During the middle of last year, Lana Del Rey released her second album and people jumped to criticise it, specifically complaining that they found disturbing content in the lyrics of the title track ‘Ultraviolence’. Repeated in the chorus with a morbid refrain, the words “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” ring out like a death knell. They are uttered so softly and longingly that you would think that was what exactly Lana had wanted—that she really wanted to be hit, that nothing could be more delightful to be struck by the person who claims to love you. Ever since the beginning of her mainstream debut (around 2011) rumours and criticisms of Lana Del Rey have been abundant. Controversy and popular music in America goes hand in hand, it seems, and here we catch them at play again.
Perhaps the delivery, not the content, then, was the cause of all the commotion. Out of that song came a million text posts, tumblr arguments, tweets, and debates fired off at each other in the digital world. Lana was, however, appropriating the lyrics from the song ‘He Hit Me and it Felt Like a Kiss’ by The Crystals. Courtney Love, who is now friends with Lana Del Rey and has toured with her, has unsurprisingly covered this Crystals song. This context is important to remember, because it indicates a sense of irony and self-knowingness. I suppose that means nothing when you have a thousand critics at your throat, braying for blood.
The song ‘Ultraviolence’ has perhaps rightfully attracted criticism from those who have been the survivors of domestic violence. How dare she? How on earth did that get past the filters? And why does she think it’s okay to speak about a topic in such a way? As a survivor of partner violence and emotional abuse, I completely understand these complaints, but at the same time I still think it is well within her right to sing those lyrics. I think domestic violence is complex and speaking about the way you approached it during the relationship is a brave thing to do, even if it seems that you’re romanticising it because, well, that’s a common coping mechanism. Of course domestic violence isn’t romantic—but when it happens to you, do you have any other choice except to perceive it that way? I do think singing those words of my own accord, completely unironically, would take a great deal of separation from my life and experiences. I admittedly still love Del Ray no matter how stupid she is occasionally, and how horrible that Ride video was. (In this instance I’m referring to that scene with her wearing a Native American headdress. Girl, you could’ve done better.)
Respecting the survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse (who are more frequently affected by PTSD than soldiers) means respecting the way they craft their narratives. Some of us deal with our trauma in ways that are healthy and understandable, and are commended by trained psychiatrists. Some of us tackle our issues head on and deal with them, and try to find peace with ourselves. Some of us choose to use recreational drugs or engage in self-destructive sexual behaviour. After trauma, our agency and sense of right and wrong is compromised. Our concept of what is good for us is often rightfully damaged, because after trauma, the brain is biologically and metaphysically different.
If Del Ray has been affected by something like partner violence, detailing her feelings and thoughts at the time of the event should be something she’s allowed to do. If we’re being honest, this may be a healthier tactic than ignoring it altogether, which we know would probably hurt her more in the long run. Telling girls that they are ‘romanticising’ their abuse or mental illness is really not a valid criticism and might actually be a way to silence them from speaking about their experiences. They’re the ones living it. And a lot of the time, these critics are more annoyed that women are expressing the things they’ve been told they’re not allowed to express. A lot of the time, victims are just telling it like it is. They’re telling their side of the story, how they interpreted that love at the time. When we are within a loving relationship that turns abusive, we often still hold that romance deep in our hearts. This is one of the very foundations of abuse. How could someone we love truly hurt us so much? It’s one of the reasons we don’t realise what is happening until too late. There is a suspension of belief, and we can either choose to accept the unspeakably horrible or stay entrenched in a problematic romance. How can it not be romanticised? To use this criticism undervalues and misunderstands the very conduct of manipulative and narcissistic men, and the effects their actions and words have on us. It also removes the responsibility from male artists like Eminem who glorify male anger and violence.
Critics of LDR’s Del Ray oeuvre may suggest she is ‘attention seeking’ or being over-dramatic, or making light of something that is inherently serious. These same critiques are also directed towards women who accuse men of raping them as a scapegoat to detract from what has actually happened. All of these reactions are intertwined. It’s not a surprise that audiences have had a knee-jerk reaction to Lana Del Rey’s music. Normally, we don’t have to face extreme or intense emotion from women, so when we are finally forced to be put into a position where that is necessary, we take any option necessary to not address it and to lay blame elsewhere.
I am not only concerned with survivors speaking out about their stories and creating their own version of events in order to survive, comprehend and recover from violence. I am also concerned that songs like this, and ‘Me and a Gun’ by Tori Amos for example, as they are often (but not always—consider the protest of Chris Brown’s entry to Australia) more outrageous to people than the fact that Eminem and Chris Brown, both convicted partner violence offenders, regularly receive air time. In fact, I’d be willing to bet both of them have received more airtime than Tori and Lana ever have.
What this is telling us is that to live through sexual abuse, assault, and violence of any kind means that you are going to be seen as dirty and frightening for talking about it. Our culture is such that by admitting to being abused, you are considered the weak, filthy, unfortunate beggar who has been desecrated by unfortunate circumstances. At best, you were ‘asking for it’ (I mentioned Courtney Love earlier in this article, and here I am again, trying my hardest to resist referencing her work). You’re going to break the status quo in a way that is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable; because to speak about male violence is to speak about toxic masculinity, and toxic masculinity runs the whole fucking world. It is a central cog in the machine that is capitalism, hegemony, and colonialism. Violent and abusive men are not cast-offs from a society that values domination and lack of empathy. In fact, these men are the desired product and successful creation of it. The men who have escaped the cultural conditioning forced upon them, who have strong values about women and who listen to them, respect them and practice kindness, are unfortunately anomalies.
In our culture, women (as well as LGBTQIA people) who are strong willed, who speak up for themselves, and relay their stories even in a way that is reasonable and understandable, are still marketed by the media as crazy or unreasonable spirits. Their emotions have been sewn into the fabric of our societal consciousness on the same path that we see, well, children. This has been present seemingly since the dawn of western civilisation, and progress is happening all too slowly. It is the men who talk about ‘edgy’ topics who are seen as geniuses.
Eminem regularly writes raps about abusing women and hurting them and Rolling Stone give it five stars. Chris Brown is regularly featured on top 40 songs, given money to perform to large crowds of people, and given airtime on the radio. In alternative music scenes, I see men who have been outed as abusers still booking shows, receiving accolades, and going about the world freely with no care for their victims. Basically, we’re being taught that male violence and manipulation is not as common as it is, or e are taught that it does not intersect with our day-to-day life, or that it shouldn’t affect an abusers personal life or career, that it is some unseen monster lurking in the shadows. This is an extreme falsehood. It is extremely common, as almost any non-man can attest. Little parts of it linger in all the men we know because controlling and manipulative men are seen as being essential to run this world. These patterns continue endlessly in our culture. Consider how Ke$ha cannot produce music now because her producer (who she accused of sexually abusing her) has her under contractual obligation, or the relentless denial of Bill Cosby’s sexually abusive behaviour despite the great number of women who have spoken up about it.
I ask you to look within yourself and see whether you have questioned the legitimacy of sexual abuse claims or belittled a woman who spoke about her experiences. I ask whether you have said that it ‘isn’t important’ to think about these things, despite the fact that I do not know one woman who has not been abused, harassed, or cheated on. Your answers are important, because even though the examples I give appear in popular culture, they are happening all over the world. The best thing I can say to everyone I know is this: no man, especially the ‘good ones’ ,should be passive while an epidemic of violence against women continues. It is their responsibility above all others to interrupt this culture of violence, speak up against violence when they see it, and use their privilege for the good of the women, and non-men, most affected by it.
Words by Jonno Revanche