Born to Die: Lana Del Rey and the Modern Feminine Performance

There’s something I find incredibly compelling and deliciously problematic – from a feminist point of view – about Lana Del Rey. It didn’t crystallise for me until I read Pitchfork’s fairly damning review of her debut effort, Born to Die. With respect to Lindsay Zoladz’s personal opinion, I can’t help but feel that her criticism of the album misses the point, and dismisses Lana Del Rey not on the merits of her music, but because of the problematic nature of her performance. I’m really only interested in the latter, which Zoladz’s review draws a lot of attention to:

“The conversation surrounding Lana Del Rey has underscored some seriously depressing truths about sexism in music. She was subjected to the kind of intense scrutiny– about her backstory and especially her appearance– that’s generally reserved for women only. But the sexual politics of Born to Die are troubling too: You’d be hard pressed to find any song on which Del Rey reveals an interiority or figures herself as anything more complex than an ice-cream-cone-licking object of male desire.”

I find the whole review troubling. Her dismissal of Lana Del Rey’s capacity for complexity is the most worrying part and, as I’ll address later, completely unfounded. Zoladz inability to find complexity is a failure on her part, not Del Rey’s. What Zoladz don’t seem to understand is that the sexual politics of the album are themselves a product of and response to the way we treat women in music; that this is Lana Del Rey’s thesis, whether intentional or not.

For a hint at how inexorable this treatment is, notice that Zoladz condemns Del Rey in the same breath as condemning others who have treated her that way. She says it’s depressing that we scrutinise women this harshly and then scrutinises her in the exact same manner. She says (earlier) that Del Rey’s preoccupation with money is troubling, but implies that it would not be if she made it sounds more “fun” like Kanye or less ambiguous, like Lily Allen. That is, it would be acceptable if it was couched in established popular narratives about “indie artist hits the big time”, “pop star entertains us”, or “materialism is embraced for satire”.  The problem is that Lana Del Rey is a jarring mix of all three, which draws attention to their artifice.

This album, then, is not fun enough or deep enough, and Lana Del Rey is further at fault because (according to Zoladz) she fails to resolve the sexism she’s been subjected to. This backwards justification feels somehow akin to saying that it’s okay to lock someone up because you’ve never seen them leave their house.

While decrying the intense scrutiny her looks and background has been subjected to, Zoladz refuses to accept that she doesn’t owe us some kind of authenticity. She seemingly cannot accept Del Rey’s persona as a performance and in doing so, she has missed the point of the album. Yes, on the surface Born to Die is disturbingly, deliberately shallow because that’s what we ask women to be. Born to Die is an unflinching exploration of the implications and personal cost of this culture.

In this context, what Zoladz calls awkward and joyless becomes poignant and pointed. In This is What Makes Us Girls Del Rey sings: “We put love first/Don’t you know we’d die for it? It’s a curse (don’t cry about it, don’t cry about it)” and by enacting this curse – relentlessly, throughout the whole album – instead of burying with a tokenistic ‘girl power’ pop song, she’s brought the message home far more powerfully than any other pop star before her. She’s also breaking the silence that women are taught from an early age: “don’t cry about it”. Well, Del Rey is; the mournful tone of the album undeniably speaks to that.

This demand for attention is powerful: she confronts us with the extraordinarily strong desire of an archetype assumed to be passive. She not only makes us look at her – her hair, nail polish, shoes, lipstick, dresses, swimsuits – she shows us that this character is not devoid of internality (as Zoladz says) but replete with it; with relentless conviction, fearless love, and a willingness to fight to the death: “they would rue the day I was alone without you.” She doesn’t deny that she and her cohort act like “a freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens” but she refuses to accept that it’s grounds for dismissal.

I find the character and performance of Lana Del Rey incredibly complex and compelling. Off to the Races is the sinister culmination of our narrator’s willingness to destroy herself for love. What was articulated when she sang, “Dark and lonely, I need somebody to hold me, you’ll do very well, I can tell, I can tell” in National Anthem finds a violent end with a man who “loves [her] with every beat of his cocaine heart”. The death, and threat of death, that is present in every song on the album (and prophesised in its title) is realised here.

Lana Del Rey unapologetically objectifies herself to the point of destruction. If she had included a song about how she’s fine on her own and she doesn’t need a man, this central performance would be shattered.  By reacting as though she owes use more than this performance – and by basing an album review on misperceived sexual politics – Zoladz is missing something truly interesting, and underrating Born to Die.

When Del Rey sings ‘Love me [be]cause I’m playing on the radio’, with all that implies, instead of acknowledging that she has hit on a complex truth about female performance, Zoladz reacts defensively: by patting her on the head and saying, ‘No dear – we don’t even like you.’ In doing so, the richness of this album – not just the quality of the music, but the way it problematises modern femininity, the anonymity of the male, the death of the narrator, the religious overtones, the invocation of the filmic gaze – is dismissed.

So where do we go from here? I am aware, of course, of the irony of criticising a woman for criticising a woman. But I think continuing the conversation is the right thing to do: just  as Lana Del Rey appears to makes herself an empty vessel for male desire, she does the same for feminist anxiety. And that seems like an opportunity to me.

Tara Cartland is a Melbourne based writer whose work has appeard in Voiceworks and The Big Issue. She doesn’t consider herself very feminine, but has a frighteningly large nail polish collection that says otherwise. She has been a feminst for as long as she can remember. You can follow her here and here.

7 thoughts on “Born to Die: Lana Del Rey and the Modern Feminine Performance

  1. I agree. In my opinion Zoladz misses the point. Lana De Ray fearlessly and unapologetically documents a current popular view of what it is to be female. Notably, this includes the desire for love, or at least intimacy, and the compromises often made to realise such desires. It’s quite human really…not perfect and ideologically sound.

    What I hear is a voice speaking one version of a current truth. Zoladz seems annoyed that it’s not the self righteous posturing of a idealog further patronising women by telling them how to live.

    To me it’s powerful because if you provide me with a perfect picture of how I live, I can look at that and maybe I’ll think “wow, that’s shit”. From this point I can decide to change. On the other hand. If you tell me how I ought to be living I’m more likely to wish you would shut the fuck up….. Maybe not sensible, but true nonetheless. Ever had a Mormon at your door?

    In précis, it’s just good journalism, expressed in verse.

    Anyhow, that’s how I see it…..

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    • I think whatever she’s doing with women, she’s trying to do with race, and politics, and history as well. I continue to think she’s interesting because of the choice of races she chooses to exploit. Her Latinas shaking their bums in Tropico brings forth anxious thoughts I’ve heard, that we’re becoming a service based society that’s slowly browning and is culturally melting. Her use of an albino black man to play the love interest, to me speaks volumes when considering that black celebrities tend to be extremely light skinned. She keeps him mostly silent, because that’s what TV has done to blacks. Also, with his hair colored gold he reminds me of a 40oz. I definitely think she’s trying to comment on that whole mess. Ultimately, I think Lana is trying to be a mirror and show people what is really thought of them, if not how they are acting and treating others.

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