Lana Del Rey’s Music Isn’t Subversive, and Neither Is Terry Richardson’s Art

Like New Girl‘s Schmidt with his Douchebag Jar, music critics should have to pay some kind of fine just for writing about Lana Del Rey in 2014. Throw Terry Richardson into the mix, as I’m about to do, and I should probably just hand over my whole week’s salary. But I promise you that I came to this “thinkpiece” honestly, not cynically, for all the good that does us both.

So, here goes. Something has been bothering me about New York magazine’s Terry Richardson cover story — well, something besides its agenda of discrediting the many women who have accused a powerful photographer of sexual misconduct and setting up a false artist vs. predator binary. It’s the way that reporter Benjamin Wallace characterizes — or fails to challenge others’ characterization of — Richardson’s art as “provocative” and “transgressive” throughout the piece, allowing readers to think of his critics as prudes. This is surely a testament to Terry Richardson’s PR machine, which has always spun his penchant for sticking his dick in women’s faces as a brand of debauchery that subverts the sexual values of the culture at large.

The fact that it actually does precisely the opposite doesn’t prevent writers like Wallace from accepting the sales pitch. Describing the aesthetic that became Richardson’s trademark in the ’90s, he writes:

Richardson’s photographs eschewed makeup and retouching, and he was soon being lumped with a group of photographers whose gritty, lo-fi realism, dubbed “heroin chic,” rejected the artifice of the ’80s. His look borrowed from low-budget porn but also had an irony and humor and playfulness. An ad he shot for Sisley showed model Josie Maran squeezing a cow’s udder and spraying the milk at her own face. “You knew that people were having a good time when he was taking their pictures,” says Katy Barker, his agent at the time. She recalls a series of pictures Richardson took at a Florida nudist camp for George magazine. “I remember thinking that only Terry could get away with this, because he didn’t do it with any distaste,” she says. “They let him take pictures with a sense of joy, a bit of exhibitionism that a lot of people subconsciously like.”

Towards the turn of the millennium, Wallace tells us later in the piece, Richardson embraced what some might call a higher-concept take on sexually explicit photography:

To hear Richardson’s friends tell it, the scene at his studio back then was a blur of Beavis and Butt-head jokes, Jackass pranks, and goofy porn shoots. There was a penis in a hot-dog bun, a guy lighting his fart on fire. Steve-O, a member of the Jackass cast, recalls in his memoir an afternoon when Johnny Knoxville called and said, “Hey, I’m at Terry Richardson’s studio. He wants to do a bukkake shoot, and we’re just a few cocks short. You game?” Richardson photographed it all. He wanted Steve-O “pulling a girl’s hair while I shot a load on her face and someone else pointed a gun at her head.”

I’m not here to tell you whether that constitutes art, because who cares if it does? There’s plenty of bad art in the world. But Terry Richardson’s photography isn’t subversive, and I find it baffling and risible and more than a little bit nauseating to hear it defended as such. I mean, is there anything more typical and less challenging to social norms than men exerting their sexual dominance over women — or committing acts of sexual violence against them? If George Orwell’s “boot stomping on a human face — forever” is the universal metaphor for totalitarianism, then one dude pulling a woman’s hair and another pointing a gun at her head while a third guy ejaculates in her face makes for an equally handy visual summation of patriarchy.

Lana Del Rey, photographed by Terry Richardson
Lana Del Rey, photographed by Terry Richardson

Which brings us to Lana Del Rey, the female-submissive mirror image of Terry Richardson’s male-dominant hipster misogyny. Either a creation of Lizzy Grant or the performer Lizzy Grant has evolved to become, depending on who you ask, she vaulted to fame on the strength of a listless song of surrender to a boyfriend who can’t stop playing Mario Kart. On her first album, Born to Die, and in the series of music videos that surrounded it, her aesthetic came into focus: Lana Del Rey is “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” Her beauty harkens back to Old Hollywood pin-ups and Russ Meyer rebel girls. The mix of sweetness and sadness, sexiness and purity, edginess and approachability that she radiates seems calibrated for maximum male satisfaction.

None of the above is news; it’s what we’ve been fighting about since it became impossible to walk into a certain kind of retail store without being confronted by the demand, “Ihearthatyoulikethebadgirlshoooooooooney, Is. That. True?” Early, heated arguments over her authenticity cooled as it became clear that mainstream pop stardom, not the indie bubble, was Lana Del Rey’s final destination in the music stratosphere. The question that still won’t die is: How self-aware is Lizzy Grant (and the team behind her) about Lana Del Rey’s paper-thin persona? And assuming she understands more than she lets on about her character, is there more to “LDR” than a cynical marketing strategy? Is she consciously performing retro feminine ideals in a way that’s supposed to remind us of how perniciously potent they still are? Is that affectless voice a clue?

It took me a while to give this possibility any serious consideration, but after several listens to Lana Del Rey’s new album, Ultraviolence, I’d find it hard to believe that Lizzy Grant isn’t at least smirking a bit, behind the scenes. When the lyrical references range from The Who’s “Talkin’ ’bout my generation” to New Radicals’ “You’ve got the music in you” (inevitably, The Crystals’ “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” also gets stirred in), surely there’s someone knowingly testing the limits of what your average listener will accept as “cool.” Likewise, there’s no naming a song “Brooklyn Baby” and giving it lyrics like, “Well, my boyfriend’s in the band/ He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed/ I’ve got feathers in my hair/ I get down to Beat poetry/ And my jazz collection’s rare,” without snickering at the people who will find glamor in 60 years’ worth of hip-signifier word salad. You can even make an argument that the latter track is shaming us all for laughing at the type of headdress-wearing, trust fund-supported 22-year-old Brooklyn white girl who’s become a pop-culture punchline, for denying her the illusion of a romantic life.

Lana Del Rey works on a few levels, then, as a recent Village Voice piece that compares her fans to people who watch pro wrestling argues. (I’d say she’s more like @horse_ebooks, but I’ll spare you that wholly unnecessary thinkpiece.) This makes her, or the project of her, smarter than Terry Richardson, who either truly believes that his cum shots are making a statement or has been forced by his legal situation to pretend that he does. But all the layers of meaning — romance on top of satire on top of what is perhaps a dead-seriousness about the soul-killing gender roles we’re all addicted to performing — don’t make her truly subversive. Whatever her intentions, Lana Del Rey doesn’t challenge the status quo, because anyone who catches on to her secret messages is already sophisticated enough to go looking for them. For everyone else, she’s just one more pretty, sad-eyed pop star living a glamorous life.

I’ve seen various critics liken LDR to David Bowie, and I always suspected that it bothered me simply for the narcissistic reason that his music changed my life, while hers has never done much for me. (Full disclosure: I have, ten or so listens in, found a few things to like about Ultraviolence.) There’s no denying, certainly, that both Bowie and Lizzy Grant became famous by fashioning characters for themselves, or that both are curators more than they’re creators.

But there is a difference, and it’s this: It was brave and even risky to adopt the persona of a bisexual alien in 1972, when the gay rights movement was still in its infancy. Four decades later, his Ziggy Stardust character is still empowering teenagers to come out as bi or gay or just be their fucking freaky, weird selves. There’s nothing brave, especially in 2014, about a beautiful woman embodying a ’50s dream-girl persona — even if she’s not doing it with a straight face. Lana Del Rey isn’t liberating anyone.

I’m not saying that every artist needs to be subversive, or (god forbid) that any artist who doesn’t challenge social norms might as well be Terry Richardson. But let’s not congratulate him or Lana Del Rey for flouting or mocking entrenched, conservative values when what they’re really doing is cashing in on them.