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.