Lana Del Rey and White Clumsiness
Impact over intention?
I will start by saying that I absolutely love Lana. Discovering her discography in high school truly felt like an enlightenment, and her album Ultraviolence is, to this day, one of my favorite albums of all time. However, miss Lana dropped the ball a few days ago, severely. In an attempt to confront her critics and haters, she, in the eyes of many people, shaded a handful of female artists who are either Black, part Black, part of an ethnic minority or… Ariana Grande. While I don’t think her intention was to be racially insensitive, there were several missteps in her rant, and we will take a look at them in this piece.
I want to say that I chose the term ‘clumsiness’ because I will give her the benefit of the doubt and say it was not intentional. I do not think Lana Del Rey is racist. However, I do think her statement was tone deaf and that her language became racialized because she brought into the mix these racialized women. But with that being said, impact matters more than intention so… here we are, still.
In her Instagram post she said:
‘‘Now that Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have had 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 (…).’’
These are the opening lines of Lana’s note and there are a few questionable statements in it that we can deconstruct. Of course, the women she chose is one thing that got people very suspicious of her true intention. In the exception of Ariana Grande and Camila Cabello, all the other women mentioned are racialized women, and even when we do take into account the two ‘exceptions’, we can see that, in Camila’s case, she is a White Latina, which means she is still part of an ethnic minority, and in Ariana’s case, she has opted for a more urban and ambiguous look in the last few years, to the point where many people assume she isn't White at all. This means that these women are either non-White or do not fall perfectly in the ‘White’ box, unlike Lana, who does, and who sings about the joy and pride of being American. A lot of people saw this line up as her trying to attack women of colour for owning their sexuality, which I understand, however, let’s not forget that Lana has a lot of sexual lines in her songs, which perhaps is a reason why it is so absurd.
Her mentioning that these women talk about sex in their songs is absurd because so does she, but she does not mention it so clearly in her statement. When talking about the subjects that she presents in her work, she mentions ‘feeling embodied’, ‘feeling beautiful’ in imperfect relationships and then lastly, ‘dancing for money’. However, if you are familiar with Lana as a lyricist, you know that she talks about sex quite explicitly and frequently. She also talks about having sex specifically with older men and using drugs. On the flip side, the women she named do not sing exclusively about ‘not wearing clothes’ and ‘cheating’, but also, in Ariana’s case, about anxiety, in Beyoncé’s case, about the beauty of brown skin and as for Kehlani, she sings about the love she has for women, being a woman herself. She did not name one ‘positive’ subject that these women have presented in their work and simply reduced them to the sexuality they choose to present. There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, with Lana’s work. As I said earlier, I am a fan of her music and she has the right to talk about what she wants in her songs, but the way that she reduced these mostly racialized women to sex, with no nuance, while in the same sentence asking the world to see the nuance in her work, is hypocritical.
A major theme of this is also that… she seems bitter. It seems like she’s mad at the fact that these women can talk about ‘taboo’ topics and top the charts, but she can’t. At the end of the day, Beyoncé can’t help that she’s Beyoncé, she just… is. But then, if it is perhaps not bitterness, it could be that she doesn’t understand why these women are not criticized, and she is, but that isn’t true. Nicki and Beyoncé have been criticized for far longer than she has, and I will argue that the critiques are also harsher. All of these women are being dragged through the mud everyday for not only singing about these things but also for looking the way they do in some cases. Her overlooking the struggles of these mostly racialized women in the music industry is quite White feministy to me and I don’t agree with that. Lana Del Rey’s career cannot be compared to Cardi B’s because they are not in the same genre. Rap/hip hop is currently the most lucrative genre of music in the United States, therefore, statistically, you simply have more chance to reach stardom by being a rapper. Furthermore, Cardi was pretty famous before her big break and she does interviews which is not the case for Lana, which could explain why Cardi is more famous. To say that these women are where they are because their portrayal of sexuality is more respected than her portrayal of vulnerability lacks nuance and is overall false.
‘‘I’m fed up with female writers and alt singers saying I glamorize abuse (…)’’.
This sentence should have been the forefront of her rant because it is legitimate. Lana Del Rey disapproving with the backlash she has received over the years is understandable and many of us would have been fighting by her side if it had been approached that way. As far as I know, the singers she named have not talked negatively about her in the past. Furthermore, why is she convinced that the people who criticize her don’t also criticize Doja Cat? This is just coming back to the point that the name dropping was not necessary at all to get her point across.
‘‘(…) there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me (…)’’.
This is also a quite clumsy sentence, which she clarified hours later once the backlash started to roll in by saying: ‘‘I meant the people who don’t look strong or necessarily smart (…) it’s about advocating for a more delicate personality, not for White 'woman' ’’. While I do believe this clarification was necessary, I also believe it is slightly late because the point was already made, and she just repeated another point that people had criticized her for. Her saying that society and feminism as a movement is more accepting of women who look like ‘insert here a list of Black and racially ambiguous women’ than of women who look like her (who is unambiguously White), is very clumsy because there is not many other ways to look at that. She decided to group together women who did not look like her on one side of the room and to differentiate herself from them, on the basis of looks. She described herself as 'authentic', 'delicate, 'fragile' and 'soft', then said that these characteristics are why people reject her, and meanwhile, embrace these other women who aren't like that. This is the big problem I had with her statement, similarly to a lot of Black folks. How is Camila Cabello not delicate? How is Kehlani not soft? How is Beyoncé not authentic? How is Ariana not fragile? They absolutely are, in their own ways, just like Lana is. These adjectives are racialized because WOC, especially Black women, are not seen as such, ever, and Lana proved it. She repeated three times that 'delicate' women are not embraced in this way which can only mean that she does not see these women as delicate.
The second point is that, once again, she completely erases the backlash that these women have and STILL receive from people who call themselves ‘feminists’. Many people do NOT support these women because of the way they show their bodies and I simply cannot stand behind the statement that a thin, cis, White, able bodied and rich American woman is being rejected by society AND feminism because she’s ‘delicate’. The people who slut shame Lana, also slut shame Nicki Minaj, and you truly have to be delusional to disagree. Do the charts prefer Nicki's music over hers? I guess. But again, this comes down to music tastes and opinions and the harsh reality is that you can't be everybody's cup of tea.
‘‘(…) [and for] the kind of women who get their own stories and voices taken away from them by stronger women (…)’’.
By now it is clear that Lana sees herself as fragile and not as strong as the women she is talking about in the beginning of her rant. She also mentioned feeling like people don’t think she is smart and that she is being judged for being authentic. It seems like she feels misunderstood, which is a feeling we have all experienced. However, she presents these insecurities she has as the reason why her career is not where she would like it to be and it is sad because, once again, she just assumes that these artists do not feel like that. Women of colour have had their voices taken away from them for centuries on the North American continent and especially in this country that we call America. Some of the very women that she paints as non delicate voice stealers are the very descendants of some of the most marginalized voices of the Western world and because they are over represented in the group she decided to pick out, we cannot turn a blind eye to it. She decided to name these women, yet we should not acknowledge the layers they have? She could have named Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Dua Lipa or Taylor Swift but she didn’t and decided to only name one White ‘European’ woman in a group of seven, not understanding how it would taint the rest of her statement.
As I said earlier, her rant was tone deaf, not evil, and her White privilege makes her unaware of the additional hardships these women have faced. She seems to believe that not only are they all playing on an equal playing field (which is not the case), but also that these women have it better than she does. It is perhaps very ironic that Elizabeth Woolridge Grant (LDR's birth name) is so unaware of her White privilege considering the backbone of her aesthetic as Lana Del Rey, depends on her being White. The reason why she can sell us ''this Jackie Kennedy, driving in a convertible with my older rich White husband on my way to the beach'' fantasy is because she is White. She wants people to let her bring her chair to the table but her chair as 'Whites only' written on it, not maliciously, just historically. And as I like to say, history doesn't repeat itself, it simply continues. But we will discuss that later.
Why do they sing about sex though?
Finally, I want to bring up the fact that a lot of Black and racialized women do seem to be sexual in their music. I will talk on behalf of Black women and girls because it is more clear cut but we need to keep in mind that the reason why there seem to be no ‘Black Lana Del Rey’ is not because no Black girl has thought about it, but rather because they are not given the chance. As we established, Lana's aesthetic cannot exist without White supremacy, meaning that only White women can exist in it. A Black Lana Del Rey is an historical dissonance, because we all know what life Black women had in the fifties/sixties. But even using another example, there is also no ‘Black Billie Eilish’ not because Black girls can’t be cute yet dark and quirky, but because they are only given one box to fill: an overly sexualized one. We live in a society that tells Black women that if they aren’t sexy and if they can’t twerk, that they can stay home and hide their faces because we don’t want to see them. I am convinced that there are so many Black singers who would like to twirl around in a field in a delicate white dress and with a flower crown on their head in their next music video but no label is going to pay for that. It was tone deaf of Lana to say ''society needs to respect me like they respect these women'', when these other women could not even begin to think of doing what she does, because Black women simply aren't allowed to in the mainstream music scene. I would like to think that most Black women present themselves in a sexual light because they want to, but we also have to be aware of the ones who do it because they have no other choice, because ‘their voice is taken away’. And finally, we have to think about the women who tried but stayed unknown because… they don’t have the privilege that Elizabeth Woolridge Grant has, and therefore, could never become Lana Del Rey.
Lana Del Rey's statement original statement:
My top 10 (+1) Lana Del Rey songs (in no particular order because that is how much I love her music and I can't make a choice) :
- Venice B*tch
- Gods and Monsters
- Summer Bummer
- The Other Woman
- Florida Killos
- Pretty When I Cry
- Million Dollar Man
- Doin' Time
- Old Money