Question for the Singer: An Open Letter to Lana Del Rey

Nicki Minaj and Beyonce were two of the many women of color name-dropped in Lana Del Rey’s Instagram post on musical content and lyricism.
Nicki Minaj and Beyonce were two of the many women of color name-dropped in Lana Del Rey’s Instagram post on musical content and lyricism.
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris (Getty Images), Amy Sussman (Getty Images), Gareth Cattermole (Getty Images)

Question for Lana Del Rey:

Now that you’ve pulled out your MacBook and fixed your fingers to claim that you’ve been criticized and crucified for the inability to truly moan along perform lyrics in your catalog pertaining to “being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money,” did you really find it necessary to name-check mostly women of color in order to make your point?

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For context: Early on Thursday, singer Lana Del Rey announced that she was dropping a new album on September 5. She could’ve stopped there, but the majority of her two-page Instagram post found the artist biting back at criticism from “female writers and alt singers” who claim that her music and lyrics “glamorize abuse,” when in reality, she’s just singing about “realities of what we are all now seeing are very prevalent emotionally abusive relationships all over the world.” A lyric that comes to mind that could be viewed as the glamorization of abuse can be found in her song “Ultraviolence,” where she references a song by The Crystals, singing: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.”

Well, in order to authenticate her point, the “Summertime Sadness” musician—who says she’s “not not a feminist”—mentions Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Cardi B, Kehlani, Ariana Grande and Camila Cabello as musicians who have had “number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking,” and “cheating.”

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Lana: you are correct in your assertion that, yes, nowadays, women are becoming more and more comfortable in using their own voices in their songs, and exploring themes not always widely accepted, such as sex, abusive relationships and mental health. However, your notion that you’re the only woman in the music industry who is berated by music critics for singing about these topics is not only wrong but willfully obtuse.

Black women, for years, have been singing about sex, oppression, abuse, and passive and aggressive relationships for years, and as history teaches us we understand in life, black female artists are no strangers to criticism regarding their content, either. The “Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith had songs in her catalog leaning towards the sexier side in the 1920s and ‘30s, such as “Dirty Mother For You,” while Millie Jackson, a legendary musician who gained fame in the 1960s, is helmed as the “Queen of Raunchy Soul” with tracks like “Hurts So Good.” While neither of us was alive to witness these artists in their primes, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that these women faced hurdles and criticism during their respective careers. Jackson even decided to create her own label, Weird Wreckuds, in order to make the raunchy tunes she became popular for—without any approval or assistance necessary.

In your missive, you attempted to drag Nicki Minaj and Cardi B through the mud as female artists whose overt sexuality is (perhaps to you) surprisingly gaining the support of thousands of fans and critics. Yet, you claim you couldn’t do the same during the earlier years of your career. (Note: no female music writers were directly name-dropped in Del Rey’s note. However, earlier in her career, she was criticized for her seemingly submissive lyricism by journalists and singers alike.)

Both the rappers you mentioned have been criticized for their content and physical appearances since their respective careers began. Nicki Minaj’s videos, where she often shows off her voluptuous body, have been met with gasps, guffaws, and hatred. Also, while she has no problem talking about her past, Cardi B’s detractors often have no issue continuing to label her a stripper, because to many, stripping is an immoral occupation for women they also like to call “whores,” “harlots,” and “jezebels.”

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However, these artists use the criticism of their bodies as empowerment, and allow the sexuality they purvey both in person and in the booth to take center stage. Though their content doesn’t stop their critics from finding them, it also doesn’t halt their successes from doing the same.

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Elsewhere in your album release announcement, you state that you “paved the way for other women to stop ‘putting on a happy face’ and to just be able to say whatever the hell they wanted to in their music,” adding “...if I even expressed a note of sadness in my first two records I was deemed literally hysterical as though it was literally the 1920s.”

Lest we forget, Nina Simone highlighted the wide range of emotions found at the center of black life—sadness, rage and frustration—many times throughout her catalog. Her recordings and lyrics were so visceral that her work has been covered several times since then by artists from all over the world. However, critics were quick to discuss how her content was “inappropriate” for the time. In fact, Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was banned from Southern radio for its content about her disdain towards racism.

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Even more recently, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video preceding her 2016 Lemonade album and visual alluded to her anger, sadness and frustration regarding unarmed black people being killed by police. The singer—who you name-dropped in your unnecessary letter—was criticized by many right-wing pundits such as Tomi Lahren for doubling down on the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and her proud Southern black roots. Lahren even called out her “ex-drug dealer” of a husband.

While this is strictly about the women of color you decided to mention, I can’t help but notice you also decided to add Ariana Grande to the mix. While her discussions of mental health, heartbreak and death are central to her projects Sweetener and Thank U, Next, it would be amiss of me to not mention the heavy criticism she also faces as a public figure. (I mean...she was blamed for Mac Miller’s death by many of his fans. Enough said.)

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White female artists such as Alanis Morrissette, Courtney Love with her band Hole, Meredith Brooks and Fiona Apple made waves using their sad, angry and frustrated indignations to drive their projects, proving that (yep) white women can be scorned in life and love, sing about it, be criticized for it, and still persevere. This is not a “you” problem, and it makes you sound foolish.

“There has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me,” you wrote in your letter. “The kind of woman who says no but men hear yes—the kind of women who are slated mercilessly for being their authentic, delicate selves.”

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The way feminism works is that it has to involve women who look and act like you and look and act like me. These issues are not central to white women’s experiences, but all women’s experiences—and like you, many female artists want to sing about what they’ve been through. It’s unfortunate that you’ve been a victim of criticism for your lyrics in the past, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only one.

I’ll also say this: there is no place in feminism for any woman who tears down other women as a way to solidify a statement about something she sees as unfair—much like there is no place in feminism for women who take down the victories of other women as means to promote themselves, their products and/or services. Given the “stan”-heavy music industry you’re currently a part of, how about using the frustrated energy you’re directing towards these women and their careers to thank your legions of fans for supporting you thus far? You do make good music (Born to Die was wonderful) and people do enjoy your work for its transparency; that should be enough for you.

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Before you speak to the manager about your issues regarding your personal vendetta against music critics, consumers and artists more successful than you are, you should recognize the history surrounding your unfounded claims and those you felt entitled enough to drag. While I have a feeling you didn’t intend for your...album release announcement…to have been taken in this way, your comments prove a clear misunderstanding of your privilege as a white musician; the privilege of not addressing (or appearing to be aware of) the issues women of color face on a regular basis, let alone in the entertainment industry.

Maybe if you were more aware of the accomplishments made by women who *don’t* look like you—despite dodging heaping amounts of criticism—you could remove that chip from your shoulder and just make good music.

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At this point, that’s all we needed to hear: that you’re making music and there’s an album coming out.

Thanks for reading...and Happy Quarantining.

Pronounced "Jay-nuh."

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DISCUSSION

blackmage2030
BlackMage2030

Bravo to every bit of this. She is showing her ass and her untrained ignorant ear when it comes to music being thrown down by women both before and during her reign. Shit, even within the catalogs of the women she trashed you get similar themes of confusion, pain, submissiveness, and angst in love and life - granted those songs get less static because sexism is a motherfucker... but it’s in there.

I am going to sound old af right now but: This is what happens when you have years of music television that doesn’t play music with the internet making it easier to hear only what you want to hear vs hear/learn about some other shit. I mean g’damn, that’s the kind of shit Dolly Parton would take her earrings off to deck her for while the ghosts of Aretha, Whitney, and Loretta Lynch cheered on the beatdown.