2ND WAVE IS THE THEORY | “ultraviolence” is the practice

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I was recently blessed with the experience of hanging out alone at work reading “Against Our Will” – Susan Brownmiller’s [the correct word here is “seminal,” but of all the times not to use “seminal” – ! ] book on rape – while listening to “Ultraviolence” on full blast.  Moving enough on their own, the two together make a bit of a doozy – Brownmiller’s sardonically militant commentary on the fucked-up-ness of the world paired with Lana’s broken consignation form a “there is no hope for anything and why am I about to start crying in public?” sort of overwhelming that’s hard to shake off when an oblivious customer decides to pop in.  It all came to a particular head while listening to the title track, which coincided, eerily, with my reading of Brownmiller’s section on the “conscious rape fantasy.”  It was all a lot to deal with, but it mostly got me thinking back to a question a friend and I asked each other when the album was just coming out – why is nobody talking about the fact that this is called “Ultraviolence,” and that “ultraviolence” more or less means “rape?”

As most culturally literate people know, “ultra-violence [sic]” was coined by British writer/world-class Joycean Anthony Burgess and brought into the world via his all-time banned books!-table classic “A Clockwork Orange.”  Like most of the words in Burgess’s future-slang Nadsat language, “ultra-violence” doesn’t come with the kindness of a formal definition.  Predictably, this has left its usage in a slight state of controversy.  Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary, the closest things we have to an authority on this sort of topic, agree that it means “horrible, horrible,” “unprovoked (usually brutal)” violence, usually executed “for the thrill and entertainment of it.”  This definition works well enough with a basic reading of “A Clockwork Orange” – “I would perform the old ultra-violence on the starry ptitsa and on her pusspots if need be, then I would take fair rookerfuls of what looked like real polezny stuff and go waltzing to the front door and open up showering gold and silver on my waiting droogs.” (66)  “That was a real kick and good for smacks and lashings of of the old ultra-violent.” (23)  “Ultra-violence” is basically “violence” – just “ultra-.”  Violence : ultra-violence :: Frisbee : Ultimate Frisbee.

This is all fine and good, except that Burgess exclusively uses the term with an implied level of specificity that separates it from other acts of extreme violence.  In the book’s second section, narrator Alex proclaims – “You’ve proved to me that all this ultra-violence and killing is wrong, wrong, terribly wrong.”  That is to say – ultraviolence AND killing, two mutually exclusive acts of horrific violence.  Furthermore, except in very general cases, “ultra-violence” is used exclusively to describe incidents that include women.  There is not a single specific incident where an description of the “ultra-violent” does not include a devotchka or ptitsa.  Alex uses other sexual terms (“fillying,” “the old in-out in-out”), but they are more often than not mentioned in the same breath as ultra-violence.  In fact, beyond an ironized mention of “Sexual Assault,” Alex never once uses an explicit synonym for “rape” [1].  By this logic, it’s hard to accept the definition of “ultra-violence” as “unprovoked (usually brutal) violence for the thrill and entertainment of it.”  The ultra-violent is not an act of brutal fun – it’s an act of power, an attempt to violently enact one’s will over another.  And, if we take the broadened sense of “rape” that Brownmiller and co. endorse – a definition of “rape” as “an exercise in power” (209) that leads to the “perpetuation of male domination over women by force” (257) – then it seems inarguable to me that “ultraviolence” means anything other than “rape” –

“Billyboy and his droggs stopped what they were doing, which was just getting ready to perform something on a weepy young devotchka they had there, not more than ten, she creeching away but with her platties still on, Billyboy holding her by one rooker and his number-one, Leo, holding the other.  They’d probably just been doing the dirty slovo part of the act before getting down to a malarky bit of ultra-violence.  When they viddied us a-coming they let go of his boo-hooing little ptitsa, there being plenty more where she came from, and she ran with her thin white legs flashing through the dark, still going ‘Oh oh oh.” (18-19)

It’s not violence for fun, it’s not sex for pleasure – it’s a joyless, cruel, absolutely deliberate enactment of individualistic power [2].

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If we’re going to accept this definition of “ultraviolence,” then Lana Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence” project becomes a vastly more horrifying and uncomfortable endeavor.  Starting with the disarming cover – or the even more disarming special edition cover [3] – and moving through sixty minutes of horrific sadness, “Ultraviolence” is a painfully uncomfortable, not-so-implicit dialogue with emotional abuse and sexual assault.  In the typically submissive, frequently abusive, always sexual context of Lana Del Rey’s music, I don’t see how the title can be read any other way.

This is most evident, unsurprisingly, in the title track.  We could go line by line here, but that’s what Rap Genius is for.  I’ll just point out one crucial lyrical turn:

 Jim told me that / [1.] he hit me and it felt like a kiss / Jim brought me back / [2.] reminded me of when we were kids / with his ultraviolence /[3.]  I can hear sirens, sirens / he hit me and it felt like a kiss / [4.] I can hear violins, violins / [5.] give me all of that ultraviolence

Why is the world not absolutely flipping shit over this?  Why is critical discussion of this song focused on whether “Jim” is an alcohol metaphor or not?  Are we just incapable of carrying a thought from the pre-chorus on into the chorus or something?  What we have here is one of the most disturbing turns in mainstream pop music history.  Even without the word “ultraviolence,” we still have: 1. romanticized domestic violence that 2. brings up nostalgic feelings of childhood before 3. escalating to the point of either police intervention or emergency hospitalization 4. while causing a cinematic response to emotional pain 5. that Lana is actively asking for.  The levels on which this is fucked up are too fucked up to bother counting.  Point by point, they imply: 1. sexual violence, 2. childhood abuse, 3. serious physical harm, 4. emotional disassociation, and 5. an open endorsement of a conscious rape fantasy.  Toss the word “ultraviolence” into the mix and the horror becomes all but overt.  People have been upset about this song, but they are nowhere near upset enough.   This is really bad stuff.  This is “Brown Sugar” level fucked up.

Take all of this and dress it up as a bride giggling like she’s in love in an orange grove before dropping down on her knees at the altar like she’s at a real, sacramentally valid Catholic wedding that people supposedly don’t ever have anymore.  This would be the recently released video for “Ultraviolence,” which also features finger sucking, thigh flashing, and one of the most genuine music video smiles of all time.  The closest cultural antecedent is the Sicilian wedding scene in “The Godfather.”  Without the song this would be vv. adorable.  Which leads me to think – WHAT THE FUCK LANA?  WHY IS THE ENTIRE WORLD NOT BLOWN AWAY BY THE ABSOLUTE AUDACITY OF THIS LADY?  This is seriously one of the most offensive videos of all time and instead of thinking about it people are getting all hot and bothered about whether Nicki Minaj’s ass is going to hurt their children or not (no shit it is, Chuck Creekmur – deal with it).

Because the world is clearly very overwhelmed and confused by everything that Lana does, maybe this all requires a point-by-point walk-through.  In this video, Lana Del Rey is singing a song about an explicitly sexually abusive relationship while on her way to her wedding (not some Chromeo in Vegas bullshit – the good, beautiful, “’til death do us part” kind), presumably to the man about whom she is singing  – and she is BEAMING.  She is happy about marrying a guy who gives her “that ultraviolence” – sucking on his fingers in an orange grove happy.  To be even more direct here – Lana Del Rey is enthusiastically marrying a man who WILL RAPE HER.

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Who directed this atrocity exhibition?  Oh dear, it was LANA HERSELF [4].  I thought she was a creation of record studios, created to make money off hype-machine-addicted pseudo-trendy corporatized hipsters who was incapable of doing anything for herself (no #shotsfired, Chris Ott)?  Huh, weird.  So not only do we have a song about the complete destruction of female sexual autonomy dressed up in the traditionalist garb of possessive patriarchal romance [5], but we have it straight – 100% endorsed and 100% autonomously created – from Elizabeth-Grant-who-is-Lana-Del-Rey herself.   She is in control of this horror show, and – in the spirit of keeping up our Nadsat – the result is absolutely horrorshow.

Domestic sexual abuse is not a new subject in pop music, but an explicit endorsement of it – on this level, at this time – by a female artist is completely unfounded.  This isn’t Carole King-, Dusty Springfield-style longing-for-male-domination-style 1960s ignorance, or Kurt Cobain-, X-style character-driven punk rock commentary – it’s an unflinching endorsement of a horrible thing that’s wholly self-aware of its own horribleness.  It takes the mushy feelings most people have about brides and white dresses and applies that sentimentality to something that everyone finds unilaterally disgusting.  It’s more powerful than an explicit denunciation of rape culture (à la Kathleen Hanna) or a capturing of the brokenness that comes as a result of it (à la “Past Present Future”) in that it takes the visceral feelings that the listener/viewer has towards the idea of “love” and applies them to his idea of “rape.”  The result is a confused, nasty feeling that forces the listener/viewer into Lana’s confused, nasty perspective, and it inspires – in me, at least – profound and horrifying pathos.

This gets even more rough when one considers the feminist implications Brownmiller and her followers bring up in regard to what she calls the “conscious rape fantasy.”  “Against Our Will” is, among other things, a 400-page attempt to prove that the conscious rape fantasy – that is, the idea that all women are biologically attuned to the desire for rape (or, at least, for sexual and social domination) – is a myth.  Brownmiller is absolutely adamant on this – “The rape fantasy exists in women as a man-made iceberg.  It can be destoyed – by feminism.” (322)  She doesn’t, however, deny that the iceberg exists –

“Given the pervasive male ideology of rape (the mass psychology of the conqueror) a mirror-image female victim psychology (the mass psychology of the conquered) could not help but arise.  Near its extreme, this female psychosexuality indulges in the fantasy of rape.  Stated another way, when women do fantasize about sex, the fantasies are usually the product of male conditioning and cannot be otherwise. (324)

Brownmiller’s project was to disrupt this mentality – by turning against pornography, by rejecting the (at the time) conventional Freudian school of sexual psychology, by refusing to accept sexual domination as a necessary fact of life.  “Ultraviolence,” in contrast, would seem to defend its continued existence – to re-enforce the “man-made iceberg” that exists within female sexuality.  On paper, “Ultraviolence” is a clear and deliberate fuck you to the 2nd-wave, “anti-pornography” school of feminism.  But the simple unpalatability of the critical experience of the video – the sentimentality of the wedding imagery, the explicitness of the term “ultraviolence,” the cultural moment it all exists in with regard to feminism – pushes something else entirely.  This is not a lazy endorsement of abusive male hegemony – it’s an attempt to bring about the experience of what it means to be within that hegemony, to be complicit to sexual abuse and domination and to exist in a world where submission to a conscious rape fantasy is the only conceivable choice.

To TL;dr this into over-simplicity: “Ultraviolence” is the entirely autonomous realization of an emotionally-fulfilling rape fantasy.   It’s not some ironic pomo thought experiment: the romance is real, the violation is real, the unabashed enthusiasm for both the romance and the violation is real.  They are not playing against one another, they are not ironizing each other: they are working together to create one composite ultraviolent experience, and that experience makes you feel like absolute shit.  If you go into this as a cognizant human being and come out feeling all warm and fuzzy you are either not paying attention or too deeply far gone for any sort of hope.  The fact that we have this sort of artistic experience on the table right now and that it is actually open for mass public consumption and that people are actually eating it up is an absolute blessing.  I can think of no better way – outside of real-life experience or hours and hours of mind-breaking theory – to get across how horrifically complicated the relationship between gender relations and violence is and how complicit every single person is in its complication.  Anyone who says that Lana Del Rey is “anti-feminist” or “bad for women” (what a disgustingly reductive thing to say) hasn’t done their research.  She might be the closest thing Top 40 has to a 2nd-wave anti-porn feminist hero.  I sincerely doubt that Susan Brownmiller is paying the slightest bit of attention to pop music videos at this point, but if she is then I really hope that she’s impressed.

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[1] The only appearance of the word “rape” in “A Clockwork Orange” is a quote from the intellectual character F. Alexander – in regard to an act of sexual assault that Alex was participant in.

[2] “Rape is a dull, blunt, ugly act committed by punk kids, their cousins and older brothers, not by charming, witty, unscrupulous, heroic sensual rakes, or by timid souls deprived of a ‘normal’ sexual outlet, or by super-menschen possessed of uncontrollable lust.  And yet, on the shoulders of these unthinking, predictable, insensitive, violence-prone young men there rests an age-old burden that amounts to an historic mission: the perpetuation of male domination over women by force.” – Brownmiller, 209.

[3] I can’t imagine I’m the only person whose first association was to the particularly gnarly Vintage International cover for the late ’90s edition of “Lolita.”

[4] Or actually maybe by her maybe-boyfriend Francesco Carrozzini.  The internet is not in agreement.

[5] I could go into some Catholic shit and talk about the theological implications that the sacramental marriage theme brings in, but I’ll spare the world of that for now – even though I totally believe that it’s totally there.


Brownmiller, Susan. “Against Our Will.” New York: Fawcett Books, 1975.

Burgess, Anthony.  “A Clockwork Orange.”  New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986.


One comment

  1. All this piece needs to be complete is your trademark “I hate you [insert whatever], and you hate me.”

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