Like writers, actors must, at the very least, have empathy for their characters. They may not like them, but they should at least try understand their story. This is a self-critique as much as it is a review of Lana Del Rey’s sold out show at Bowery Ballroom last night. Much has been made of Del Rey’s adopted persona, which is some odd composite of manufactured minx mixed with “indie” chanteuse. People point to early images of her as fledgling pop princess Lizzie Grant, decked in an American flag-motif denim jumper, gazing demurely, mic poised for action, tucking a yellow-blond lock behind her ear.
There are still vestiges of Lizzie Grant in Lana Del Rey, but it’s hard to imagine that patriotic, girl-next-door call an audience member a “bitch” and say there are “fucking technical difficulties up in here” (note: the carefully placed “in”) before she’s even sung a note. Lana Del Rey would, however, and she did last night. Still looking demure, she waltzed out onto the stage at Bowery wearing a white pin-tuck shell dress with a flouncy thigh-grazing skirt and white sneakers, a pre-adolescent look that she styled with loose, red-carpet curls. She quickly reversed the innocent look of her virginal whites, when she cast the mic cord over her shoulder like a hobo satchel, and dug into a sultry ballad, her steely, “bad girl” vibes mirrored in the glint of her blood-red manicure and diamond-studded knuckle ring. Her voice swung low in a gravelly come hither and flitted high into a pouty, baby croon—there was even a half-hearted scat thrown in for good measure. She cursed like a sailor and sang a lot about being “taken” by men, of which there were many in the audience. The buzz of the crowd was overwhelmingly baritone and, judging by the timbre of hoots and cat-calls when she walked on stage, decidedly un-emo. This is generally par for the course for female singers, but there was something unseemly in the exchange. Del Rey assumed the role of an impetuous Lolita, simultaneously demanding and demeaning our attention, while a crowd of Humberts endured the assault, panting and hollering from below. It felt not right. There were women in the crowd, too, some of them dressed as Del Rey doppelgangers, donning floral tiaras like the one she wears on the cover of her “Video Games” single. Good girls wanting to be bad, or bad girls wanting to be good? Whatever that means.
What I do know is that the crowd was unflaggingly sympathetic to character they’d paid money to see on stage. As Del Rey shambled through her set list, barking out song titles gracelessly—”Blue Jeans.” “Let’s do ‘Video Games.’” “What are we doing? Oh, Okay, ‘Summertime Sadness.’”—the crowd’s adoration swelled. For the latter, which was particularly poor rendition of a “new” song, she assured us, “You’re going to fucking like it when it’s on the record.” I’m not convinced. I am, however, curious, which is why I was there (sans flower crown) watching the spectacle that is Lana Del Rey. Even when she admitted she was “practicing on” us, or when she promised “I’m not doing an encore, so don’t think I’m coming back,” (at this, two Lana Del Rey manager-type figures next to me groaned audibly) the crowd ate it up. There is an undeniably deep and ear-wormy hook in “Video Games” that gets under the skin, and there’s something transfixing about her face. I remember commenting to a coworker that I could imagine her in a David Lynch movie, which he thought sounded like a compliment. Maybe so, but I didn’t mean it to. I just meant that there’s something uncanny about her, and the fact that she’s managed to captivate an at-capacity audience at a notable New York venue is something you can’t write off. People love a catchy melody as much as they love a pretty face, but certain people will love both those things that much more if the artist is able to tap into their sympathies and tastes. The cues Del Rey gives when she sings say you are the bestest or You were sorta punk rock, I grew up on hip hop /But you fit me better than my favorite sweater, it conjures something in people’s brains that says “she’s with us,” and places her squarely on the cool side of a singing style that might otherwise be at home in a production of Once Upon A Mattress—for Lana Del Rey, every fuck you is reified. A legion of savvy producers and managers may have created her, but she needs (and appears to have) us to keep her alive.