifests in a multitude of ways, but it’s impossible for such a trait to be upheld by every woman at all times. Women are irrevocably complex because we are, shockingly, human. We can be disgusting, we can be evil, and we can also be ‘feminine’ and emotionally dependent on the affection of men and/or other women. If feminism is to advance, it needs to accommodate all women. Women of colour, trans women, sex workers, LGBT+ women and yes, weak women.
Lana Del Rey is a necessary voice because she neutralises the ferocity of other feminist anthems, and her music offers a place many women, including myself, can take shelter in. Though Del Rey has admirably grown as a person since 2014; she cut ‘Cola’ from live performances after the Harvey Weinstein case and called out Kanye West for his narcissism and pro-Trump stance (also, ‘Kanye West is blonde and gone’? damn), she still clings to that vulnerability. She’s also crystalline in her musical approach; she writes songs solely for herself, and what’s more authentically feminist than a woman who does exactly as she pleases?