Why I don’t care if Lana Del Rey is a feminist

Did I get your attention? Yes? Good. No need to beat about the bush here. Let’s talk about Lana…or rather, let me talk about Lana.

Starting with the fact that she’s my Queen of Pop. Yes, I know that for most people Beyoncé (she’s not called Queen B for nothing) wears that crown. But when it comes to Top 40 hits that get me excited and that I want to keep listening to forever and ever, Lana has it covered. And, as I’ve already established music doesn’t have to be feminist for me to love it. Quite the contrary.

But, you really can’t talk about Lana Del Rey without talking about feminism. Whether she likes it or not, it’s the conversation that follows her and her music everywhere. Is she a feminist? Is she an antifeminist? What are her thoughts on feminism? What are feminists’ thoughts on her music?

At some level, it’s not surprising that she’s lost interest in the conversation. And, in a way, I agree with her. Her own views on feminism aren’t especially relevant to her art. It’s expression. It’s melody. Music—and particularly music that frequents the top of Billboard does not have to be (and rarely is) loaded with grand political statements. Not every up-and-coming musician wants to write a grand treatise on contemporary gender inequities. Is it entirely fair that she be constantly bombarded with questions regarding her views on sexual politics rather than her thoughts on her actual music?

Yet, the deeply stylized vision that her music conveys does contain many problematic images. The first time I listened to her, I found the subtext and co-dependency overwhelming and, quite frankly, disturbing. I distinctly remember saying to a friend, “I love her music…but the lyrics? Would not want my daughters to listen to it.”

On the other hand, she’s not creating in a vacuum. Her music follows in a long line of femme fatales and mixed messages. Her initial image was that of a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”—a woman who built a career off of sexuality intertwined with pop melodies. And given that she frequently samples from and references past artists she leans into this aspect of music culture more than your average artist. On her album Ultraviolence, she not only took a tune from the original “Romeo and Juliet” score (and I think we can all agree that, while deeply romantic, that particular tale is one of the least feminist out there), but also took the title lyrics from The Crystal’s single “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss.” And, if we’re being honest, while maybe the abusive relationships and misogyny aren’t quite so blatant, are they any less present in chart toppers from the Supremes or Madonna or even (at least in the early days) Queen B, herself?

So, ok, maybe it’s unfair for us to be heaping all the hate on one woman, especially a woman who has been creating what is easily some of the most exciting and innovative pop this past decade, drawing attention to the heavily produced nature of the industry while sampling the best bits of previous music decades. But moving beyond all that, I feel like we owe her a break, because whether or not Lana Del Rey is a feminist, she is at least getting us to talk about feminism.
Take, for example, her song “Cola,” which is one of the most polarizing tracks she’s put out to date. Let’s start with the music—richly textured with all the elements that make me totally love her: cinematic strings, a slow-driving R&B beat, solo electric guitar riffs for a hint of rock’n’roll, and smokey, borderline rap vocals. It’s fabulously textured and dripping with sexual tension—an anthem to American music and the romantic heat it inspires.

Ok, now on to the vocals, which are admittedly some of her most problematic—according my research, the studio was even reticent to release it. The opening line sums it all up (“My pussy tastes like pepsi cola”) but the song weaves in allusions to relationships with older men and American pop culture. It’s undeniably shocking the first time you hear it (my initial reaction was something along the lines of, “Dear God…she just went there”). And while I don’t necessarily condone the message, it brings up a whole host of issues in popular culture and music particularly regarding the rampant sexism and pervasive abuse of women’s body’s in American marketing campaigns. It begs serious questions about American pop culture and the fetishization of branding, as well as the way such exotic images (and American women) have began to define us to our fellow world citizens.

Perhaps Del Rey was not trying to open an entire box of critical commentary on American advertising, but regardless, that was the conversation this song sparked. Similarly, her hit single “Ultraviolence” opened the door to talking about overt sexism in the music of girl groups, as well as cultural criticism convos about the glorification of domestic violence, while “Video Games” painted a pretty accurate portrait of most contemporary relationships between young American couples.

The bottom line, for me, is that I would rather have an artist like Del Rey who creates exciting music that sparks interesting and warranted conversations, while remaining openly apathetic about feminist issues than artists who blatantly reject feminism or (worse) those that sell us female empowerment laced with subliminal sexism. Lana Del Rey doesn’t need to be a feminist to be one of the most interesting artists today. It’d be nice if she was, but I appreciate her honesty and her gobsmacking contributions to the music industry all the same. And, while we’re being honest, I kinda love the brazen way in which she goes there.