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Lana Del Rey: The naked truth

There’s no real purpose behind Lana Del Rey’s nude GQ spread, other than another opportunity for the American star to be gawked at, writes CAITLIN WELSH.

Posing nude can be an empowered act – there is nothing inherently wrong with a woman enjoying being looked at by men – but Lana Del Rey’s nude Woman of the Year spread in British GQ has the whole internet abuzz, guys! Is it because she looks so beautiful and sexy? Is it because it’s naughty to be naked? Or is it because there’s a sinister, exploitative vibe to these images? All signs point to “ugh”.

My old man is a bad man,
but I can’t deny the way he holds my hand
and he grabs me, he has me by my heart.

Like the call-girls in LA Confidential, who were surgically altered to resemble film stars so men could hire them for a night of make believe, Del Rey is not posing as a woman but as an image. The image being presented is one of both unattainable glamour and vulnerable femininity, a woman with obvious power (diamonds! Hotel rooms! Shiny hair!) who can nonetheless be controlled by any man in a nice suit. She is even, apparently, turned on by having her boob grasped firmly. This does an incredible disservice not just to LDR but also to all the callow youths out there who start their sexual lives believing breasts enjoy being honked like a cartoon bike horn. She is also being choked slightly in this image, but I’ve actually read far more comments about how wrong-looking the boob thing is.

It’s alarming honestly how charming she can be
Fooling everyone, telling how she’s having fun

This is not to presume that LDR was forced or coerced in any way, or not a willing model. The look on her face, however, suggests otherwise. Her facial expressions are apprehensive, guarded, occasionally challenging. On the cover – her back against a wall, her crossed ankles drawn up towards her bum – she looks like the prisoner of a rich man who cruely had his minions drape her in jewels but deny her clothes. The indentations around the man’s fingers as he clutches her breast remind me of a Bernini sculpture from a high school art textbook, The Rape of Proserpina. using the original definition of rape, which is to snatch or carry off, the sculpture shows Pluto (Hades) dragging the goddess also known as Persephone to the underworld, his fingers digging into her bare thigh in a way that makes the cold marble look warm and pliable. Oddly, the GQ image has the reverse effect.

Sing your song, song, now, the camera’s on
And you’re alive again

It shouldn’t affect her “credibility”, whatever meaning you want to attach to that. While appearing nude in magazines is generally an activity usually reserved for pop stars who already trade on their sexuality – Madonna, Janet Jackson, Rihanna – women who make their music on their own terms tend to get nude in a manner that feels equally self-determined.

Think of Beth Ditto’s porcelain rolls on the cover of LOVE and NME; Janet’s defiant smirk on the Rolling Stone cover as her boyfriend (gently) cups her breasts from behind her; or Courtney Love’s Harper’s Bazaar shoot where she is naked on a velvet chaise, beads draped across her breasts in a possible Janis/Seidemann homage, daring the very un-grunge readership of Bazaar to find it controversial.

Erstwhile stripper Amanda Palmer uses her naked body as a locus and a tool for making art, while Neko Case famously turned down Playboy in 2003, saying, “I would be really fucking irritated if after a show somebody came up to me and handed me some naked picture of myself and wanted me to sign it instead of my CD.” For all these musicians, being photographed naked must be something they do to make a statement about themselves or the culture, not just an opportunity to be looked at. A naked woman can be things other than sexy.

Sweet sixteen and we had arrived
Walking down the street as they whistle, “Hi, hi!”

Reviewing Born To Die in February, I complained that women (referred to only as “girls”) in LDR’s world are only attractive “in a way that’s patently defined by the male gaze. The same applies to Del Rey’s whole goddamn deal. Far too many of the references and attitudes that make up her persona and her Americana-Madlibs lyrics are centred on situations where women are subordinate to or the object of the wills and desires of men. The woman in the songs she sings only feels valued if she is beautiful, she only feels visible when she’s being looked at, she only feels real if she’s being loved. It’s not wrong to have these feelings – you may have heard that it’s common for women feel like we’re more valued for the way we look than our talents and personality. But it’s always troubling if a woman feels the need to play to this shitty set of priorities. Again, it’s just as insulting to assume she has no agency or will in the whole debacle but scanning her lyrics, we have more reason to wonder about her motives for getting her kit off than most women.

Light of your life, fire of your loins,
tell me you own me, gimme them coins.

“Either the real Lana (aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) is playing a character … or this is really her idea of glamour and romance.”

Noted militant-feminist rag Hipster Runoff ran the photos with the headline: “Lana Del Rey finally hits rock bottom, forced to pose naked.” As usual, HR’s satirical hot-goss hyperbole apes the knee-jerk Schadenfreude of an internet commenter of median intelligence, and also the traditional modern characterisation of a woman posing naked as whorish and desperate (which can also apply to speculations about cosmetic surgery – “Why would she do that to herself?”). But such a reading also plays into the narrative of Lana Del Rey as the tortured starlet; the tragic Hollywood figure on a downward spiral of parties and assholes trading her nakedness – her private physical self – for jewels, favours, attention, love. Posing naked (or in impractical underthings) in a hotel room setting evokes images of expensive hookers (either doomed figures, or damsels in need of rescuing) and dead celebrities (Whitney, Nancy Spungen, Anna Nicole Smith, Janis Joplin, all manner of ODs and auto-erotic asphyxiations).

We’re faced with two choices: Either the real Lana (aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) is playing a character, carrying on an epic performance piece that may well culminate in a press release that Lana Del Rey has choked to death in a bathtub full of PBR and uppers (in that case, long live Lizzy Grant, hipster uber-troll); or this is really her idea of glamour and romance. The lyrics to ‘Without You’ make it clear she’s not oblivious to the fame-validation narrative:

I even think I found God.
In the flash bulbs of your pretty cameras,
Pretty cameras, pretty cameras.
Am I glamorous? Tell, am I glamorous?
Hello? Hello?
Ca – Can you hear me?
I can be your china doll,
If you want to see me fall.

And then she goes ahead and claims to have enjoyed a shoot that drips with the exact desperation and will to self-abasement we’re supposed to either romanticise or pity in those last two lines. Perhaps she really did enjoy it? Perhaps the marble-hard, mouth-breathing vibe was part of the art direction? (It goes without saying that this is problematic, and GQ have yet to respond to a request for comment on the brief for the shoot.)

Of course, she’s extremely pretty, has a well-established aesthetic and sense of her own brand, and has looked absolutely marvelous in many a fashion editorial this year. But it’s hard to look at the GQ shoot – to look at Robbie Williams and Tinie Tempah in sharp suits on their respective covers, hailed as “icon” and “solo artist” of the year, next to a naked, uncertain-looking Lana stamped merely “woman” of the year – and not feel as uncomfortable as she looks.


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carnagefairy said on the 10th Sep, 2012

yep... all the the women of the year are naked.


esr9 said on the 10th Sep, 2012

brilliant article, glad people are noticing the "off" tone of this photo shoot.

Napoleon Solo

Napoleon Solo said on the 10th Sep, 2012

I find the fact that people are offended, hilarious on so many levels.
I didn't think that the juxtaposition in the shoot was that transparent, but ok.


Keagle said on the 10th Sep, 2012

i think you read far too much into these photos. it sounds more like you just dont like ldr, and just wanted an excuse to justify it.


ThatDude123 said on the 10th Sep, 2012

Wait, a lad mag is objectifying a woman?


As I mentioned in the other thread, the only real problem is that the creative director has no idea what sexy even looks like.


knate said on the 10th Sep, 2012

Hahahaha, that was the biggest load of shit I have ever read on FL


Nosyt said on the 10th Sep, 2012

I'd expect this from A Current Affair not Faster Louder


Copernicus said on the 11th Sep, 2012

I find it more than unsettling that these types of pieces are becoming more and more common in music journalism. Surely music journalism should do what it does best, critique actual music? I've only found a few considered reviews of Lana Del Ray that actual review the music and not buy into her image and whether or not she is 'real'. Of course your piece isn't a review of her album, it's a review of her as a person. As a musician I'm uncomfortable with this idea. When we separate the culture from the music you can draw a fine line between verging on a form of gutter journalism that is best reserved for the tabloid press. This piece does nothing to contribute to the essential dialogue between the musician and the critic. It just buys into speculation and image in an attempt at guaranteed audience numbers. Given an analysis of an artist as a person, I would have much preferred one that explored both sides, a side that doesn't accept critics buying into Lana Del Ray's persona would be more appropriate in a musical forum such as this one. However if this same piece was presented somewhere else in a context that had nothing to do with music I would believe it a lot more. Yes, this issue is important re: woman's rights but it has no place in an environment that makes such a big emphasis on 'music'.

- Matt Roche.

P.S. I leave my name in an effort to be taken seriously and not just regarded as some anonymous troll.


retrovertigo said on the 11th Sep, 2012

%u201ceither the real lana (aka elizabeth woolridge grant) is playing a character %u2026 or this is really her idea of glamour and romance.%u201d

either way she gets paid a shitload. good on her!! i'd jump at the chance to dress up like a fireman for woman's day ;d


daveyac8881 said on the 11th Sep, 2012

Dear Caitlin Welsh,

I mean this as sincerely as possible.


Jose Cuervo

Jose Cuervo said on the 11th Sep, 2012



yavimaya said on the 14th Sep, 2012

wow, the author sounds just as sexist as the photos are made out to be.


yavimaya said on the 14th Sep, 2012

i would certainly say that women are thier own worst enemies when it comes to this sort of thing, they like to make out that men are at fault like caitlin here has.
i think caitlin would be well advised to read this article and see what her fellow female journalists are doing to "empower women".


Snakeman said on the 15th Sep, 2012

amanda palmer is not a stripper but a musician. also perhaps this is the type of response ldr wanted. to appear uncomfortable in these photos to back up the very statement this article is making


crystaljane said on the 17th Sep, 2012

i would certainly say that women are thier own worst enemies when it comes to this sort of thing, they like to make out that men are at fault like caitlin here has.
i think caitlin would be well advised to read this article and see what her fellow female journalists are doing to "empower women".

one daily mail "journalist" is a moron so we should all give up, right?


i don't necessarily think that this photoshoot goes as far as the article suggests, but i do think it is just plain awkward and not sexy.


rarebits said on the 18th Sep, 2012

hey snakeman, erstwhile means former - amanda palmer used to be an actual stripper, now she just takes her clothes off for fun/art...

thanks to everyone who read this with an open mind - it's nice to know a feminist approach to music/culture commentary has a place on fl. i hope it's clear that i'm not bothered by women posing nude per se (google "mary louise parker esquire" for some cracker noodz of a woman who does it like she owns the place), but by the exploitative, creepy vibe i and a lot of other people get from this shoot.

to matt roche: i appreciate your approach and your openness, but i'm a little troubled by your statement that you would "believe" my argument more were it presented in a different context (on jezebel, perhaps?) and i have to disagree with your preference that music writers write solely about the actual sounds made by voices and guitars. the cultural contributions of musicians beyond the actual music they make is often just as important - by your assessment, we shouldn't be writing about elvis' parent-terrifying hips, kanye's idiosyncratic embrace of social media or the cultural impact of musicians' substance problems. music criticism is focused mostly on the actual sounds; music journalism is broader and should embrace commentary and chronicling everything that goes on in the music world, including image. (consider sports journalism: match recaps vs indepth pieces on, say, attitudes towards women and gays within a football code. sports journalists should still cover the latter and it would still have a home on sports websites, right?)
i would also argue that ldr in particular is an artist who is very aware of and focused on her image - you don't name yourself after a muscle car and a movie star and label yourself "gangsta nancy sinatra" if you want people to focus solely on your music and not your image - so taking it into account when you're discussing her music is pretty valid if you ask me. i think ldr is a very smart and savvy musician - listening to born to die again with a consciously feminist reading of the lyrics while i was writing this made me a feel a bit less dismissive towards it because she's created an intriguing character quite deftly through the whole set. i still don't think it's a particularly good album but as a concept it's so interesting. but i do believe that ascribing to that damaged, subservient brand of tragic femininity is fairly unhealthy, and i’m still trying to work out how much of it is really her and how much is a character she's playing. either way, that character is central to her music, she's made sure of that, so ignoring it in reviewing or discussing the music would not give the whole picture. if you want to read some great, great music writing that touches on image and cultural intent in rock and pop, i recommend greil marcus' incredible history lipstick traces - you'll never hear "just the music" again. thanks again for your thoughtful and considered and polite comment!

- caitlin


Braveheart81 said on the 18th Sep, 2012

You have to get to 50 posts before you're allowed capital letters.


rarebits said on the 18th Sep, 2012

rationing of proper formatting to defy the trolls? i love it! how many posts do you have to have before you're allowed to use words like "goebbels", "pc brigade", "thanks, obamacare" and "i actually really liked that last john butler album"?


Braveheart81 said on the 18th Sep, 2012

No one is allowed to say anything positive about a John Butler Trio album.