We were in an entirely different world a few weeks ago, when Lana Del Rey published her incendiary essay “Question for the culture” as an Instagram post on May 21, 2020. At the beginning of this essay, Del Rey compares herself to a list of mostly Black and brown female pop stars:
Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, 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 — or whatever i want —without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorising abuse???????
Even after later clarifying that “they are my friends and peers and contemporaries” in a third post/video response on May 25 (with the second post on May 22 further inflaming the situation), many cultural critics fairly called out the racist implications of the first post, which failed to recognize Black female artists’ decades-long — and ongoing — struggle to express their sexualities on their own terms within the realm of pop music. After a weekend of heated debate over Del Rey’s posts, attention quickly shifted to the protests for Black life and lives exploding across America and the world.
Nevertheless, Del Rey has remained a talking point for the lingering remnants of racism in America, with activist and sex educator Ericka Hart writing on Instagram on May 31, “There is no barricade of white people blocking us with their bodies from the police when we are in the car, when are at work, from slumlords, racist nonprofit EDs, the Lana Del Reys, Amy Coopers, or themselves.” Offered as evidence of how white women perpetuate racism even when they don’t think that they are being racist (or, worse still, think that they are being “post-racism”), Hart makes Del Rey into an example of the toxicity of white (female) privilege. Since then, Del Rey has become the celebrity stand in for unchecked white female privilege and racism.
Just one year ago, we were more willing to hold Del Rey’s simultaneous brilliance and complicated-ness in tension, particularly after the August 2019 release of her universally acclaimed album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! As Jenn Pelly declares in her beautifully-written and timely review of NFR! for Pitchfork:
Lana is one of our most complicated stars, a constantly unresolvable puzzle — someone who once called her own work “more of a psychological music endeavor” than pop. But on Norman Fucking Rockwell! that ground-swelling complexity coheres to reveal an indisputable fact: She is the next best American songwriter, period.
Like Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! was initially hailed as an astute commentary on toxic white masculinity, even as esteemed music critic Ann Powers meticulously detailed Del Rey’s messy choice to attempt to critique such structures of toxicity from within. Upon its release, what critics most appreciated about NFR! was how Del Rey at last seemed to sing from her own personal experiences. On song after song, Del Rey explores her crumbling ideals of America (“Give me Hallmark/ One dream, one life, one lover/ Paint me happy and blue,” she sardonically sings on “Venice Bitch”) within a context of heteropatriarchy, mobilizing her favored narrative structure of describing the rise and fall of romantic relationships with toxic men. Here, putting up with toxic men is not only a metaphor for how much we all put up with what she recently on Instagram called “the sickness of this country” — but also a rumination on how our macro world inevitably seeps into our micro lives.
While many in June 2020 might question whether or not Del Rey is “the next best American songwriter,” few would deny that she continues to seem a “constantly unresolvable puzzle.” But what would it mean to take Lana Del Rey’s discography as a “psychological music endeavor” of one white woman’s grappling with both white privilege and anti-Black racism in the 2010s? And what might we learn about the racial moment in which we find ourselves in 2020 America? As a white queer woman whose entire adult dating life has primarily centered the pursuit of intellectual, emotional, and sexual connections with women in a variety of relationship forms, I have always had an interesting relationship with Del Rey’s music. Her songs are not written for me, even as their camp and affect — and the way she uses both to deeply study “America” — continue to call to me (even now). In a moment when many white women are taking to the internet to attempt to publicly work through their white female privilege, I turn to Del Rey’s music and essays to attempt to untangle the complexity of their doing so in this moment of protest.
Del Rey is no stranger to literal and figurative fires of all kinds, particularly ones that raise the question of her relationship to both Black people and Black culture. On “The Greatest,” one of the standout singles from Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey proclaims, “LA is in flames, it’s getting hot.” While it’s debatable whether or not Del Rey at all had in mind the 1992 Los Angeles Riots when she wrote the lyric, it is hard to listen to the song today and not think of America’s recent history of anti-Black racism and police violence.
The case of Rodney King hovers heavily over the Black Lives Matter movement. Originally pulled over for a supposed traffic stop in March 1991, King became a national cause after a high speed chase on the highway and subsequent beating by LAPD police officers. When this footage was originally broadcast on television in April 1991, it interrupted the NBA finals, bringing it into the homes of millions of viewers. After the trial of the four arrested police officers was moved multiple times, a verdict was not reached until April 29, 1992. When the four police officers were acquitted of all charges, it ignited a riot in LA. Beginning on April 29 and continuing until May 4, people took to the streets in LA and elsewhere to protest both the brutality towards King and the violence of the police state at large.
Twenty-eight years later, it is striking how much the case is a reminder of how little has changed in the relationship between police and Black people in America. In the protests in honor of George Floyd and countless other Black men — and women — murdered by the police (Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Riah Milton, and Ahmaud Aubrey), the through line to how the horrendous violence imposed on Rodney King inspired a wave of protest is clear. More than that, there is also an even longer genealogical through line back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, where police violence during an era of Jim Crow segregation was only one of many concerns in the fight for Black liberation.
As I teach students in my Race, Gender, and Pop Music class, these movements for Black liberation coincide(d) with an increased visibility and, in some ways, material success for Black artists in the pop mainstream. Alongside this history, we trace how white artists respond to the success of their Black peers, from amplifying their work to collaborating with them to paying homage/appropriating from (the line is always slippery here) their music. Across five LP’s and one EP released in the 2010s, Del Rey has borrowed — and sometimes appropriated — from and raised questions about various identities that make up this thing that we call America: Black hip hop artists, white rap rockers, Black female blues singers, lesbians, Chola girls, and Jackie O (as a stand-in for the wives of powerful men), to name just a few. In her review of NFR!, Powers writes of Del Rey’s “indebtedness to West Coast hip-hop, whose smudged arrangements and stoned cadences she often assimilates.” As I also teach students in this course, the 2010s signaled a height of both hip-hop culture as American culture and diversity and multiculturalism as commodifiable goods ready to be remixed across beats and bass lines. When else but in the 2010s could we have white youth listening to hip-hop yet wearing MAGA hats at a Trump rally?
Lana Del Rey is a “good intentioned” (her words) artist/person who somehow strikes a nerve about both sides of this reality: she reminds us of all the work that white liberals — and white women in a particular way — still have to do to unlearn racism while also sets off all of the alarms about the ugliness of the brand of racism of white supremacists. How can one artist be expected to hold so much about this moment in American history?
In her review of NFR!, Pelly describes the album’s collection of songs as “miniature syllabi in American studies,” a phrase that calls to me as an American studies scholar. In Del Rey’s America, Blackness and whiteness constantly collide with one another. Her America is one of Bruce Springsteen and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Walt Whitman and Joni Mitchell — but also one of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday and A$AP Rocky and Bryon Thomas, Del Rey’s touring keyboardist and music director. The history of pop and rock, much like the history of American studies, has a complicated relationship with both Blackness and Black people. As Tavia Nyong’o muses in his moving eulogy for Little Richard, who passed away on May 9,
As the world marks and mourns the passing of Little Richard, many have been asking: how was someone so unapologetically black and queer present at the origins of rock, a world-shaking music still associated, to this day, with white male musical acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones?
As Nyong’o notes, Blackness — and queerness — is considered both central and peripheral to rock and roll and pop music at large, a presence often first made successful by white artists before Black artists themselves get full credit for their innovations. American studies as a field shares in a similar struggle. Although founded in the 1930s as an ideological and educational intervention in the global spread of communism, American studies in the 1990s was still struggling to integrate Black studies into its purview, as evidenced by Mary Washington’s presidential address at the 1997 annual meeting entitled “Disturbing the Piece: What Happens to American Studies If You Put African American Studies at the Center?” Even as Black studies, Black sound studies, and Black queer studies all have strong presences within American studies today, this struggle to have them be at the “center” of the field still continues. In both cases, Blackness is recognized as paramount without being allowed to take center stage, as the recent hashtags #Amplifyblackvoices and #Blackintheivory have pointed out about music and academia more broadly.
Since casting Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky as John F. Kennedy Jr. in the September 2012 music video for “National Anthem,” Del Rey has simultaneously raised difficult questions about the resonances of American history, along with uncomfortable ones about white people’s participation in it. Released seven months after Trayvon Martin’s murder by the police and two months before Barack Obama’s re-election, the video’s juxtaposition of Black (presidential) power and Black death sounds that, even in 2012, we had not yet arrived in a post-racial America. At the end of the video, Del Rey as Jackie O glances at the dead body of A$AP Rocky as JFK Jr. — and then stares out into the camera in a state of distress. As the orchestral synth strings fill the landscape, Del Rey doesn’t know what to do about either the lost relationship or the Black death besides her.
This moment in the video feels indicative of Del Rey’s career as a whole in many ways: she hovers near Blackness but then struggles to know what to do with/about it, as evidenced by her fumbling through a discussion of Mary Washington’s push for reparations for Black people during Emancipation (and the Navajo Nation’s current push for reparations for indigenous people) in her third post/video response to her original “Questions for the culture” post on Instagram. She can see the violences of racism in front of her yet cannot fully connect the dots to how her own white privilege — and her inclusion in a collective white female privilege more specifically — allows for this kind of anti-Black violence and Black death to continue. In 2020 (as in 2012), the weight of white women as a collectivity once again seems to singularly fall on Del Rey, the celebrity stand-in for the Amy Coopers who call the police on Black people in real time. In reality, what Del Rey reveals is the anti-Black racism built into both our country and the way its history has been written from the very beginning of its existence.
During the third week of the protests, my queer/affect theory mentor visited my Alternative Journalism course to help me talk with students about how they were emotionally registering this moment of COVID-19 and protest. Although I teach at a predominantly white institution, my courses tend to attract a lot of students of color and/or students who identify somewhere along the spectrum of queerness, in addition to white female students of all sexual orientations actively trying to make sense of their white privilege. (Often, my classes are 50% to 75% white women.) When my students were initially hesitant to respond to my mentor asking how we were doing at this moment, I moved to model a response to this question. After talking about how I was feeling caught between anxiety about getting sick and guilt about not doing enough, I added, “Like you, Ann, I was radicalized by queer activism. When I moved back to Brooklyn in 2011, I fell in with a group of radical queer Jewish activist friends. And that changed everything for me in terms of putting anti-racism at the front of my mind from then onward. So it’s hard for me, sometimes, to watch white women I know trying to work through all this now on social media and not ask, ‘Where have you been the past decade?’”
Once we finished class for the day, I realized that I had failed to mention how much my Black and Latinx trans friends in Brooklyn had also transformed my politics, had pushed my queerness to become anti-racist. It was the kind of slip up that I don’t usually make — and there I had done it, in this critical moment, in front of my group of students. But this is kind of slipping up/not speaking up that accumulates over time, that reinscribes whiteness at the center of the fold. This is what happens in both pop music and American studies (history). And this is also what happens in Del Rey’s music and essays, especially when she elaborates on a fragile (white) feminism. This becomes even more apparent in the moments when she pays homage to Black female singers.
On “The Blackest Day,” a deep cut from Lana Del Rey’s 2015 release, Honeymoon, the artist sings, “All I hear is Billie Holiday/ It’s all that I play/ It’s all that I play.” As a friend, colleague, and fellow music nerd pointed out in a recent group text, this — and many other — moments in Del Rey’s discography reflect a desire of white female singers to connect with Black female blues singers in a way that is referential without being appropriative. More than reaching out towards specific blues women, Del Rey seems to be reaching towards a particular kind of feminism that the blues makes possible. In her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, scholar and activist Angela Davis locates the possibility for a radical feminism in the blues. In the introduction, Davis writes,
What gives the blues such fascinating possibilities of sustaining emergent feminist consciousness is the way they often construct seemingly antagonist relationships as nonoppositional contradictions. A female narrator in a women’s blues song who represents herself as entirely subservient to male desire might simultaneously express autonomous desire and a refusal to allow her mistreating lover to drive her psychic despair (xv).
In Davis’s radical blues feminism, a woman is able to be both submissive and agential, both “entirely subservient to male desire” while also “express[ing] autonomous desire” — and, critically, refusing to allow her male lover to “drive her to psychic despair.” In other words, women in such a blues feminism can be simultaneously emotional and powerful. Of course, it is important to note that the Black female artists from the 1920s about whom Davis writes had to additionally navigate the stereotypes of Black women as being sexually excessive, never mind the dual racism and sexism of the music industry — realities that manifest in their own form in pop music culture in 2020. So while Davis discusses the feminist possibility available to all listeners, it is one that is first tangibly grounded in the lived experiences of Black women.
In all three posts from Del Rey, the artist proposes the idea of a delicate or fragile feminism, one that takes the blues’ emphasis on women’s emotionality as a starting point. In the first post, she writes, “Let this be clear, I’m not not a feminist — but there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me… the kind of women who are slated mercilessly for being their authentic, delicate selves.” By the second post, however, the language evolves, with Del Rey bemoaning “*female critics and *female alternative artists who are dissociated from their own fragility and sexuality.” It is in the third/video post, Del Rey is the clearest, stating, “I just want to remind you that in that post, my one and only personal declaration I’ve ever made… was about the need for fragility in the feminist movement.” Here, the crux of the original post becomes clear: Del Rey is making a call for feminism — and pop culture at large — to recognize “delicate” or “fragile” women as just as much feminists as their more sexually expressive counterparts.
In many ways, this is a sharpening of the work that she’s done across her entire discography thus far. In her 2013 essay entitled “The Year In Blond Ambition,” music critic Jessica Hopper writes, “As we bust Hey Kool-Aid–style into the new year with a clean slate and hindsight, it seems fair enough to chalk up our lil’ Lana freak-out as part of the continuing and long-standing issue with female ambition,” adding that what seems scariest about Del Rey — and Taylor Swift and Grimes — is “ambitions [that] seemed naked and, if you will, feminine.” While Del Rey is far from the only white female artist to have had such “blond ambitions,” she has borne the brunt of the burden for an entire segment (white women) within pop music. Beneath the moments of white (female) privilege and the vitriol for music journalists who gave her “bad” reviews, this is a key piece to the puzzle.
Nevertheless, Del Rey’s call for a fragile feminism is made more complicated due to the long racialized histories of “delicateness” and “fragility” in the United States, a problem that Del Rey’s framing herself against Black female artists at the beginning of the original essay only amplifies. In the same late 19th-century historical moment when Mary Williamson was advocating for reparations for African Americans, the Cult of Domesticity, or Cult of True Womanhood, an ideological system that elevated middle- and upper-class delicate womanhood to high social standing, helped establish fragile white femaleness as the norm against the stereotype of Black women as hypersexualized. Del Rey’s opening paragraph uncomfortably recalls this history, which leads her to miss the opportunity to connect both groups (delicate (white) women and sexually confident (Black) women) across all three posts. Although Del Rey clarifies in the third post, “And when I mentioned women who look like me, I didn’t mean white like me. I mean the kind of women who, you know, other people might not believe because they think, ‘Oh, well, look at her, she fucking deserves it,’” this opposition between Blackness and whiteness is never fully dissolved. As she observes at the end of the post, “they want to turn… my advocacy for fragility into a race war.” What Del Rey misses here is that by taking up the language of fragile feminism, she had inadvertently stepped into a race — and gender — war that is over 200 years old, that of delicate whiteness vs. sexualized Blackness. For someone impressively well-versed in the history of activism for reparations in the post-Civil War period, this is a misstep that detracts from the power of Del Rey’s fragile feminism.
None of this is meant to vilify Del Rey for this massive misstep, as it is one that many white women in America are concurrently stumbling through with her. But her mix of good intention and mixed execution accentuates the need for both growth and greater awareness during what is a critical moment for the future of feminism in America. The past 3.5 years since Trump’s election have been filled with protests, pinky pussy hats, and painful testimonies from women about being sexually harassed, assaulted, and/or raped by men in power. Many songs have already been written about Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh at his 2018 Supreme Court nomination hearing, a moment that painfully recalled how likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden failed to protect Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas at his 1991 nomination hearing to the same court. Meanwhile, in our COVID-19 moment, right-to-unmask extremists mobilize the same arguments about bodily autonomy that they use to deny abortions to people with vaginas in protest of coronavirus precautions. The stakes for cis and trans women, trans men, and non-binary or genderqueer people have never been so high — which makes it distressing to think about how much feminist movements still remain divided along racial lines. After founding the original Me Too movement in the Bronx in 2006, activist Tarana Burke found herself needing to sound out this reminder as the hashtag #MeToo began to take off in late 2017 — without any credit to her. A fragile feminism will get us nowhere if it fails to take into account the ways in which the idea of “fragility” has been racialized, let alone the many other kinds of femininity with which we may align. In this way, Del Rey’s strikes a chord for all of us organizing in these moments, moving towards what’s next.
In September 2019, renowned music critic Ann Powers penned “Lana Del Rey Lives in America’s Messy Subconscious,” arguing that the artist is an epitomization of attempting to both emotionally and intellectually navigate an American history — and present — of racial, gender, and sexual messiness. Midway through her essay and review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Powers writes,
Lana Del Rey is all about wrong combinations: sunset dreams and dirty water, Mexican-American braids and a wetsuit, hip-hop flow and torch song feeling, conventional feminine submissiveness and post-feminist self-possession. Cognitive dissonance is the essence of her art, the way she builds her dream logic.
Reading this review for the first time, I remember being taken aback by the tone and some of the claims, even as I also recognized that it was a generally favorable review of the album. Powers seemed willing to be explicit about the conundrum of Del Rey in ways no one else had quite been: she was slippery, moving between seemingly contradictory identities (such as “conventional feminine submissiveness” and “post-feminist self-possession”) and many musical references and influences that she risked trying to be everything and nothing all at once. Later in the essay, Powers astutely notes, “But for Del Rey, the mash-up of affects and references is the point. It is emotion’s actuality.” For Del Rey, the feminine and the feminist (and the ways those things converge and diverge for her) are personal feelings more than they are identities, are collective affects that circulate and coalesce into ideas of what “woman” is. When this review was published, it provoked an immediate response from Del Rey on Twitter, taking to the social media platform to defend her “authentic” — versus messy — self. It is the ghost of this review and the subsequent back and forth between Powers and Del Rey that hangs over her recent trio of posts. When Del Rey writes of “female critics,” she is speaking back to Powers, rehashing the conversation.
In this “messy subconscious” in 2020, the illusion that we’ve achieved a post-racial — or post-gender or post-sexuality — America can no longer hold. Del Rey’s music and essays bring us face-to-face with the discomforts of being an American in a post-Obama era, when even the small gains (gay marriage, DACA, etc.) made under that administration seem under attack during a Trump presidency. To be an American in 2020 means to grapple with the realities of Black people disproportionately being murdered by both police and a medical system that structurally neglects (and even kills) them, Latinx people of all legal statuses being targeted as an extension of heightened anti-Mexican racism, Asian Americans being scapegoated for the spread of COVID-19, and indigenous Americans fighting for their lands and, quite literally, their lives.
In the moments when Del Rey (almost) links “the sickness of this country,” the need to grant African Americans and Native Americans reparations, and the stereotypes that dilute the power of the fragileness or delicateness of (often white) women, she illustrates how a messy American subconscious requires a feminism that operates in slippage. But such a fragile feminism will get us nowhere if it is not also anti-racist. What the latest debate around something Del Rey said or wrote makes especially clear is the need for those of us who are white, female, cisgendered, and/or straight to not forget about the privileges of these positionalities — and to actively use them to investigate both our own and our society’s messy subconscious. We cannot expect Lana Del Rey to save us from the anti-Black racism of white supremacy. We should have never expected this much of her in the first place.
Top image: Justin Higuchi via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0