Lana Del Rey
December 7, 2011
Better than…I ever even knew. Then again, what do I know?
“I have my fingers crossed that LDR lives up to all this hype. Girl's got talent,” said my friend after I told her I was seeing Lana Del Rey last night. This friend keeps up with things enough to know who Lana Del Rey is, but she's not what you'd consider to have a vested interest “in the scene.” She is not a music writer, either professional or amateur and her Tumblr does not contain “thinkpieces.” And yet, amidst the shitstorm of discussion about Lana Del Rey in 2011, it was the first thing anyone's said about her in a long time that actually made me think.
Because it's possibly the first time since “Video Games” became a hit of some quantification or another that I've heard somebody talk about Lizzy Grant as if the fate for Born To Die — her debut album for Interscope due out on January 31 — wasn't already a foregone conclusion. The conclusion of course is that of a karmic depantsing, an embarrassing exposure of an artist way out of her depth and willingly manipulated.
Of course, that she had been reduced to a discussion rather than a person who sings songs people like is our own fault. But it's a discussion worth having, and it's not about “indie cred” or her handlers: it's about sex. Because the indie rock echo chamber in which Del Rey is such a divisive figure doesn't want to talk about it. If we're to take tastemaker Gorilla vs. Bear's frankly revolting “Cool List” of skinny white females, emaciated white dudes and some rappers as any indication of what this scene values — and we probably should — the fact that the completely non-carnal likes of Panda Bear and Grimes rank in the top ten make it abundantly clear that indie rock is getting the sex symbols it deserves.
So of course Lana Del Rey's often heavy-handed incorporation of '50s Hollywood glamour, classic gender roles and hip-hop affectations would make people uncomfortable. Though hardly explicit about it, “Video Games” feels like every bit as much of an indictment of antisocial behavior as Dismemberment Plan's “Doing The Standing Still” and a simultaneously searing and vulnerable frontal attack of masculine failure along the likes of Elastica's “Stutter.”
Even amidst the Disneyfied strings and grainy YouTube footage of celebrity malfeasance is a seriously dissatisfied woman, one who lusts after the possibility of a muscular, emotionally stoic Don Draper type (the penultimate song of the night was “You Can Be The Boss”). Or James Dean. Or even the Marlboro Man, who knows? But the subject of “Video Games” seems to be an unmotivated, out-of-work actor slumped in his Studio City apartment littered with empty Blue Moons and XBOX discs, wholly uninterested in her exaggerated, possibly surgically enhanced sexuality, the manchild affirmed and celebrated by Judd Apatow and his ilk. Coincidentally, yesterday also marked the reuniting of alt-rock lotharios Afghan Whigs; most of the people losing their shit about the announcement seemed to be women.
You see? This is supposed to be a live review, and yet all this preface feels necessary – Lana gives us a lot to talk about, and I can't say my expectations were too high to begin with. While “Video Games” remains evergreen, most of her songs that followed are nice enough but just trying way too damn hard to establish an image that was already pretty obvious to begin with. Not to mention that nearly 8% of my music writer friends in New York were covering her show at the Bowery Ballroom…which took place two nights ago. You don't bet on an East Coast football team traveling to California for what's essentially a 10 a.m. game, and well, perhaps you don't want a singer with an iffy live reputation handling that kind of travel itinerary.
But I forgot to take one thing into account: the Troubadour isn't the internet, Los Angeles isn't New York, and last night…gasp…people actually wanted Lana Del Rey to succeed. Cheered her on, even! Because isn't that essentially what every one of her carefully choreographed shows are at this point, with Born To Die over a month away? That is, a concerted attempt to prove that she was once Lizzy Grant, aspiring singer-songwriter, because she can sing and write songs? To merge the image-making with just enough “real deal” performance? I suppose so, since this sold-out show still felt like the type where most of the attendees finagled their entry based on who they were rather than their quickness on the Ticketfly trigger – an industry showcase for an ascendant artist to prove her mettle before she moves onto a bigger venue.
This is usually the point where we have to dance around how she looks, but fuck it, let's just get right into it. Maybe it's due to personal experience, having lived in Virginia and Georgia for about seven years and never having seen a full episode of Twin Peaks. But as she emerged in a dress with her logo (strangely resembling that of OutKast's) projected on large white balloons, she had this impeccably maintained, classically attractive and yet somehow…prematurely matronly look that should've looked familiar to anyone who has been to a sorority date function at a college in the deep south. Some people may see Laura Palmer. I saw ADPi's social chair from the University of Georgia. We could both be right for all I know.
The songs themselves? Well, Lana performed admirably, her vocals swooping with dramatic curvature, boosted by some fairly obvious harmonic sweetening. She twirled her hair absent-mindedly while trying to stay “in character.” She had an accent of indeterminate origin, and her stage banter waffled between seductive and absent-minded, but she was clearly excited to be back in her “favorite town.” And her backing band could not have been more anonymous, so mild-mannered in both appearance and technique that you mostly wondered how these four dudes ended up with the gig to begin with. I figured the keyboardist had to be the one with the serious chops, because he spent most of the set smiling from ear to ear like someone who's done the late-night rounds as a session player and figures a camera could be on him at any point.
Del Rey opened with new single “Born To Die,” which maintained its last-minute switcheroo of “kiss me hard” and not “fuck me hard,” so there's that. And after coyly winking at the announcement of “Blue Jeans,” well…there were a couple of joints that reminded me of those folky trip-hop CDs I owned during the late '90s in college (hold your heads, Poe and Dot Allison) and everyone mostly waited for “Video Games.” The most memorable of the bunch was “Million Dollar Man,” in large part because its concurrent video footage of Jessica Rabbit is either proof that Lana is willing to lay it on as thick as possible or that she has no self-awareness whatsoever. There were dramatic vocal runs that were intended to underscore the desperation of the narrator (the title is used in conjunction with “my heart is broke”), but it was almost laughably overwrought – I don't think I've ever seen a romantic comedy where a date is ruined by the female lead's karaoke, but I imagine the scene would probably look something like that.
And then, “Video Games,” which didn't get many people singing along as I expected, but I take it as a sign of respect. Some people were rumored to have paid $200 to get in, and they sure as shit weren't going to listen to your sorry ass fucking up the chorus. Weirdly enough, to see it performed live and supposedly humanized doesn't add much in terms of conceptual layering. It's played professionally and will ultimately sound great when she makes the late night circuit, but in this situation, she gives up agency to determine her image.
And that's the thing: watching Lana Del Rey perform, you get no sense of her being the tragically flawed heroine of her songs. She comes off more like…well, an aspiring singer-songwriter who just so happens to be attractive enough for both sexes to weirdly hate. Her breaks in character weren't even overly dramatic. She took occasional sips of a can of Diet Coke. She demurely wished a male superfan “happy birthday,” which resulted in much shrieking of delight. She stumbled while naming her guitarist. She made it sound like deciding which song her band would play was a drawn-out mystery, when they only have eight.
But hell, if nothing else, last night's show made it abundantly clear that she is way more cut out for Los Angeles than New York, from where she hails. She all but acknowledges as much, thanking the city for “all of my inspiration,” and really, L.A. cares about glamour, New York cares about cool. Del Rey is far more obsessed with the former and can't really pull off the latter. And you know what, considering the glut of musicians who are the exact opposite, I can't help but think of her as a welcome addition to our consciousness.
That said, no matter how much stake you put into what the Interscope bigwigs have done with or for her thus far, I have to acknowledge their most genius gambit to date. Nothing could possibly make Lana Del Rey a more comparatively sympathetic character than judging her relative to her opening act – it simply has to be intentional. His name is Zach Heckendorf, and apparently he was the opener in New York as well. He is a lanky white guy with a moppish hair cut, an acoustic guitar and essentially looks like some dude who won a Battle of the Bands at Molly Malone's to cop this gig. Or more likely, his dad works at Interscope. Oh, for the most part, it wasn't even sub-Dave Matthews or sub-John Mayer icky thump. Like, what exists sub-Jason Mraz? Do we have a word for thing?
He announced “I'm kinda into rap,” at which point he promised what I thought was a Drake cover. Okay, that sounds like the worst thing ever, but at least it's timely. I misheard. It was a solo, acoustic and comprehensive cover of “Forgot About Dre,” a song over a decade old. For about four minutes, beginning at approximately 9:20 PM on December 6, 2011, I wished I was dead. Then I snapped out of it and wished he was dead. He is doing this because some dudes somewhere thought it was funny and/or some girl saw this and wanted to have sex with him. It's 2011 and white guys with acoustic guitars are still covering rap songs. If you get nothing else out of this, just take that last sentence and remember it next time you want to talk about Lana Del Rey like she's really what's wrong with the world.
Personal Bias: No seriously, next time you're tempted to make some “opinions4u” comment on Pitchfork's Facebook page every time they post Lana Del Rey news, just remember: PEOPLE ARE STILL DOING ACOUSTIC COVERS OF RAP SONGS. It's all someone's fault. Is it yours?
The Crowd: Folks more than happy to tell their fellow assistants and junior agents in the music department at CAA how amazing the show was.
Random Notebook Dump: Indie Watchdog Alert: Lana Del Rey doesn't do her own merch after the show.
Set list below:
Born To Die
Million Dollar Man
You Can Be The Boss
Off To The Races