In the many skirmishes in today’s culture wars I often find it easy to take a side or, in most recent cases, wish that both sides lose. This is mostly because these skirmishes involve celebrities and other cultural avatars who are two dimensional, predictable, boring. The last eccentrics died long ago or have been pummeled into submission.

Recently I stumbled across a controversy involving a young woman singer, Lana Del Rey and, of course, an internet post, that has left me on the fence. Apparently Del Rey has been accused of glorifying or romanticizing sexual violence in her songs. On Instagram she wrote:

Question for the culture: Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Manaj, and Beyoncé have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, [deleted], cheating, etc. – can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money – or whatever I want – without being crucified or saying I’m glamorizing abuse.

There was an immediate backlash because all of the singers that she mentioned were “women of color”. Del Rey, who is white, was accused of “reducing” their achievements or ascribing their success to their looks alone. In sum, she was called a racist.

This would normally go in my “who cares” file, but something about it intrigued me, perhaps the unstylish use of the Oxford comma. What, I wondered, did glorifying abuse look like? A 2014 song, “Ultraviolence”, has the lines: I can hear sirens, sirens/He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” I confess that it shocked me, especially in an age where “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was deemed so misogynistic that it needed to be rewritten.

Reading a bit more, I grew sympathetic to her case. Her songs, she said, are about the fragility of women: “the kind of woman who says no but men hear yes—the kind of women who are slated mercilessly for being authentic, delicate selves, the kind of women who get their own stories and voices taken away from them by stronger women or by men who hate men.” That seemed even more counter-cultural than comparing a fist to a kiss. “I am not a feminist,” she says. In response to the charge that she glamorizes abuse, she says: “I’m fed up with female writers and alt singers saying that I glamorize abuse when in reality I’m just a glamorous person singing about the realities of what we are all now seeing are very prevalent emotionally abusive relationships all around the world.” An assertion of any kind of femininity in our androgynous age is something of a relief (look what J.K. Rowling is going through), let alone of fragile femininity.

Where things got predictable and disappointing was the vulgarity. In defending herself against charges of racism she pointed out a double standard that in a less decadent time wouldn’t apply: “the difference is that when I get on the pole [i.e. for striptease], people call me a whore, but when Twigs [an English singer of color who I had to Google] gets on the pole, it’s art.” Somewhere there is a future Supreme Court case to resolve this injustice. And of course there was the ever-present over-use of the “f”-word. And even more typical the tattoos that her generation seems obliged to wear like previous generations once wore hats. So in many other ways she is firmly rooted in our culture that she correctly describes as “super-sick”, but in a few surprising ways she seems to have retained about as much authenticity as someone in her position can maintain.

But our cultural momentum will sweep away even this mote of authenticity. For a long time our cultural mandarins have exercised an effective form of censorship that has come to be called “cancel culture”. If you say something that violates the increasingly narrow and often arbitrary orthodoxy, hordes of twitter-users backed by the power of corporations can ensure that you lose your livelihood. It seems it will not stop there. The Chinese philosopher and critic of Communist China Hu Shih wrote, “We know, of course, that there is no freedom of speech [in China under Mao]. But few people realize that there is no freedom of silence, either. Residents of a communist state are required to make positive statements of belief and loyalty.” Who has not seen the mobs over the past week demand such positive statements from cowed individuals, mayors, policemen? We will end up turning to Talleyrand, that wily French aristocrat who survived the 1789 revolution, the terror that decapitated his king, and the First Empire: “Man was given the power of speech to conceal his thoughts.” This could be important skill in the coming cultural revolution.

In the meantime, I might listen to “Summertime Sadness.”


Photo by jus10h