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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Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date

The more mainstream Beyoncé becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Beyoncé has long been associated with empowerment. From her Destiny’s Child days to B’Day to 2013’s self-titled album, instructions for empowerment are everywhere. Make your own money, and don’t let any man take it from you. You are beautiful, and you should feel empowered by your beauty. You can be successful on your own, but a relationship can be empowering, too. Your existence is powerful, in all its forms.

Beyoncé has always sung primarily to an audience that is black and female, which is essentially what transports so many of these songs from generically feel-good to genuinely radical, even if this difference is often elided on the dancefloor.

As a black woman making art for other black women, Beyoncé has often functioned as a cultural linchpin for movements of gender and racial equality before she has explicitly attached herself to them: “Beyoncé” and “feminism” were used in the same sentence long before she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or stood in front of a giant neon sign blazing “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs. And she and her husband Jay-Z were entwined with #BlackLivesMatter before she included graffiti reading “STOP SHOOTING US” in one of her music videos.

But Beyoncé has continually surprised audiences with her readiness to engage explicitly with these complex issues in more experimental forms as her impossible success continues to snowball: in a kind of inversion on the traditional narrative of white male punk musicians selling out, the more mainstream she becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Formation, her newest single, which dropped on Saturday, takes Beyoncé into territory that feels simultaneously familiar and untrodden. It’s a trap-influenced, synthy track brimming with distinctive reminders of her black Southern upbringing and her phenomenal success. Lyrics about black self-love, the pulsing undercurrent of Beyoncé’s entire career, take on new significance in how explicit and familial they are: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Financial gain as a challenge to oppression – an implication of so many of her songs – finds new, more direct, expression: your “best revenge is your paper”. All these words take on greater significance dressed as they are in such potent visual imagery: Beyoncé stands on top of a drowning police car in New Orleans and fans herself in period clothing in a pregnant, ghostly house reminiscent of Beloved’s 124. Without a doubt, this is Beyoncé‘s most radical release.

It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé makes links between music and political change in her music itself, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because music has personally empowered Beyoncé to have a kind of cultural and financial success that most people (of any race) could only ever dream of, allowing her to challenge cultural norms in becoming a symbol of independence, sex appeal, authenticity, achievement, blackness and femininity, within a racist society that often sees those traits as incongruous. (This is made explicit in the lyric, “You just might be a black Bill Gates”: world-changing levels of success are still seen as white and male.)

Metaphorically, because Beyoncé‘s music has united black female bodies in organised movement for years (think the Single Ladies” dance). She plays with this in Formation: the line “Get in formation” is an instruction for empowerment. With its punning echo of “get information”, it calls on you to get ready to dance, and to resist. As Dr Zandria F. Robinson notes, it is “a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance, [...] formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement”.

The moment of pause is particularly significant because it is so often dangerous – something that the video for Formation” illustrates in its shots of a young black boy dancing, then opening his arms outstretched, in front of white riot police. They pause before raising their own hands. The poet Claudia Rankine once told me that these silent moments are important because of their potential danger: the calm before the storm. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds [...] is all of white supremacist history building up. You [can] end up on the other side of that with a dead body.”

Beyoncé has used her own moment of suspense productively – fans and critics noted her “deafening silence” on racial equality, asking where her Instagram essay or impassioned tweets were when her audience needed them. Instead, she took the time to craft a thoughtful, nuanced, forceful anthem made by and for black women that will doubtlessly be consumed by audiences indiscriminately around the world (and Jay-Zs streaming service Tidal simultaneously donated $1.5m to #BlackLivesMatter).

A woman often criticised for her enthusiastic engagement with capitalism (like Rihanna, whose “prosperity gospel” is beautifully explained here by Doreen St Felix), Beyoncé has, in characteristic style, used Formation to demonstrate how the master’s tools can sometimes be used to dismantle the master’s house from the inside. As Britt Julious writes, “As long as we live in this world with these systems, the best manner of disrupting, of surviving, of taking what’s yours is using the same methods they might have used on you. Beyoncé knows what she’s doing. Who else could bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.