In my mind, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is a female rock icon to end all icons. She is one of my answers to the question “If not yourself, who would you be?” on The Proust Questionnaire. Even before I grew to love Sonic Youth with such fervour, I thought the way Gordon bashed around on her guitar – all blonde hair flying savagely – defined rock ‘n’ roll cool. After all, how could one not be charmed by a woman who sings, “Don’t touch my breast/I’m just working at the desk,” with such nonchalance?
A few weeks ago, Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band was released, and since then it has provided a smattering of controversial quotes on rock staples like ex-husband Thurston Moore and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Even more contentious then those, however, were the comments on pop singer Lana Del Rey. While I don’t want to delve into the recent drama, it is interesting to contrast the alterna-woman of Gordon that I grew up with against the vintage femme-fatale style of Del Rey.
I hesitate to admit it, but there is something enticing about Lana Del Rey. Whether it’s her rose-coloured vulnerability or her evocative voice, the riddle around her has led to a number of questions about who she is, artistically as well as personally. In her music, there is a certain confessional melancholy that calls to mind poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and comparisons to the ill-fated Laura Palmer of the television show Twin Peaks are also apt. Though the actions of pop stars are always a matter of great media interest, there is no current female figure in music that has been the subject of quite as much ire as Del Rey.
Last year, the singer appeared on Rolling Stone magazine with the headline, “The Saddest, Baddest Diva in Rock”. While the title is likely a reference to her lyric, “I’m a bad girl…I’m a sad girl,” the front-cover’s bold assertion seems to represent a paradigm shift. I came of age in the late 90s, a period when Bjork, PJ Harvey and Kim Gordon ravaged the rock arena as woman who possessed their own vision without apology or explanation, so the male fantasy that Del Rey seems to serve up pales in comparison. The same myth pervades songs like “Ride”, “Shades of Cool”, “Born to Die” and “Blue Jeans”, portraying her as the melancholic temptress, a lovelorn girl who chases star-crossed love in its most dramatic sense. It’s this persona, however constructed, which seems to pander to an old-world archetype that the baddest bitch in town can still be subjected.
Of course, the calibration of baddest belongs largely in the hands of the media. Del Rey may very well be a sad girl with strife to lay down, but true badness is generally something defined from within that demands no approval. Approval, however, is a thing her persona displays an intense longing for. If anything, Lana Del Rey as the bad girl tells me how swiftly things can change, and how the authentic power of women like Kim Gordon and PJ Harvey can dissipate into a rather anaemic antidote.
In men or women, badness can come pre-packaged, but what constitutes it can say a lot about the place we’re at. If Lana Del Rey truly is the baddest girl, how media managed is she, and why – unlike the male version – doesn’t she belong entirely to herself?