A Photograph Of a Polaroid Of A Terrified Girl: On Lana Del Ray, Bowery Ballroom, 12/5/11
I’m not sure what I was expecting from seeing Lana Del Ray live. My opinion on her music since the beginning has been that shared by many others, namely a measured distaste for her “borrowed nostalgia” (to use James Murphy’s words). But, well, the tickets were free and I’d had the chorus of her ubiquitous single “Video Games” stuck in my head for days (“heaven is a place on earth with you/tell me all the things you want to do”—not a message that’s a very good look right now, for music or society in general, but admittedly pretty damn catchy), so I figured why not? It’s not like I had anything else to do.
Fittingly, Lana Del Ray seemed to think the same thing, putting on a show that was an exercise in embarrassment. Much has been made about Del Ray (or the team behind Del Ray)’s smash-and-grab approach to current indie culture appropriation, and, like on record or video, the live show was put together fine. Bowery Ballroom had excellent sound, and was comfortably full. Del Ray’s backing band was perfectly competent. Her stage setup, three large white balloons upon which were projected grainy, vintage films, were a familiar accent to any who’ve become familiar with her online personae or the music video for “Video Games”. What was it, then, that made the entire thing feel uncomfortably like the talent competition portion of a beauty pageant? Lana herself. The packaging’s well-made, but the product’s lackluster.
During her performance last night at Bowery Ballroom, her first real “New York show” (not counting her secret show at Glasslands months ago), Lana Del Ray exhibited all of the warmth and stage presence of January Jones. Not January Jones on Mad Men, clouded in noire and atmosphere, either; this was the “X-Men: First Class” –caliber January Jones, all missed cues, lackluster smiles and a pained amount of effort put into every sentence. When she executed the much-discussed change in lyrics of her soon-to-be-released record’s title song, “Born 2 Die”, from “I wanna kiss you hard in the pouring rain/I know you like your girls insane” to “I wanna fuck you hard”, it was one of the few times she actually kept her eyes open while singing, as though she wanted to make sure we noticed that she was being racy. After introducing a song as one of her favorites, she responded to the lackluster response to her performance with “ok, I guess I’m not feeling that one”. An audience member screamed “I love you!”, Del Ray froze, deer in the headlights, and responded with a Stepford Wife smile in the general direction the scream came from. Even Del Ray’s voice, admittedly her one saving grace, was ridiculously unfocused: too loud at points, too weird at others. Live, she sounds like an untrained Tori Amos. I’ll say it again, let’s all deal with it and move on: live, she sounds like an untrainted Tori Amos. Warbles and wails rolled into coos and, once, embarrassingly, a half-rap.
The entire night, as Del Ray performed her songs, all about bored women who drift aimlessly in the arms of their boyfriends who they rely on to lead them, to tell them what to do, to give them purpose or undress them or point them in some vague general direction, it seemed there was a giant void of meaning to the entire thing.
Finally, the elephant in the room showed itself, at least to me, when a scream of “I love you, Lizzy!”, a nod to Del Ray’s real name/true identity/internet scandal, was met by Del Ray, the only time she acknowledged the crowd as anything other than nameless and faceless, with “how can you love me when you don’t even know my real name?” Another smile, another nod, another song about a woman who needs a man to assign her life a purpose.
It’s not that Lana Del Ray’s bad at what she’s doing, per se, it’s that she, for the love of god, doesn’t want to be doing it, to her very core, and it shows. She doesn’t buy into this package of grainy films and bluesy indie helpless women who idealize the Male Gaze, living for it, supping on it as though a vital nutrient, weird and sad and desperate, superimposed on a vaguely Norman Rockwell-ish package any more than anyone else.
She, I guess unbeknownst to herself, is who she’s singing about: sadly listless, aimless, living a life that she seems to not even really want to live. The very act of having to smile at the crowd seemed terrifying and painful to Del Ray, as she sang verse after verse of the same story: girl has no point, girl has no meaning, girl looks to man to point the way. Sipping quickly from a diet Coke can between songs (nary a beer bottle or plastic cup to be seen onstage during her entire performance), Del Ray shook, quietly, softly, like a leaf. The whole thing’s as hollow at the core as the written formula would lead one to believe, so that begs, at least for me, one question: what would Lana Del Ray rather be doing? Last night at Bowery, it was obvious the answer was “anything else but singing these songs”.
Lana, dear, why don’t you take a cue from your own music and tell us what YOU would like to do for once. It’s very possible we’d come along.