Lana Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence” is an Excellent Listen, But…

Lana Del Rey

I usually don’t do a lot of music reviews on my blog. However, I wanted to talk about the new album Ultraviolence for two reasons. One, Lana Del Rey is possibly the only modern artist I’ll listen to, and two, because I’ve never had this sort of reaction to an album before.

Musically, I think it’s marvelous. The melodies are haunting and instantly memorable, and the instrumentation is solid. You have to hand it to Del Rey; she’s produced an album without a radio-friendly single and without the electronic beats most popular artists use today. I think she’s a truly unique artist–no small feat when you look at all the clone pop stars around now.

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys provides veteran support on guitar and production. His low-key, sombre chords fit the music quite well, particularly on “Brooklyn Baby” and “Ultraviolence.” Del Rey’s lyrics layer flawlessly over top, painting black and white noir scenes in the mind of the listener, scenes filled with empty west coast homes and alluring femme-fatales.

So much to love, and yet…

While most of the lyrics are wonderfully moody and atmospheric, some are downright troubling. Take for instance, the following lines from the title track:

I can hear sirens, sirens

He hit me and it felt like a kiss

I can hear violins, violins

Give me all of that Ultraviolence

Some will argue that Del Rey sings as a character, and that these lyrics are merely lines  in the David Lynchian domestic hyper-drama her character stars in. I’ll admit, that’s not a bad argument; no one would fault a filmmaker for portraying violence onscreen, as long as that violence is necessary to the story, and (in most cases) as long as it isn’t glorified. But what troubles me about these particular lyrics is that Del Rey’s character seems to be welcoming the abuse as affection.

Furthermore, “Ultraviolence” clearly references the controversial 1962 pop song “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss).” Originally recorded by The Crystals and produced by Phil Spector, the song received limited airplay for obvious reasons. Here is one of the more shocking verses:

He hit me and it felt like a kiss

He hit me and I knew he loved me

If he didn’t care for me,

I could have never made him mad

But he hit me and I was glad

Wow.

When it comes to art, I don’t get irked by a lot. I almost always support an artist’s right to create and exhibit his or her work, no matter how sensational or controversial it might be.

But this song is just hard to listen to. Its lyrics are made even worse by the bright triangle chimes in the background and the vocal harmonies that seem to cheerily echo the song’s twisted message.

Of course, “He Hit Me” was written long before Lana Del Rey was even born. But she’s referencing it without really condemning the message. On the contrary, she seems to be promoting it.

It’s 2014. Haven’t we come farther than that yet?

Some may argue that these lyrics will set a bad example for young listeners; that young girls might think their boyfriends don’t love them unless they hit them, and that young boys might strike their girlfriends in an effort to show affection. I personally don’t buy this argument. Kids are smart. For the most part, they already know what’s right and wrong. In most instances, music, video games, TV, or anything else really aren’t going to change their behavior too drastically.

Ultimately, it’s up to the listener to decide what she or he thinks. What I will say is this: I really like Ultraviolence. I think it’s an excellent album. But I’ll probably never listen to it without a certain hesitancy.

And I’ll definitely never be comfortable with singing along with the lyrics.

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