Lana Del Rey Has Had Enough

Lana Del Rey has taken a lot of abuse over the years from critics, both female and male, who accuse her of wallowing in, romanticizing, even glamorizing abusive relationships for women. Seems like she has finally had enough:

I have never thought Lana Del Rey was glamorizing abusive relationships, quite the opposite. I see her as reporting how she, or at least the women she plays in her songs, often loses herself when trying to become the woman some man wants her to be. Even after she finally attains “money, notoriety and Riviera,” she still believes she is “nothing, without you.”

All too often, a song’s meaning is reduced to its words. It’s perfectly understandable why; it is so much easier to talk about, write about, analyze and critique words than it is music. But as anyone who has ever been offended by a text from a friend knows, written words are very easy to misinterpret due to lack of affect. Similarly, a song’s meaning is realized in its performance.

Lana Del Rey’s performances flip the meanings of her written lyrics. Her slow, weary delivery has always been marked by a resignation that makes it clear the relationships she details are not satisfying. These are not epic tales of great loves to be envied, but sad stories of failed romance.

As Angela Davis wrote of Billie Holiday:

“My Man” has retained its appeal not because of its content, which represents women in a mode of victimization, but because its aesthetic dimension reworks that content into an implicit critique. In Holiday’s performance of “My Man,” an ironic edge in her voice warns against a facile, literal interpretation. And in case this is missed, the slow tempo with which she sings the words – expressing uncertainty as to whether she should love him because “he isn’t true, he beats me too” – emphasizes an ambivalent posture rather than an acquiescence to the violence described.

Lana Del Rey has a Billie tattoo to honor Holiday and sings of repeatedly playing the torch singer during her “Blackest Day.”

Davis continues:

[Holiday’s] genius was to give her life experiences an aesthetic form that recast them as windows through which other women could peer critically at their own lives. She offered other women the possibility of understanding the social contradictions they embodied and enacted in their lives – an understanding she never achieved in her own life.

And isn’t that exactly what Lana Del Rey’s gloomiest songs do? Don’t they let other women (and men) know they are not alone in having fallen for the wrong person, having stayed too long in a relationship that was not good for them? Don’t these songs expose how horribly common abusive relationships are and how many feel they are better than being alone? Don’t they also help some listeners realize that they do not need to let others define them, whether a lover or a critic?


Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998)

What about the Audience?

Philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote: “Every country has the government it deserves.” Can the same be said of a country’s mass media?

In “giving the people what they want,” do mass media reflect our, the audience’s choices? Are we, in essence, voting for more content like the content we currently enjoy every time we buy a movie ticket, turn on the TV, stream a video or song? Do the algorithmic recommendations of what we “may also like” serve us the media we deserve?

But does consumption equal endorsement of the values contained within a work? If so, should we be more responsible in our choices? Should we only consume content that matches our values? Should we only endorse media that promote positive values?

How boring would that be?

Don’t we actually choose media based on entertainment value? And doesn’t what we find entertaining often, at least on the surface, go against our values?

I certainly hope fellow fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia do not approve of, much less emulate the toxic values and outrageous actions of the gang at Paddy’s Pub.

But isn’t such inexcusable behavior exactly what makes shows like Sunny, You’re the Worst, pretty much everything on FXX, ShamelessBrockmire, etc., so hilarious? Isn’t the appeal of these and many other series that the misanthropic characters have no impulse control or filters, that they say and do things that we would never, ever dare to say or do in reality? Does experiencing such “don’t give a fuck” lives vicariously provide us with a freedom that is lacking in a world where we often feel we must monitor our every word to avoid being “canceled”?

But does this make the question of whether media reflect society’s values far more complicated? Does enjoying Tyler, the Creator’s early songs mean we are pro-rape? Does cheering on Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, Ad Infinitum, mean we are pro-crime?

Of course, I do not mean to argue there is no connection between media depictions and society’s values, quite the opposite. But I do mean to imply that the relationship between the two is far more complex than depiction or consumption equals endorsement. Perhaps it’s better to look at media as a culture’s discussion board that gives us all common examples with which to explore what we feel the culture’s values are and should be.

Most of all, though, I hope the message you take from the class is that the relationship between mass media and ourselves, both as individuals and collectively as a society, is a relationship. And if we are a bit more conscious in our consumption, maybe we will gain a bit more power over the media we consume. After all, without us, the audience, the media would be nothing but the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it.

Ratings and Regulations: FCC

Unlike other media, television and its content were regulated from the start. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) was already policing indecency broadcast over the public airwaves long before television swept across the United States during the 1950s. The FCC’s role in regard to indecency over the public airwaves has remained the same to this day, even as the media landscape has greatly changed..

Let’s look at what the FCC can and cannot do. The FCC has no power to change content, especially not before the fact. It is legally forbidden from even commenting on any content before it airs, as that would constitute governmental prior restraint, a violation of the first amendment of the Constitution. Instead, the FCC investigates alleged on-air indecency only after receiving a citizen complaint. And notice the “on-air” restriction. The FCC only polices content broadcast over the public airwaves, which would make the content accessible to anyone of any age, and only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Although the FCC does have a say over certain business practices of cable, satellite and Internet, it has no power over content provided by those “subscription services.” Subscription services fall under a completely different legal category. When subscribers “opt in” to the services, they take on the responsibility of policing the content for themselves. Cable and satellite TV and radio could legally run indecency 24 hours a day, even on basic tier. They generally don’t for two reasons. First, basic tier programming is still largely ad-supported, so they generally, but far from completely, adhere to broadcast standards of content. Second, and probably more important, the providers know consumers will pay more for more “explicit” content on “premium” channels.

This is why Howard Stern can say whatever he wants on SiriusXM without worry, whereas Clear Channel was regularly fined when Stern violated FCC standards on broadcast radio. (Also note that Clear Channel was fined for broadcasting indecency, not Howard Stern for being indecent on the air.)

Many believe it is unfair to hold broadcast networks to stricter standards than cable, satellite or streaming services, especially since almost all Americans watch their network shows through cable or satellite services. Those networks would be freed from FCC indecency standards if they ceased to broadcast over the public airwaves; it is their choice to continue to do so (although many of them now offer exclusive content on their streaming services that might run afoul of the FCC if broadcast).

Here’s how the FCC defines indecency:

Deciding what’s obscene, indecent or profane

Each type of content has a distinct definition:

Obscene content does not have protection by the First Amendment.  For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

Profane content includes “grossly offensive” language that is considered a public nuisance.

Factors in determining how FCC rules apply include the specific nature of the content, the time of day it was broadcast and the context in which the broadcast took place.

Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.

Note there is no mention of violent content, racial slurs or hate speech. These do not fall under the legal definition of indecency (though many believe they should).

Let’s look at one of the most notorious indecency cases of the past few decades. During the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s right breast for less than a single second:

The response to this “wardrobe malfunction” was immediate and huge. It prompted a record number of calls to both CBS and the FCC (the FCC received 540,000 complaints). Within 24 hours, all of the broadcast networks, not just CBS, reviewed and changed their standards and practices regarding live events. It took the FCC eight years to completely resolve the situation, when the then-record fine against CBS was thrown out. Do we really need the FCC when the marketplace resolves problems so much more quickly?

It should be noted that the reason the fine was thrown out was because the FCC did not give prior notice of its new standards for dealing with “fleeting expletives” during live events. This case served as that notice, so if the same thing were to happen again, the fine would stand. Some believe it has happened again. The FCC received 130,000 complaints about this year’s halftime show featuring Shakira and J-Lo.

Is it a coincidence that all of these complaints are about women’s bodies being exposed? Is it telling that the 2004 incident is usually referred to as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, not Justin Timberlake’s, since he is the one who ripped off the bra cup to expose her? Timberlake was invited back to perform in the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, but not Janet Jackson, whose career seemed to stall after the 2004 Super Bowl appearance.

Does this again imply we have different standards of indecency in regard to different genders? Does the public blame the woman for her indecency, even as they are drawn to it? The 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” drew a record number of complaints, but it also became the most repeatedly viewed moment on Tivo. And it led to the creation of YouTube, fueled by the frustration of one of its co-founders’ missing the seminal event.

Is US culture deeply hypocritical when it comes to media indecency? As a culture, do we seek it out even as we condemn it? Would there be so much indecent pop culture if there were not such a huge audience making it so popular and profitable?

Ratings and Regulations: Film

Do audiences, particularly children, need to be protected from, or at least warned about the content of media such as movies?

From the beginning, filmmakers knew that pushing the lines of acceptability would produce scandals which would, in turn, increase audience curiosity and ticket sales. Most people today do not realize that early movies contained nudity and graphic (for their time) sex scenes, as in D.W. Griffith’s infamous orgy scene in Intolerance.

Of course such content provoked a backlash from various do-gooders trying to hold back the tide of indecency, particularly the Catholic Church. Is the futility of their quest exposed by how mild this scene seems today after a further century of envelope-pushing? But in the 1910s, this seemed quite risque, even raunchy.

In 1930, Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of American (MPPDA), introduced the “Motion Picture Production Code” to allay continuing concerns about immoral films. The Code’s main principles were:

  1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

These principles were followed by page after page of very specific rules of what could not be shown. It looked good, but Hollywood largely ignored it, continuing with business as usual.

The Catholic Church, however, continued to object, and in 1933 created its own National Legion of Decency to rate films for Catholic filmgoers. If the Legion of Decency rated a film C, for condemned, it led to widespread boycotts. When its bottom line became threatened, the MPPDA finally began to enforce its Production Code.

The Production Code is often referred to as the “Hays Code,” after the president of the MPPDA who instituted it, but it would be far more accurate to call it the “Breen Code,” after Joseph Breen, the strict Catholic whom Hays appointed to head the newly created Production Code Administration (PCA).

And administer it Breen did. This led to a very clear division between “pre-code” films released before 1934 and “post-code” movies released after:

No screenplay could be produced without PCA approval; no finished motion picture could be released without PCA approval.

By the 1950s, though, many in Hollywood began to bridle at the PCA’s restrictions and interference. Otto Preminger had the temerity to produce the film The Moon Is Blue after its script had been rejected by the PCA for its risque (for the time) subject matter. And United Artists agreed to distribute the film without PCA approval.

Some theaters refused to book The Moon Is Blue without code approval, but the movie was a big success, at least in part because of its notoriety.

Preminger again flouted the code with The Man with the Golden Arm.

For once the Legion of Decency was more lenient than the PCA, rating the harrowing cautionary tale about drug addiction B, for “morally objectionable in part,” instead of C.

The code slowly began to break down and Hollywood began to push the envelope even further, again drawing criticism and claims that Hollywood was corrupting audiences, especially children. And most states, even some cities, still had censor boards that literally cut the films coming into their jurisdictions to meet community standards. Hollywood needed to do something so it could market a uniform product.

In 1966, Jack Valenti became the new president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Two years later, he introduced the film rating system:

That system is still the standard today, although there have been a few adjustments over the years.

In 1984, PG-13 was introduced, largely in response to parental complaints about the violence in Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .

. . . and Gremlins (although they inspired PG-13, both of these films remain PG because they were classified before the new rating existed).

And in 1990, NC-17 was created to replace X. The intent was to differentiate serious films for adults, like Henry & June, the film released with the new rating, from “Triple X” pornography.

However, after the failure of Showgirls (at least in theaters; it later became a cult and/or camp favorite on home video), major studios mostly abandoned NC-17 films, contractually obligating most directors to attain no higher than an R-rating.

And here is where we confront the often confusing application of the ratings. For example, the board said that American Pie would be rated NC-17 if it included this version of the scene . . .

. . . but R if it substituted this version:

Am I the only one who thinks that’s an incredibly arbitrary distinction?

The film included the latter version in theaters, but included the former in the “unrated” home video release, thereby selling the same movie twice to those who had to see “what they couldn’t see in the theaters.”

Many filmmakers now shoot sacrificial scenes to make the content they hope to retain seem less extreme by comparison, as Seth Rogen explains was done with Sausage Party:

“We made it dirtier than we’d originally planned because we were expecting some sort of negotiation, so when we first heard it was getting kickback we felt, OK, let’s change as little as possible,” Rogen recalls. “Then we sent that in and approved it, and we were like, ‘What?!’ We thought that would be the first of fifty back-and-forths that would happen.”

If you want to learn more about the real workings of the ratings board, check out This Film Is Not Yet Rated:

Yet, as flawed as it is, the film ratings system has become the model for other industries who prefer self-regulation to outside interference, so we have labels for music and ratings for video games and TV. There have been calls for a universal rating system that would cover all media, but most view this as unfeasible. Plus, since the entire reason for self-regulation is to keep outsiders from meddling, the individual industries would be sure to fight any such universal plan as violating the first amendment, as well as antitrust laws.