Lana Del Rey has long thrived in a moral and cultural gray area, creating a reputation that precedes her in discussions of her music. Some of this persona was molded by Del Rey herself, especially earlier in her career. Although Del Rey has grown beyond this early persona (think Lolita, sugar daddies and cocaine), this reputation remains fueled by misguided neoliberal feminist critiques and new ideas of what it means to be a woke celebrity.
Disclaimers and qualifiers about past scandals have precluded coverage of “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” her seventh studio album released March 19, obscuring it from musical interrogation. This is a shame, as the album is another career high for Del Rey and a worthy follow-up to 2019’s critically acclaimed “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” — an album so chock-full of poignant meditations that Pitchfork called her “one of America’s greatest living songwriters.”
But dismissal of Del Rey’s music altogether due to past errors isn’t the answer; in fact, it would rob listeners of a singular voice unafraid to challenge mainstream narratives of political events and issues. Missteps and all, Del Rey is an essential star in a lane all her own. The folksy grandeur of “Chemtrails” further cements her as a musical powerhouse and cultural icon.
Considering Del Rey’s standing in the pop culture-sphere, it’s easy to understand why her main desire on “Chemtrails” is for a release from fame and a return to obscurity. The opening track “White Dress” is a piano-fueled ballad that finds Del Rey straining against the upper register of her voice in an airy falsetto whisper as she reflects on being an unknown waitress pre-fame. In the song’s sprawling outro she sings, “It made me feel, made me feel like a god / It kinda makes me feel like maybe I was better off.”
On the album’s title track, she fantasizes about not having to answer to anyone and being nowhere and everywhere all at once. “I’m in the wind, I’m in the water / Nobody’s son, nobody’s daughter,” she sings, sounding at peace. The stunning “Dark But Just a Game” finds her evading the new responsibilities of celebrity that demand her comments on the state of the world. Sounding apathetic, she sings “Life is sweet or whatever baby / You gotta take them for what they got / And while the whole world is crazy / We’re getting high in the parking lot.”
Del Rey is an apt example of the dangers of subscribing to a new mode of celebrity that holds famous people up as political talking heads, which both cheapens political discourse and overshadows the celebrity’s art. To prevent an artist’s half-baked take on a current media frenzy, we could stop demanding celebrities “do better” and relieve them of the responsibility of being moral or political compasses. In doing so, we would have more productive political conversations; celebrity hot takes and cancellations often have a negligible effect on material conditions of injustice.
This is not to let celebrities off the hook: Someone who is abusing their power to inflict real harm should face consequences. But expecting celebrities to speak on every issue under the sun and seeking out their takes on current events as fodder for cancellation creates discourse that gets us nowhere. It perpetuates a cycle where celebrities become cognizant of this expectation and spit out misguided takes in an attempt to get out in front of potential cancellation, leading to more backlash.
Del Rey’s reputation has also been fueled by a specific criticism that has hounded her relentlessly, which is that she glamorizes abuse and her music is disempowering to women. However, she is one of the only well-known female artists whose music doesn’t fit neoliberal ideas of watered down “female empowerment.”
Del Rey’s explorations of relationships unearth darker undertones of the female experience that the most visible form of feminism — the type co-opted by capitalism and hyper-focused on optics — tends to gloss over in favor of girlboss-esque narratives. Not all women are rising corporate ranks or doing hours-long #selfcare; some are being emotionally abused or are stuck in toxic relationships, and singing about that isn’t glorification but an indictment of reality. She explores these dynamics artfully, never shying away from taboos and often showing women’s agency in complex situations.
This accusation has continued to frustrate her and boiled over into her much discussed “Question for the culture” Instagram post in May 2020, in which she lamented being stripped of control over her own story by the misguided feminist critiques that continue to follow her. In a convoluted and roundabout way, she used successes of many women of color in music to try to illustrate how what women are allowed to sing about is expanding and she should be allowed to push similar boundaries without being accused of glorifying abuse.
Many people were upset that she seemed to position herself in opposition to these women and offer a reductive and over-sexualized account of their music. While her methods were hurtful, her point that there is no right way to feel empowered as a woman was a necessary reminder. And, not only can empowerment be accessed in a thousand different ways, but empowerment itself shouldn’t be thought of as the end goal of women’s art, which Del Rey explores as she juxtaposes fragility and power.
Trying to categorize Del Rey and her art into “good” and “bad” does a disservice to her and is telling of our own discomfort in those spaces, especially as they apply to women. Contradiction and hypocrisy are not necessarily the enemy; they can be catalysts for important conversations that push us toward increased empathy and understanding. Backlash and backlash to the backlash drags us further and further from more important conversations and makes it harder to see what is right in front of us — and in the case of Del Rey, what’s right in front of us is an exquisite new album.
Mirabella Miller SC ’23 is TSL’s music columnist and an English major from Portland, Oregon. She shows up to most events drinking a Yerba Mate.