Lana Del Rey is no stranger to controversy. Over the course of her career, the melancholic songstress has drawn ire for culturally appropriating a Native American headdress, romanticizing domestic abuse in her songs, proclaiming that she finds feminism boring, and was initially accused of being a “fake” star bankrolled by her millionaire father when her album Born to Die was released in 2012. The cult of authenticity has always haunted Del Rey, the stage name of New York-born singer-songwriter Elizabeth Grant, and recently, the “Summertime Sadness” singer found herself mired in yet another spat with music critics and the Internet after unveiling the cover and track listing of her seventh studio album Chemtrails over the Country Club on Instagram. The monochrome cover shows Del Rey assembled with several smiling friends at a table, all attired in white dresses and 1950s-style pearls, and was accompanied by a now-deleted comment on inclusivity.
“I have always been extremely inclusive without even trying to,” she wrote, anticipating backlash. “My best friends are rappers, my boyfriends have been rappers. My dearest friends have been from all over the place, so before you make comments again about a WOC/POC issue, I’m not the one storming the capital, I’m literally changing the world by putting my life and thoughts and love out there 24 seven.”
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The defensive note was unnecessary, as nobody had significantly criticized Del Rey for “including” people of color in her upcoming album, and her need to disassociate herself from the Nazi-led riot on Capitol Hill was also curious given Del Rey’s longterm public opposition to former president Donald Trump. But most importantly, the note recalled an instance last year when the singer was widely castigated for perpetuating racism against women of color. In a note titled “Question for the Culture,” Del Rey lamented that feminine fragility was no longer valued in the current cultural landscape and went on to reduce the music of her fellow female artists, naming Beyoncé, Doja Cat, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Kehlani and Camilla Cabello to “wearing no clothes, cheating, fucking.” While the note appeared to be targeted mainly towards music critics who had termed Lana’s music antifeminist—for example, in her 2014 song “Ultraviolence,” Lana sings, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss”—the singer didn’t lay the blame for her perceived victimhood only at the feet of sexist men or unsympathetic critics, but wrote that “delicate” women had their “voices taken away by. . . stronger women.” It wasn’t a coincidence that nearly all of the artists she named were Black women.
Carving out a space in feminism for women to express vulnerability or sadness is a commendable project, but the idea that women of color are impervious to pain and not afforded the “softness” of womanhood stems from the power and pedestal that white women have always exercised at our expense. The white woman is seen as virginal and pure, worthy of male protection and social respect, whereas Black and Brown women are hyper-sexualized and fall outside of the remit of respectable womanhood entirely due to our unique histories with colonialism, war, sexual violence and/or slavery. When it comes to inclusivity, even benevolent attempts to include people of color risk exoticism, which enforces harmful stereotypes and commodifies nonwhite people as props to gild the persona and image of the white-skinned star.
The idea that women of color are impervious to pain and not afforded the “softness” of womanhood stems from the power and pedestal that white women have always exercised at our expense.
Doubtlessly, Del Rey has been inspired by people of color in her years-long career. Her early music utilized beats rigged from hip-hop, an influence that still permeates the underlying sound of her most recent album Norman Fucking Rockwell, and she has worked and/or collaborated with Jay-Z, Playboi Carti, and A$AP Rocky in the past, casting the latter as JFK opposite her Jackie O and Marilyn Monroe in her “National Anthem” music video. In her 2012 short film Tropico, Lana is seen spinning on a pole in a strip club in bright red lingerie and sipping Coca Cola, interspersed with hazy images of tattooed Latino gang members snorting heroin, and Chicana women ringing the singer on a porch in what appears to be an inner city neighborhood on the West Coast. In her rise to stardom, Del Rey’s proximity to Latinidad and Blackness defined her femme fatale persona, “a bad girl to whom bad things are done,” as music critic Ann Powers pinpointed for NPR, or “Lolita got lost in the hood” in the words of the chanteuse herself.
As a matter of fact, the name “Lana Del Rey” itself is an appropriation of Cuban culture, which the singer adopted because she said it reminded her of “the glamor of the seaside,” the beach and Miami. The alluring Del Rey has charted on Billboard several times, finally won the respect of critics with her previous three albums, and transformed into a flower-crowned cultural icon, feats she failed to accomplish as 20-something Lizzy Grant from the suburbs singing in New York City bars. And yet, the persona that catapulted her to success is built on the appropriation of music, aesthetics, and storylines conceived in low-income neighborhoods populated by people of color.
“I lived in the Bronx for four years. I lived in Brooklyn for like four years after that,” she told Electronic Beats in 2013, when asked about what role the “hood” plays in her music. “I always consider myself to have a serious street side.”
Del Rey paid homage to Brooklyn in her 2014 song “Brooklyn Baby,” in which she narrates making music with her guitarist boyfriend. The borough provided a romantic backdrop to her art, but she neglects to mention how gentrification has displaced generational Black residents living in Brooklyn due to skyrocketing rent prices, caused in part by middle-class creatives and/or professionals moving to the city.
The singer’s modus operandi, after all, has a precedent. She cites Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement as major inspirations, and even recited parts of Ginsberg’s “Howl” in the monologue for Tropico. The Beat Generation believed in free love and a nomadic existence that rejected private property and conventional social mores, and built their poetry movement on the appropriation of jazz music and blues. Beat poets, most of whom were white men, idealized the poverty and racial struggle of Black Americans and Mexicans as a hedonistic kind of freedom, rather than understanding it as the consequence of segregation and economic exploitation in the aftermath of slavery and settler colonialism.
Women of color are seen in Del Rey’s work, but deprived of voice and agency
Though Del Rey has departed from her “bad girl in the hood” persona, softening her image into a relaxed California girl returning to the Waspy country club, hints of cultural appropriation still appear in her current work. In the 2019 music video for “Fuck It I Love You,” Del Rey’s hair is braided close to the scalp in a hairstyle popular among Cholas in Los Angeles, a subculture among Latinx youth in the 1990s, which became a celebrity-driven fashion trend a few years ago. Likewise, in the video for “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” Del Rey Lana frolics with her Latina friends, who are more or less wing women emphasizing the onscreen presence of the white vocalist, and silent beyond their carefree smiles and the wind tousling their dark hair. Women of color are seen in Del Rey’s work, but deprived of voice and agency, and even though she has collaborated with The Weeknd and A$AP Rocky, who brought their own flair to her songs, she has never once collaborated with a nonwhite female artist. The singer’s note on feeling silenced by “stronger women” also came in the midst of chart-topping collaborations by Black women singers, most significantly Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s remix of “Savage.”
Perhaps Del Rey’s dig at Beyoncé and other Black women artists last year, and her need to prove that she’s not racist by tokenizing her friends and saying she’s dated rappers, reveals an insecurity about her own authenticity as a white artist, who has always juxtaposed her feminine, all-American glamor with darker-skinned people on the fringes of the American Dream. Lana Del Rey, both the person and the performance, is not fake, but she’s certainly not real either.
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