“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”: Questioning toxic love in music

Written by Georiga Hilton-Buckley

“He hit me and it felt like a kiss” – Lana Del Rey croons these words in the title track of her third studio album Ultraviolence, and frankly, it’s obviously got some very problematic imagery. Music, much like all art, has long romanticised toxic relationships, but in recent years it’s possibly been taken too far.

Why is Ultraviolence problematic?

Of course, I’m not arguing we should totally ignore abuse in music and only listen to songs about bubble-gum and rainbows, but it’s important to recognise as a society when a relationship is problematic, even if the backing track is a bop. Toxic relationships can come in many forms: adultery, emotional abuse, neglect and just being dishonest to name a few; all of these ideas are common themes within music, and we don’t even realise it.

Moving back to looking at Del Rey who has be criticised since her first album regarding her glamorisation of abuse and published an essay last year expressing her annoyance at this narrative. An entire article can be written about all the racial and sexist issues with this essay but, regarding the abuse in her music Del Rey explains that she was simply writing her experiences into her music and that there should be space for these narratives within music.

There’s been plenty of music that discusses toxic relationships and hasn’t faced the critique regarding glamourisation. The example that jumps straight to mind for me is Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, which explores her relationship with cheating husband, Blake. So what makes Back to Black different from Ultraviolence? Honestly it’s hard to tell. Both albums are based on the artist’s real relationships, both discuss the struggle to leave the relationship, and both have an immense amount of pain within them. When really trying to decipher the difference between the attitude towards these two albums, it’s possible the romantic cinematic score by Del Rey combined with the love-story esque music videos that can justify the romanisation of toxic relationships. This then questions what an artist must do to ensure they can discuss these personal experiences without glamourising them.

What counts as good toxic music?

Ultraviolence was a widely praised album despite its content, a theme replicated time and time again within music. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac is one of the world’s greatest albums, but its content is an exploration of the group’s toxic relationships with each other. Several of the songs are directly attacking other band members and the group wasn’t even talking during the recording, but yet this is not blacklisted for romanticising this toxicity. Granted the songs aren’t romantic in themselves, but the album itself is looked at through rose tinted glasses. You make loving fun as written by Christine McVie about her new lover while her husband was in the room, and Lindsey Buckingham attacked Stevie Nicks brutally in Go Your Own Way. The narratives are far more aggressive in Rumours than in the passive Ultraviolence, and this is possibly why we allow the clearly hate filled songs to escape criticism. Instead a victim accepting a toxic partner, both people in the relationship are being as poisonous to each other creating a different narrative. However, this is just as damaging as the story of the passive victim, it tells us that being horrible Is ok as long as the other person is just as bad.

Accountability and Harry Styles

I probably don’t need to tell you that Harry Styles fans are rabid, and I admittedly am one of them. Ten minutes on stan twitter make it clear that, in the eyes of his most dedicated fans, he can do no wrong – despite his confessions in his songs. Three songs on his most recent album Fine Line discuss his breakup with model Camille Rowe and are, frankly, an admission of guilt, petty behaviour and pain. In Falling, Styles describes his “wandering hands” and To Be So Lonely features admissions of drunk calls and being an “arrogant son of a bitch”. Despite these confessions there is little discussion about romanticising this toxic relationship. Many of Styles’ fans have attacked Rowe on social media for ‘breaking Harry’s heart’ without dwelling on the possibility that the fault actually lies with Styles.

I agree with Del Rey: there should be a place within music to discuss damaging and toxic relationships, omitting them from music would prevent so many people from finding other voices they relate to, but we must be careful when thinking about the reaction to the song. There is a stark difference between romanticising and appreciating a song, and we don’t want to normalise abuse. Ultimately, pain can create some wonderful music, however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take time to acknowledge when something has problematic themes.

Georgia is a Third-year Politics student at the University of Leicester with an infatuation for books, particularly the classics. She is interested in feminism, philosophy, and music.

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