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.

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder