Lana Del Rey at Coachella Festival in April 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lana Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence”: glorification of physical abuse, or a radical appeal for self-love?

The singer’s new album is a sad indictment of post-feminism – a culture in which women may achieve what they are told to and still feel brutally unhappy.

In Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, it’s the intoxicating tall glasses of questionably-laced milk that muster Alex and his fellow droogs for “a bit of the old ultra-violence”. Unprovoked physical abuse is elevated to a form of high art by the accompanying classical music, carried out by the handsome, young and otherwise sensitive protagonist. The term has resurfaced as the title of Lana Del Rey’s much-anticipated second album, as well as one of its songs. With lyrics such as “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” it is easy to see why the message could be accused of glorifying physical abuse against women.

The glamourisation of sexual violence has reached its tipping point in popular culture. Erotic tastes are no longer subversive: Fifty Shades of Gray is tucked in many a respectable middle-aged woman’s bedside drawer, and Rihanna sings about S&M on the radio. There’s no harm in a bit of kink between consenting adults, and it’s a positive sign that the diversity of sexual preferences is being acknowledged by mainstream culture. What can be dangerous, and send out a sinister message, is those depictions which do not represent an image of consent, and can appear to legitimise physical abuse. They seem to be blind to the very real presence of violence for millions of women around the world.

But rather than being the kind of sensational marketing tactic for which Lana is often attacked, in an interview with Fader she claims that the lyrics are more autobiographical – her taste is for “hardcore love”. Lyrics from her first album Born To Die also reflect this, Ride” in particular reads like a melancholy search for home, love and belonging: “I was in the winter of my life, and the men I met along the road were my only summer.” What emerges is a deep emotional need for validation and security. The need for love is universal, and when the ability for self-love is lacking, security is sought from exterior sources. As Lana puts it: “to seek safety in other people”.

There is very little in contemporary culture that encourages women to love themselves – even less to love each other. Notions of “pampering” operate on the idea that self-care involves pruning your body to become physically acceptable. Love becomes a reward for being beautiful, successful, for pleasing your lover(s). In a fraught, complex and busy world, these three demands are impossible to meet simultaneously, and require a degree of sacrifice and self-fragmentation. It is this kind of sacrifice that women in the “post-feminist” age often suffer from: the choice between a social life and an exercise routine, between a career and a rich family life. Those who navigate these meshes seem to harness some goddess-like strength, and yet often look more exhausted than loved.

This conflict of selfhood is well detailed in Del Rey’s lyrics: her “chameleon soul” with “no fixed personality” manifests in her various public personas. Following the revelation of her transformation from the innocuous Lizzy Grant to the enigmatic Lana, the media viciously attacked her constructed image as fake, as if female identity were a fixed and unbending state. As if women have not had to become adept at shape-shifting in order to survive. Let’s not forget that during the “shattering” of the glass ceiling (whose shards remain spectacularly intact) in the 1980s, part of success at work involved “power dressing” to emulate male colleagues. The attacks epitomise the vicissitudes of mainstream media: women must be immaculate as images without acknowledging the dishonesty of surface appearance. They must be everything at once: masculine and feminine, independent and vulnerable, successful and popular – all while presenting a unified, unconflicted and pleasing appearance.

The post-feminism myth functions on the premise that now women have access to careers, financial independence and sexual liberty, their battles have been won. Del Rey has rejected the notion of feminism, failing to see its relevance. Her idea of a true feminist is “a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.” What such rejections fail to take account of is that even if some battles have been won, the war for women outside the western world rages on. There are still plenty of women who lack the freedom to do whatever they want.

And yet, if Lana embodies the post-feminist western woman, why is she so sad? Why does she not declare along with fellow divas like Beyoncé that women “run the world”? In a recent interview with the Guardian, Lana said she wished she was already dead. While her melancholy femme-fatale persona has been embraced by the media; there is obvious unease about her self-destructive tendencies, which fail to fit the self-contained and unified image expected of her. If Lana, who is successful, Lana who is beautiful and Lana who is loved by many fans and according to her lyrics – a vast array of lovers – does not feel it, then the fault lies with a culture that insists she should.

The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm discussed in his 1957 book The Art of Loving that under the tutelage of capitalism, identity has become a commodity that we sell to each other in order to greedily pursue the finite “resource” of love. But rather than seeing love as an object to be obtained or exchanged, he revitalises it as a verb, an action. Love is generated by enacting it with others. According to Fromm, those who have been deprived of love early on are the hungriest for it, often unable to love themselves – and like Lana, seek it through others or by cultivating an image of desirability.

Returning to her lyrics: it is counterproductive to attack Lana Del Rey for vocalising what is the sad reflection of a common experience for countless women. Rather than believe the post-feminist myth which has failed us, we should instead re-focus our agenda on the cultivation of self-love, and love for women threatened by violence for whom the lines “This is ultraviolence. . . I can hear sirens, sirens” is a daily reality.

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism