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Making Sense of Liz Phair’s Lana Del Rey Defense


Has each successive wave of backlash and backlash-to-backlash over a young pop singer with an OK voice, a distinctive Betty-Draper-gone-Beth-Orton (plus dated hip-hop slang!) aesthetic, and a couple of otherwise-forgettable TV appearances got you dizzy yet? Just you wait. Liz Phair wrote about Lana Del Rey over the weekend for the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog, and Phair’s take is, um, complicated.

The connection between the two would seem to be that both are female singer-songwriters whose music can be frankly (hetero-)sexual and critically divisive. Phair, for her part, released an almost universally acclaimed indie-rock landmark with 1994 debut Exile in Guyville (“Phair doesn’t merely show promise — she seems to have it all, good and bad, already,” our reviewer prophetically opined), then put out a couple of almost universally somewhat-less-acclaimed records before splitting everybody with a self-titled album of shiny pop. Del Rey, of course, is the “Video Games” singer with the Brian Williams-panned Saturday Night Live performance and the anticlimactic debut album Born to Die. (See also: Deconstructing Lana Del Rey.)

What the industry veteran has to say about the fresh-faced up-and-comer is complicated — one could less charitably say “confusing” — so let’s try to break it down. In one fell swoop, Phair basically claims Del Rey as an heir, says Del Rey’s music isn’t necessarily that good, revisits the tired old authenticity debate our critic Rob Harvilla already took care of once and for all, links Del Rey to a vision of a woman-led society (sounds better to me, honestly!), calls for Del Rey to “duke it out” with female musicians from M.I.A. to Tegan and Sara, and tells us we won’t understand why she’s saying this (I’m still not sure I do). Then Phair brings it all back to, well, herself.

A few choice quotes from Phair: “You see, Lana Del Rey is exactly what I was hoping to inspire when I took on the male rock establishment almost twenty years ago with my debut record, Exile in Guyville.” Continuing directly: “Let me break it down for you: she’s writing herself into existence.” On authenticity: “I would argue that the uncomfortable feelings she elicits are simply the by-product of watching a woman wanting and taking like a man.” On feminism: “I just want to hear the true voices of women self-expressing — smart ones, stupid ones, ugly ones, beautiful ones, good ones, bad ones, fat ones, thin ones, all of it — until the profound silence that has resounded throughout history is filled with a healthy chorus coming from our side of the aisle.”

It all ends like this, politician-style self-reference entirely Phair’s: “So how does Liz Phair feel about Lana Del Rey? Well, as a recording artist, I’ve been hated, I’ve been ridiculed, and conversely, hailed as the second coming. All that matters in the end is that I’ve been heard.”

Phair’s overall point appears to be that she’s happy to see women expressing themselves whatever the quality of that expression, just because it evens out the divide between women and men a little bit more. After watching a Super Bowl where people had to apologize over a word that means “poop” but nobody had to apologize for making gazillions of dollars on marketing messages reinforcing the repulsive notion that the world revolves around male chauvinists ages 18 to 34, we couldn’t agree more! But her argument falls apart in a couple of places. First, when she talks about “the true voices” of women “self-expressing,” isn’t Phair pulling us back into that whole horrible “authenticity” morass? Second, as far as we understand the harshest criticism of Del Rey, it’s not that she’s “wanting and taking like a man,” it’s that she’s “wanting and taking” just like a stereotypical, anti-feminist conception of a woman: That is, she isn’t wanting at all; she’s existing only as an object of desire, completely in thrall to the male gaze (an argument David Letterman creepily underscored last week when he fawned over her as if she were one of his female employees).

So is Del Rey advancing the cause of women everywhere by reinforcing the same ideas about femininity you might see in a ad? Phair appears to be saying so, which is totally Phair’s right. As someone who considers himself a feminist and yet can’t help but love Drake’s misogyny-tinged Take Care, however, I’d argue the problem with Born to Die isn’t its perceived politics — it’s that the songs just aren’t interesting enough to entertain, move, inspire, or achieve much other emotional connection over the course of an entire album. After all, if we wanted to get political couldn’t we just as easily talk about class rather than gender, and how Phair and Del Rey are both a couple of rich kids whose banal idea of rebellion ultimately reinforces the status quo? But why the hell would we want to do that? And anyway, weren’t there a couple of so-so tracks even on Exile in Guyville?

Right, it’s complicated. But from the point of a view of music listeners (and critics) the debate should ultimately boil down to whether or not an artist has the songs to back up their particular shtick. Phair did once; Del Rey does on a couple of songs. The rest is just the internet being the internet. And somewhere around this point in the blog post is when the snake eats its tail, though obviously not for the first time, and almost definitely not for the last.