Last week (November 4) I headed north to Manchester to catch Lana Del Rey’s first official gig at the Ruby Lounge. You can read a full report in this week’s issue of NME – which includes a rundown of her previously unheard songs, a look into how the show almost didn’t go on and exclusive live shots. In the meantime, however, here’s five things we learned that night, in order to tackle some of the mysteries and whispers that surround the controversial Lake Placid singer…
1 – She can carry a show
By now, you’ll no doubt have seen videos of Lana Del Rey performing on Later With Jools Holland, and the “live” clips that her label disseminated a few weeks back. It’s not unfair to say that she over-performed on both, inflecting ‘Video Games’ with an abundance of notes worthy of a desperate X Factor sing-off.
Deputy Ed Mike Williams and I witnessed her performance on …Jools from the studio, stood right next to Del Rey’s stage. She looked brittle-nerved as she clacked on and off set in enormous heels, snapping gum compulsively and barely cracking a smile. Which isn’t that surprising – making your live television debut before your debut single’s even out must be terrifying, especially in the wake of reams of vicious comments about you online.
However in the comparatively comfortable environs of her own gig, Del Rey hardly seemed nervous at all. Her voice was strident and nuanced rather than trying to demonstrate every note in her range (for the most part anyway), and much as her disconnected session band occasionally attempted to smother her, she never fell back on them, swaying gently, casually, and singing to the crowd.
2 – The spotlight loves her… and she loves it back
In practically everything written about Del Rey, there’ll be some allusion as to whether she’s had surgery. When I interviewed her for our Radar piece, she admitted to being hurt by the speculation around her image, and said that if she had known what a furore her appearance would provoke, she would never have put herself in her videos.
It’s an obvious point to make that most people enjoy the right kind of attention, but watching Del Rey live as the audience goes nuts, you can tell she’s really relishing having all eyes on her. She can hardly stop herself from grinning whilst trying to sing, like a cat that’s got the double, whipped and clotted cream – and to a certain extent, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be thrilled at the strong reception to her first gig proper.
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However, as she somewhat simperingly addresses the assembled punters as, “My sweet, sweet crowd,” and after ‘Blue Jeans’, faux-guilelessly asks, “What am I supposed to do when they don’t cheer for me again? I can’t take it, it’s so nice!”, hackles start to rise a little.
After encountering weeks of opprobrium, yes, it must be nice to see that some people do genuinely like you – but then a top ten-placing debut single, magazine covers, awards and invitations onto primetime TV are also pretty strong indicators of the same. The “they like me, they like me, they really really like me!” shtick is a little unnecessary.
3 – There’ll be no questioning her identity, ta very much
It can be both an artist’s greatest strength and an inescapable curse to keep a tight control on their artistic language – musical, aesthetic – from the off. It can help them build an immersive world for fans to buy into – a la Gaga, and even the Spice Girls – or be a ball and chain that they’ll drag around forever. Just try asking Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon if he wishes he could go back and erase all mention of recording in a log cabin.
After ‘Video Games’ first hit the web, much of what was written about Lana Del Rey cited “Hollywood sadcore” and called her the “gangster Nancy Sinatra”, both terms that she and her managers coined and became de facto reference points despite being fairly empty in meaning. An early, secret show at New York’s Glassland elicited no reports, despite being full of journalists – just galleries of extremely on-brand sepia pictures.
With control over her image and responses to the gig lost to Twitter and the rows of camera phones in the room, the production values of this show are incredibly tight, framing Del Rey precisely as she wants to be seen. There are two enormous balls hanging from the ceiling, onto which clips from the videos to ‘Video Games’ and ‘Blue Jeans’ are projected, interspersed with footage of her on photoshoots. From NME‘s vantage point, at one stage Del Rey is captured between two sepia-tinted shots of the American flag flapping in the wind. Naturally, any band’s live set-up is part of their self-perception and presentation, but for a first show in a fairly dingy bar, this is a lot of effort.
4 – ‘Video Games’ is a one-off, in many respects
The big question is: does she have any more songs? The short answer is: yes. None of ‘You Can Be The Boss’, ‘Born To Die’, ‘Radio’, ‘Off to The Races’, ‘Million Dollar Man’ and ‘Without You’ are quite as flooring as ‘Video Games’, but then that song is fairly extraordinary. Del Rey’s other songs are all marked by similar swooning strings, a light hip-hop percussive bounce, and a way with a rolling chorus that’s easily to sing along to after a few rounds. And in ‘Radio’, she’s hit on pop fundamental #371, whereby any song that features the word “radio” is guaranteed primetime playlisting.
The long answer? Whilst these songs are magnetic, many of them lack the beguiling ambiguity of ‘Video Games’. There, was she the world’s most permissive, besotted girlfriend, or wracked with sarcasm in the face of a chump who ignores her in favour of playing GTA? Many of the lyrics to her other songs are fairly submissive, allowing herself to be judged through the lenses of cameras, the eyes of others, and offering herself up as a china doll to be broken.
5 – Your parents will be borrowing her debut album off you
This was definitely my favourite Twitter response to the performance.
Much of the above may sound sceptical and a little fence-sitting – and it is, to a certain extent. But be aware that these are judgements made after her first ever official performance – she was nervous, we were wracked with anticipation – and that her coming gigs in Europe and the UK might elicit totally different responses. Much as Del Rey has been ubiquitous for months, it’s still incredibly early days, and it’d be loathsome to write her off – or fully buy into the circus – on the basis of her first ever show.
Did you see Lana Del Rey play Manchester or Glasgow? Have you got tickets for any of her other dates? Let us know what you’re expecting, why you’re excited – or why you couldn’t care less.
Grab this week’s magazine for a full lowdown on LDR’s debut performance.