This is What Makes Us Girls: On the Lana-Del-Rey-to-Red-Scare Pipeline

It's easier to call a white woman a master ironist than it is to admit she's got some weird ideas.

This is What Makes Us Girls: On the Lana-Del-Rey-to-Red-Scare Pipeline
Yes, her shirt says "butt."

Taking this shit seriously is how we got to Red Scare, is what I thought, spinning up the latest Lana Del Rey record. It may seem silly to credit Lana Del Rey — a pop star whose by-now-well-known deal is “what if the ‘60s, but trap beats” — with generational shifts in gender politics. It probably is silly, which is a shame, considering that I’ve got this whole essay about it now. But there was a time, in the early 2010s, when almost nothing mattered more than parsing Del Rey’s (lack of) feminism.

Lindsey Zoladz gave the initial response in her famous Pitchfork review of Born to Die, writing that “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,” and calling Born to Die the “equivalent of a faked orgasm.” At Artforum, Christopher Glazek —  an N+1 editor, for chrissakes — summed up the opposition, writing that “more than any of her rivals, male or female, Del Rey queers pop,” and calling the heterosexual and cisgender Del Rey “a great queer performance artist” based largely on an SNL performance where she fucked up a few of her songs. 

Not only were you meant to take Del Rey seriously, you were meant to theorize her. The New Inquiry ran an entire special issue on the occasion of her second (!) album. A sample: “‘Money, Power, Glory’ is the recognition that the material inequalities of the world play out in such a way that their dismantling must in the first place be their recapture—and that will include ‘dope and diamonds,’ inebriation, and exploitation. Contra Audre Lorde’s argument that ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’—or, indeed, the singer Lorde’s claim that ‘that kind of luxe isn’t for us’—Del Rey understands that the master’s house and the master’s tools are all there is[.]” 

It feels unfathomable, in 2024, that any newly minted pop star could merit this kind of scrutiny — if the intervening decade has taught us nothing else, it’s that we’ve all got more pressing problems. The obsession with Del Rey’s gender politics was inextricably linked to the poptimist moment in criticism, and particularly the Obama-era tendency — which I alternately deplored and participated in — to frame female pop stars as avatars for feminism, and pop music itself as the ultimate in female empowerment. 

Poptimism’s core tenets were sound: Rock had always framed itself as white and male (even if its roots were anything but). Pop was more diverse, in terms of its featured players, and it was also more associated with a female listenership, which probably accounted for why so many “serious” (white, male) critics wrote it off. However, the conversation quickly caromed away from those basics into the widespread assertion that pop was de facto “empowering,” especially for young women — if it weren’t, why would they listen to it? — and that female pop stars were what “power” looked like in a woman’s hand. 

The 2010s had a taste for pop stars who could embody glamorous, glossy, larger-than-life femininity with a big, shiny grin full of sharp, cruel teeth: Taylor Swift taking down ex-boyfriends, Rihanna torturing accountants to get her money back, Beyonce being… well, Beyonce. In this context, Del Rey was a singularly disconcerting presence: A Mad Men nightmare in ‘60s housewife drag, slurring through a Valium haze that she had an obligation to get dressed up and look pretty and bring her man beers while he watched the game, and he didn’t even hit her that often, promise. 

You could not recuperate Del Rey into any narrative of female empowerment, and you also could not deny that she was making exactly the music she wanted to make — she is more of an old-fashioned singer-songwriter than any of her peers, with a distinctive, coherent sensibility that provides a throughline for her entire catalogue. Even Taylor Swift, who is much praised for her writing, tends to sound different depending on her producer: The Antonoff songs sound like Antonoff songs, the Max Martin songs sound like Max Martin songs, the National albums sound like National albums, etc. Del Rey changes producers, but every song sounds like Lana Del Rey. 

Del Rey embodied female authorship without female empowerment. This made her a puzzle that no-one could put together — at least, not on the terms pop feminism put forth. It was easier to conclude she was some nth-level ironist, a “queer performance artist” pretending to embody the worst of heteronormativity, than it was to admit that she might have bad ideas. So that’s what most people did: Constructing elaborate theoretical justifications for her work and going on and on about the subversive “persona” of Lana Del Rey, when she herself said she was just singing about her life wearing clothes she thought were pretty.

It has become more evident, over the past decade, that Lana Del Rey actually does mean most of the horrifying thing she sings about. As a result, it’s far less fashionable to like Lana Del Rey than it once was. Yet in her wake, the pundit class has incurred a fungal crop of Del-Reyish figures: Dashas and Annas and Dimes Square debutantes, young white women whose declarations that they only want to stay skinny and be pretty for the boyfriends who will one day make them wives and mommies are framed as “irony” because they come with a flat affect and a coke habit. 

Understanding Del Rey might, at least, help us understand that archetype, and why the media so routinely fails to take hip white people’s bad politics at face value. The truth, though, is that I also want to understand Del Rey because I love her music; it is consoling and moving to me in ways that the more “feminist” output of the period can’t match. It is because I love the music that I want to know it better. I want to know what I’m signing up for when I sing along. 

Pop stars are no longer expected to serve as the vanguard of women’s liberation. This change probably began with the revelation that one of the leading evangelists of “poptimism” — a guy who used to comment on my blog about the massively inspiring “empowerment” of, say, Robyn — had used his expense account to cover a $5,000 tab at a strip club. By the time we’d all heard about Dr. Luke sexually assaulting Ke$ha, it was pretty much over, and that was before we got the details about Britney Spears and her Dad

It is hard to argue that a music genre is inherently “feminist” when some of its biggest female stars are being held captive and forced to work as indentured servants for their male abusers. A performance of empowerment does not preclude the reality of exploitation, and consuming glossy, gorgeous images of feminine perfection does not equate to supporting messy, ordinary, imperfect women in the real world.

“Feminine” is a word I choose advisedly. In the Tumblr-driven zeitgeist of the time, femininity and feminism were often directly equated, as in the era’s supposedly inclusive cattle call “women and femmes.” Lipstick was feminist, pop music was feminist, high fashion was feminist, rom-coms and Disney princesses and hot pink were feminist, and if your tastes deviated away from any or all of those things, well, then, you must just not like women. There was tremendous pressure to embrace traditional or high-femme expressions of womanhood, and if doing so made you uncomfortable or (not to put too fine a point on it) dysphoric, you were told to examine yourself for internalized sexism rather than encouraged to find out what gender expression might feel better or more authentic to you.

Of course, femininity is not automatically feminist any more than masculinity is. What is feminist is autonomy — the ability to explore and express one’s own gender on one’s own terms, without coercion or interference from the outside culture. Put another way, it wasn’t Lana Del Rey’s trad aesthetic that set women back; it was the whole industry’s insistence on normative femininity as the price of getting through the door. Every pop star was performing some version of what a sexist culture wanted from women. Del Rey, at least, had the distinction of seeming miserable about it. 

It was Del Rey’s unrepentant misery that lent a subversive thrill to her work. Obama-era pop was a party full of shiny, happy people, and Del Rey was the girl who locked herself in the bathroom and cried all night. She was not in control; she was not in charge; she was not winning. In an era of relentless and ubiquitous girl power, it felt liberating to hear a woman admit that she was not okay. 

Del Rey’s vulnerability is evidently not a pose. In all my years of listening to her, only one Lana Del Rey song has actually brought me to tears. It’s “Heroin,” off the 2017 album Lust for Life, and I broke on the line “makes me feel like I could change / all of my evil ways and shit;” it’s the way the hopeful ascension of “change” almost immediately turns into the resigned talk-sing of “shit,” like she realizes redemption is out of reach before the sentence is all the way out of her mouth.

There is a reason for that song to be intense. It’s reportedly about her boyfriend, Rob Dubuss, who died of a heroin overdose at the end of 2011. Drugs, pain and death are a recurring part of Del Rey’s life story. In 2012, she told GQ that “I got sent to boarding school aged 14 - to get sober,” and that it didn’t work. By her twenties, she had gone into recovery and started working at an outreach program for drug and alcohol addicts — work which she continued even after Born to Die took off. 

Del Rey’s stories about despair and drugs and danger ring true because they are true. She has seen the shadowed half of the world, and has been close to other people who lived and died there. Even her most objectionable theme — the bad man whom she loves no matter how much he hurts her — is more understandable once you learn that he’s frequently not a man: “When I write about the thing that I've lost I feel like I'm writing about alcohol because that was the first love of my life,” she told GQ. “Sure, there have been people, but it's really alcohol."

Try keeping this in mind as you listen to the title track of Ultraviolence: Del Rey’s woozy, almost anesthetized chant of I can hear sirens, sirens, and the rapturous dread of her surrender to “Jim,” who raises her up and slaps her down, comforts her and makes her move towns to escape consequences. As an instruction manual on how to have an equitable feminist relationship, it’s fucked, but if Jim’s last name is “Beam,” the whole story pops into focus. 

Del Rey’s best love songs are not obsessive or submissive, they are addictive. They are about craving something when you know it will kill you. The idea that she ought to serve as some kind of moral guardian for her listeners, under these conditions, is undeniably sexist: Elliott Smith used the exact same metaphor, more than once, and there were no cultural debates over whether he, as a man, had the right to be so masochistic.  

Anyway: This is why I grew to love Del Rey’s music when I failed to connect with many of her peers. Even her performance of (hyper)femininity felt less claustrophobic to me than others, in part because it was remarkably dissociative — a bunch of stuff she’d cadged from movies and old records, a Pinterest board gender performance of women she knew she was supposed to be, and could almost sound like, if she really tried. Del Rey’s take on womanhood was still heightened and idealized, but obviously so — the candid artifice of drag, rather than the invisible lie of an airbrushed magazine cover. She kept some distance between mask and skin.

Which is to say: Del Rey’s great strength is not ironic remove, or commitment to the bit, but a remarkable directness. She means it, and she sounds like she means it, and that sincerity can be immensely moving. Unfortunately, she means all the bad things, too. 

In the end, Del Rey’s gender politics were not her downfall. It was race that got her cancelled, or at least placed in the “problematic fave” penalty box. The precise details of how the public turned on Del Rey have been covered elsewhere. What interests me is the fact that the underlying problems were always there, and many of her white fans (myself included) either didn’t see them or found reasons not to look. 

Throughout Del Rey’s early records — let’s say Born to Die through Hollywood — she presents herself as a nice white girl who’s in over her head. Her proximity to men of color is titillating — a sign of how bad she’s being, or how much trouble she’s in — precisely because it relies on casting those men as inherently threatening or dirty. She cops liberally from people and cultures of color (singing in Spanish on and off throughout Ultraviolence; dipping into trap beats and AAVE for everything she’s ever done) but is only willing to portray them in terms of stereotype. She is the pretty doll with the sad eyes; they are the gangsters, drug dealers, and lowlifes to whom she’s entrusted her delicate white body and even more delicate, even whiter soul. 

The lover in “West Coast” is “crazy y Cubano,” smoking Parliaments on his balcony; by the time we hit “Florida Kilos,” she’s crooning about guns, prison time, and doing “yayo” with “the Columbians.” “Art Deco” features more guns, plus the disconcerting spectacle of Del Rey – the boarding-school-educated daughter of a domain-name millionaire – crooning “you’re so ghetto” to a dance partner. 

Of course, there are bad white men in Del Rey’s discography. “Salvatore” vaguely implies a suitor with ties to the Mafia; “Cola” appears, barfily enough, to be a song about craving the attentions of Harvey Weinstein. There might be a way to read all these other references as familiarity or affection — Del Rey reportedly chose her stage name while hanging out with Cuban friends in Miami, and says she really was “speaking a lot of Spanish” at the time. That hope, however, curdles once you read Del Rey’s public statements on race.

Del Rey’s most notorious misfire was her 2020 “question for the culture,” in which she indicted pop’s portrayal of women’s sexuality with a list of, almost exclusively, Black women: “Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj and Beyonce have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc.,” she wrote, whereas Del Rey was supposedly being her “authentic, delicate self” and writing about “feeling beautiful by being in love.” 

This statement was ridiculous for many reasons, including the fact that Lana Del Rey has plenty of songs about fucking. Bemoaning our hypersexualized culture is a weird move for a woman whose videos depict her getting railed by a biker on top of a pinball machine.

More to the point, Del Rey’s cruelty to Black women casts her lusting over Black and brown men in an unflattering new light. (Allegedly) calling Azealia Banks, not just a narcissist, but a “Black narcissist,” adds a level of racial insult while hiding behind a movie reference. When she quotes Beyonce on the AAVE-philiac “In My Feelings,” it’s hard to forget that Bey was high on her list of pop-culture sluts. You get the sense that if Del Rey’s not interested in dating a person of color, she’s not interested in them, period: These women can’t be the objects of Del Rey’s desire, and so she writes them off. 

“My boyfriends have been rappers,” Del Rey once said, refuting the charges of racism; this is troubling on a few levels, including the fact that the one rapper we know Del Rey to have dated is a white guy. Wanting someone to be your boyfriend is not the same as wanting him to be your equal. You can lust or crush on a marginalized person without wanting them to be any less marginalized; after all, white men do it to white women all the time. 

So Del Rey does eroticize power imbalances — but they’re the imbalances that put her on top and in control of the relationship. This has been a predictable twist as far back as that New Inquiry issue, where Ayesha A. Siddiqi smartly pointed to Del Rey’s “classically white nationalism:” The Mad Men, Old Hollywood era Del Rey evokes was a time when women were far more subordinated — but white people, as a group, were even more powerful than they are now. She takes on the penalty of womanhood to consolidate the power of whiteness. She is not the first, or the last, to play that game. 

“We really wanted a feminist podcast that was different from the typical kind of of left-liberal feminist shows,” Anna Khachiyan told The Cut in 2018, describing her hopes for the then-new Red Scare. 

The kind of feminist podcast they wanted, the Red Scare hosts explained, was one that was not feminist. Khachiyan and her co-host Dasha Nekrasova shared what they called “socially conservative ideas about gender relations,” which Khachiyan spelled out as follows: “I think that women want a daddy, a provider, whether that’s the state or an individual man. I think it’s positive or pleasing when a man pays for you or compliments you. I think heteronormative or heterosexual sex is mostly about the male physically dominating the woman in the bedroom and both sides get off on that, it’s not a shameful thing… I would not be podcasting if I could be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.”

If you listened, you could almost hear the distant strains of "Video Games" playing in the background. Yet The Cut printed all this, with what seems like an incredible willingness to be duped; the dek of the article describes Red Scare as “a critique of feminism and capitalism,” as if the two were roughly equivalent evils. Writer Noreen Malone ultimately concludes that Red Scare “offers a look at the kind of feminism that is being developed by young women for whom the promise of feminism doesn’t seem to be working out.” 

What, precisely, qualified any of this as “feminist” (or “ironic”: Red Scare was supposedly “putting… the language of contemporary feminism and femininity through a feedback loop until it becomes meaningless: even their mocking of it is indistinguishable from their organic use of it,” as per The Cut) rather than the conservatism it straightforwardly proclaimed itself to be? Well: It came from two white women, who shared a vaguely alternative Brooklyn aesthetic. It was, as always, easier to acclaim that sort of woman as an nth-level ironist than it was to admit she had bad ideas. 

When the Red Scare hosts started attending Republican fundraisers, the listeners who elevated them to prominence were duly shocked. It was both too little and too late: Sometimes people are who they say they are, and think what they say they think, and it is only their disproportionate cultural cachet that prevents them from being criticized — or, indeed, perceived at all. 

Four years after that Red Scare profile, the New York Times was still covering the MAGA-hat wearing tradcaths of Dimes Square as hip downtown kids making a provocative fashion statement, rather than young white people flirting with fascism. “Reactionary motifs are chic: Trump hats and ‘tradwife’ frocks, monarchist and anti-feminist sentiments,” wrote Julia Yost. But reactionary poses are never just chic; they are also reactionary. Being willing to name them as such could save a whole lot of people a whole lot of predictable disappointments. 

I am pointedly not calling any of this “white feminism,” because most of its practitioners are avowedly anti-feminist — a RETVRN to “traditional” gender roles and traditionally performed femininity is central to the pitch. It makes more sense to say that Del Rey’s (and Khachiyan’s) idea of “femininity” — submissive, passive, dependent, childlike, vulnerable — is located entirely within whiteness. Black women, who are stereotyped as too strong, too immune to pain, too sexually assertive, don’t have access to it. Unsurprisingly, that white femininity requires the overarching structure of whiteness to back it up. 

In fact, a little more feminism might have fixed the Del Rey discourse: Our culture gives too little credit to women, and too much credit to white people. Thus, Del Rey’s performance of her womanhood was hyper-scrutinized, and her attitudes toward race were often given a pass. Weighing the two things equally might have solved the puzzle much earlier. Some critics, like Siddiqi, were doing so from the beginning. Others, like me, took way too long to arrive at Square One. 

Del Rey hit a bit of a slump after 2019, which now appears to have been her high-water mark. Some of this feels inevitable and retrograde – Lana Del Rey is now 38 years old, and (like a lot of people in their late 30s) she is no longer extremely skinny, and both are inflection points at which our culture tends to deem women disposable. Still her later albums are more forgettable — and, not to put too fine a point on it, whiter — than her early run. Chemtrails Over the Country Club was fine, for a folky sort of thing, but Blue Banisters put me to sleep. 

As for her politics, they remain roughly liberal (she doesn’t like Trump; she sings about the power of female friendship these days) but there have been flirtations with right-wing aesthetics: Conspiracy theories and weird anti-masking sentiments in “Chemtrails,” or the choice to include an entire sermon by homophobic megachurch pastor Judah Smith, whose church she sometimes attends, on her most recent album. The Daily Beast assures us that the Judah Smith thing is ironic — “Del Rey is exactly the type of person who would attend a celebrity-studded mega-church, both for a cleansing of the soul and to lambaste its intrinsic flamboyance with her friends” — but a lot of ugly things have been smuggled into the mainstream under cover of “irony.” Lana Del Rey has been the one doing the smuggling a lot of the time. 

And yet, and yet, I can’t help it: That new album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd., is beautiful. It might be the most beautiful thing I’ve heard all year. If the term hadn’t been beaten to death by half a million mediocre critics, I’d call it a “return to form;” her melodies are sharp and indelible again, her bare-bones piano-vocal arrangements now sound intimate rather than empty. You can say that the album just happens to suit my own gloomy emotional palette, or appeal to my own (very stereotypically white) aesthetics, and that would be true. We all have reasons for loving the things we love. We all love things we ought not to: I’ve never stopped listening to David Bowie, or the Smashing Pumpkins. I doubt I’ll ever stop listening to Lana Del Rey. 

So it gives me no pleasure to report that she’s steering into the skid now, writing songs protesting her disrepute. On “Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing” (Lana, like all of us, has evidently been getting into Fiona Apple) she pleads with her listeners that, though she is “regrettably a white woman" she's "got good intentions, even if I’m one of the last ones.” I believe she means it. It’s always best to believe that Lana Del Rey means what she says. People aren’t always the best judges of their own intentions, though: “I’m going to take you for all that you’ve got,” she sang on “Money Power Glory,” and I believe she means that, too. 

At my other job: I wrote about how the media infrastructure we need to cover the 2024 election has fallen apart, and traced the rot back to a few VC dudes with more money than empathy. I also wrote about trans candidate Vanessa Joy, an Ohio woman who was removed from the ballot in for not deadnaming herself, and what that says about trans people's chances for representation.