FROM MK: Please welcome PopBytes’s newest contributor, Bruce Russo Jr.! We have been friends for quite some time on Twitter, and he also happens to hail from Long Island like myself. I loved his take on Lana Del Rey‘s NYC shows a few weeks ago, and I thought he would be a great addition to Team PopBytes! Follow Bruce on Twitter: @octoberxswimmer and visit his website, A Place to Bury My Thoughts.
It happened. It really happened. The enchanting songstress Lana Del Rey finally serenaded me. If you are unaware of my intense affections for said artist, you should refer to my pseudo-manifesto “Hate to Love: Deconstructing Lana Del Rey.” Or you could scroll through my Facebook wall and read how I salivate over everything she releases. Whether it is a poster for a new music video or a paparazzi shot of her with Marilyn Manson. But within that essay, I explain my (dramatic) relationship to Lana Del Rey. I document all the highs and lows of our affair. I didn’t always love Lana Del Rey. I wrestled with it. She’s a crafty and cunning bitch. She broke my heart with “Video Games” last summer. I couldn’t get enough of her deep drawl. It was on repeat repeat repeat. I blasted it in the car for friends with the windows rolled down. A song you wouldn’t correlate rolling down your windows for but for me it was. It was a melancholic anthem. It was my jam. I listened to it in my apartment from my laptop. It was on every playlist and mixtape for months. It was staggering how she managed to craft a song that effortlessly pulled at every heartstring attached to that mysterious beating organ in my chest. I was an avid fan. I jumped on that ship as it was embarking from the shore.
Then the news of a former version of Lana Del Rey existed and it broke all over the internet. Lizzy Grant. The rumors of plastic surgery, a millionaire father who bought her a record contract with a major record label, etc. I felt cheated, duped and deceived. And so did many other people. There were thousands of think pieces on so many sites, blogs, magazines and newspapers. It took months for me to heal those wounds. Autumn came along and she played Bowery Ballroom in New York City. I knew all about the show but I was defiant in my revulsion towards her. She hurt me. I refused to give her a penny from the pocket of my blue jeans. She wounded me in a way only a lover could. Not that I was romantically involved with her, though on occasion I did imagine a very vivid romance with her. I connected with her, to her music. I dropped my guard for her. I let her in. The sentiment of “Video Games” was so relatable. She crafted a song sad New York boys like me could genuinely connect with. Alienated. Alone. Melancholic. Sad. Depressed. Hurt by ex-boyfriends, etc. The fact that she could convey all of these emotions and still look so good? She’s every flawed character in those indie dramas. She was every French New Wave actress from the 1960s. The protagonist in a film or novel you admired and adored. Beautiful yet afflicted with a deep sadness. A depression. Whether this sadness commenced internally or externally, it didn’t matter. A depraved childhood or a having a junkie for a lover. It was the consequences they wore on their sleeves that mattered. Literally. Dressed immaculately. Makeup so flawless. Hair, locks of it flowing down on bare shoulders. They pouted. She pouted. Lana Del Rey crafted this image of a doomed, scorned, antihero vixen. She sold this narrative in her songs, in her style and in her music videos. Unlike pop stars of the moment, like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry who are looking to shock with spectacle and stuck-in-your-head-tv-jingle-like melodies, Lana Del Rey was crafting something that seemed so much more “authentic.” She offered something different. But it’s this authenticity that was (and still is) being attacked and criticized. Even to this day, I have not fully forgiven Lana Del Rey. Nor has she really confronted these criticisms. There was no interview with Barbara Walters on 20/20 where Lana Del Rey came clean about her past and the involvement (or lack thereof) of her father or Interscope Records in crafting this impeccable self image. She may have had a number one record in a lot of countries and landed a gig on SNL, but she hasn’t reached a level of fame to warrant an interview with someone like Barbara Walters. Honestly, I don’t think she wants that level of fame and neither do I want that for her. She’s in a perfect space right now. Just famous enough but she can still get by walking in Manhattan without being noticed.
I realized I wasn’t going to get answers about her past. This isn’t how Lana Del Rey operates. She seems to exist in this fictional realm of reality, where nothing matters. She seems to have weaved a world of nostalgia and beauty. If she remains doe-eyed and gorgeous and stays quiet, perhaps the naysayers will subside. This is exactly what Lana Del Rey did. After she “bombed” on Saturday Night Live (which I would refute) she went quiet. She cancelled her scheduled show at SXSW; a show I was really looking forward to in Austin. She continued to tour Europe where she was more well received. She played small venues there, even accepting an award at the BRIT Awards. She did some “meet and greets” at local record stores on the west coast. She canceled gig after gig. The latest one in Tokyo due to supposed “exhaustion,” which was only a few days before her first night of three shows at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. I realized I just had to let it go. She released Born to Die and it was everything I ever wanted from her. The 60s drawl, the hip-hop rhymes. The trip-hop lounge production, the slight dubstep electronic swarming beats. On record, she was the artist I always wanted. A songstress that can balance the fine line between “indie” and pop. She has the (financial) support of a superstar like Gaga. She’s got a distinctive look and voice. Comparable to someone like Amy Winehouse. The narrative Lana Del Rey has crafted is similar to the narrative of Amy Winehouse. But there was something more genuine, more authentic about the woes of Amy Winehouse. She lived and breathed that narrative on and off stage. Where have we seen Lana Del Rey drunk and falling down in the tabloids? She sings of doing party favors, getting high and loving bad boys that may or may not have died on her. But all I see offstage is a good stylist, an innocent young looking face, and her arm around older famous men (Marilyn Manson, Steven Tyler, Axl Rose). Maybe it’s too soon to see her descent in the tabloids. Perhaps she has a great publicist. A publicist similar to Gaga’s who seems they would cut throats if a (true) story was leaked. Gaga has kept her demons out of the public eye better than any pop star I know.
So here we are. June 7th 2012. Lana Del Rey is playing the first of three sold-out shows at New York City’s Irving Plaza. She just played three dates at the infamous El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. I vicariously went to these shows, while reading my timeline on Twitter. I had a few friends live-tweeting their experiences. Since she canceled her Tokyo show just days before her first show in Los Angeles, I was terrified she was going to cancel her residencies in Los Angeles and New York. But her “exhaustion” must have turned into replenishment, because she showed up to all three dates in Los Angeles and each show seemed to go splendidly.
The Boy meets Jenna and I in Union Square. Jenna and I have already walked past Irving Plaza to check out the scene. There were already fans/little monsters lined up outside the venue. This is when it first hit me. The butterflies. The moths in the stomach. I haven’t loved an artist this much since Lady Gaga.* Since I missed out on her performance at Bowery Ballroom, I’ve been waiting for her to play New York City again. For a second I contemplated trying to get into her SNL gig but the thought of all those Harry Potter fans there for Daniel Radcliffe who was hosting the episode kept me away. I had several months to study/analzye/love Born to Die. I fell hard for her record. Yes, I was listening to demos of most of those songs months before that, but there’s nothing like a produced studio track. With the exception of “National Anthem,” I enjoy the xanaxed production on all the songs. The album had a cohesive feel; the narrative was pulled together and no longer fraying at its edges. Some of the demo versions of her songs seemed so disparate. I wondered what thesis she wanted to execute. On the album, she found a way to incorporate all her sounds. If only, the CD booklet came with footnotes and citations my respect for Lana Del Rey as an artist would increase. Her influences and inspirations are not hidden, but someone unfamiliar with particular genres of music and cultural movements might mistaken her narrative as completely original. And Lana Del Rey is so sly with this. So much is almost seems like forgery. She incorporates her own image within these homages to the past in her “vintage” short films and music videos. Her whole narrative almost seems pastiche until you hear the hip-hop beat, to remind you it’s current, it’s original, it’s incorporating genres not usually heard together. That you are listening to something new and possibly groundbreaking.
We walk over to Irving Plaza and the line is now wrapped around the block. It’s not ridiculously long. But I still wonder how all of these people are going to fit into this relatively small venue. Seeing Lana Del Rey’s name on the marquee of this venue gives me goosebumps. I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Irving Plaza. From bands like Our Lady Peace, Goldfinger, Lords of Acid, Alkaline Trio, Dashboard Confessional, MxPx, The Killers, Rainer Maria, Placebo, Modest Mouse and most recently The Promise Ring. It’s such an intimate venue, one of my favorites in New York City. We find the end of the line and I’m feeling nauseous not knowing what to expect when Lana Del Rey gets on stage. A gaggle of gays get on line just behind us. I recognize one of them. A friend of friend in New York. A friend of a friend in Austin. I already re-introduced myself to this friend of a friend in Austin during SXSW, and I wasn’t going to do it again in New York. In Austin we joked about hanging out in New York since he was moving to Greenpoint in a few months from Baltimore. He’s internet famous but I won’t disclose how here. The boys he is with are those obnoxious types of gays who brag about traveling for work by complaining how horrible it is that they have to go to Spain, Montreal, or Paris. At one point they are talking about Azealia Banks’ Mermaid Ball that happened a few nights prior, which coincidentally me, The Boy and Jenna all attended. Then Friend of a Friend talks about an Elite Gymnastics show I didn’t even hear about and I had to intrude their conversation. Friend of a Friend doesn’t (verbally) acknowledge knowing me and avoids that awkward conversation. Which was okay because I didn’t want to have that conversation anyway. I was too nervous about the show to even form complete thoughts.
We are being let into the venue. We show our IDs. Get drink bracelets. I order the biggest can of beer so I never have to leave my spot in the crowd. The can is so cold, I am volleying it between both my hands. I’m getting anxious as the venue fills up with more and more people. There is quite an array of people. There are so many gays. There are so many couples. Ages are all over the place. I see older gentlemen and I see what seems like teenagers. On stage there seems to be a forest. Hedges. Foliage. Bushes. Trees. It’s rather bizarre to see such an elaborate “set” at such a small venue. Irving Plaza is where successful bands go to play an intimate set, without theatrics. But the garden on stage is welcoming and serene. It doesn’t seem theatrical. Frank Sinatra is being played over the sound system. I’m doing the best I can to document my experiences through Twitter and Facebook which I’m actually referring to as I write this. Isn’t that what good writers/journalists do? It’s easy during the opening act Zebra Katz because I’m not much of a fan. Jenna and I investigated a little before we got into Manhattan. It sounds like spoken word drag over electronic beats. They play an annoying song titled “Hipster” where they actually spell out Brooklyn. Gross. The female singer in this duo has old lady neck. The last song was actually not bad. The crowd seems to be into it. I wonder why Lana Del Rey chose this act to open up for her. I’ve never heard of them but Yelle tweeted about them recently. They have 40,000 views or so on YouTube. They must have some kind of following. They look bizarre on a stage with all the shrubbery. Their sound is very artificial and “urban” if you will. An organic natural setting seems off. I realize this is a side of Lana Del Rey that the “world at large” doesn’t know about. The hip-hop beats. The trip-hop vibe. It’s all part of the mélange that Lana Del Rey has crafted for herself. The “world at large” hears “Video Games” and think they have her pegged. This is why I think her team/management/record label is marketing her all wrong. Stop performing “Video Games” on every late night talk show! But more on this a little later because I believe the next chapter in the Lana Del Rey narrative is about to begin. Zebra Katz play a short 20 minute set. They leave the stage and my heart begins to race thinking about Lana Del Rey being 20-30 feet away from me. I’ve watched almost every live television performance she has ever done. I’ve seen her doll-faced and pouty in all her videos. She’s has always been framed for me. By a television, computer screen or phone. Like a moving piece of art. Could this impeccable image translate in the real world?
Two minutes after 10pm Lana Del Rey takes the stage at Irving Plaza. Images we have been accustomed to since the first incarnation of Lana Del Rey were projected on a screen behind her. Clips of Elvis. Clips of her looking beautiful, elegant, seductive, model-esque. Retro-nostalgia. The crowd screams for her. A reaction I was not anticipating. It was overwhelming and this wave of excitement passed through me. These were real genuine fans. I was worried the audience was going to be filled with doubters and hecklers. With the exception of a few girls in the crowd looking at me weird when I threw my hands up in the air during “Summertime Sadness,” it seemed everyone was genuinely into it. It wasn’t what I imagined. It’s like every time Courtney Love and/or Hole plays a show. Half the audience are there for the spectacle. Waiting for Courtney to say something she’ll regret or hit a security guard with a guitar because he was messing with a fan. I thought half of the audience at Lana Del Rey was waiting for her vocals to go off key or to hear her mess up lyrics. I thought they were waiting for her signature twirls which have become internet memes. Her nervousness has become a running joke. But it seemed all of Irving Plaza were there to support her, to love her. It felt good to just let go in the company of solid fans. I’ve spent the last year defending her relentlessly. I too, suffered from her seeming deception. A capitalistic major label artist crafted, written and sold to the “alternative” class as an “indie” artist. We feel we are smarter than that. That we are aware when we are being manipulated. Her origin story is filled with holes. It doesn’t help that her father is a successful millionaire either. But I gave all that up. I let the songs stand for themselves. I allowed Lizzy Grant to be whoever she wanted to be. Lana Del Rey. May Jailer. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Her songs rip through me. Who cares if she only co-wrote all of the songs on her album. It felt so good to be in a venue filled with people just like me, who defended her endlessly on Twitter and Facebook too. We had to have conversation after conversation with friends arguing why they should give her a chance, or a second one. I talked honestly about my tribulations with her. How she seemingly deceived me and how awful it felt when she was portraying a sadness I could relate to. But realizing this sadness was possibly a masquerade, a fable, a tenet or precept in the lore of Lana Del Rey. These fans have been through it all with her. Just like me. The cheers for her were thunderous and she heard it. She almost seemed surprised by the welcoming response. Before she even started singing her first song “Blue Jeans,” she playfully stuck her tongue out in response to the cheering, in her playful Lolita-type way only she could get away with. I was officially smitten.
She looked otherworldly. Even in person. Beautiful. A short white dress girls couldn’t get away with wearing in high school. Her hair “up all real big beauty queen style” with what looked like two blue jays in her hair. She looked coquettish yet sophisticated. She looked clean and elegant yet provocative. She looked like she was pulled straight out of those vignettes that were being projected behind her. She really was able to translate this impeccable image into the real world.
She was remarkable. After “Blue Jeans” you could tell she was relieved by the positive reception. Her nervousness tapered off. You can tell she was much more comfortable in front of her fans than say the millions of people watching her on SNL or American Idol. She does lack stage presence. But she’s not a performer. You can read her performances two ways. Either she’s genuinely a nervous wreck. She’s a singer-songwriter. It makes sense that Lana Del Rey would be awkward and unsure of herself on stage. She’s a wounded songstress who has experienced tragedies, heartbreak and loneliness. How could she command a stage like Beyonce or Katy Perry? She’s not Gaga. She doesn’t want to be. She’s not looking to shock or entertain wearing a bra with tits that explode fireworks. It’s just her, a microphone and a few people playing strings on stage, almost hidden behind all of the shrubbery. Simple. Sophisticated. Pronounced. But she will fumble and fall. Just like Cat Power did. Just like Fiona Apple did. It took years for Fiona Apple to develop a stage presence. And even to this day, it is vulnerable and intimate, which is nothing you get from pop stars like Lady Gaga or Beyonce. It’s all the more real. It’s all the more authentic to see her nervousness.
The other option is that Lana Del Rey is feigning nervousness or a lack of stage presence. Perhaps there’s an unplanned genuine nervousness mixed with feigned nervousness. Perhaps she’s performing as an “artist.” Back in the day, concerts were simple. A woman at a microphone, allowing her voice and song to carry the weight of the “performance” we expect today. Is it an act all together? Is Lana Del Rey just an actress? Is she just playing a role? Did she not do an encore because that seems too stagey? Is a show without an encore more genuine? Does it break the fluidity of the scene she was trying to create on stage? Does it break character? Would an encore break Lana Del Rey as the character or is a girl like Lizzy Grant too modest to force people to cheer for her to come back on stage? I like to believe she is the former. I would like to believe she is awkward and nervous because that is who she is. Not everyone is a great performer and that is okay.
But despite her lack of stage presence she commanded her audience in her own unique way. Her swaying. Her holding her ribcage as she sang. I feel as if half the time her eyes were closed feeling the moment, feeling the song. Or maybe she was pretending there’s no one there watching her, or she’s imagining everyone in their underwear. There are moments when she gets more confident. When she knows she nailed a song perfectly she giggles or smirks. Her arms outstretched to the audience as if she’s some sort of fairy or angel in this misty garden full of purple, blue and pink lights. At times it was hard to tell if she was actually hitting every note because the crowd was singing along most of the time. I like to believe she did in fact hit every note and then some. Particularly, “Million Dollar Man” stood out to me vocally. Lana took the bluesy-lounge feel of that song by the throat. Vocally, she brought that song up and down and around. I was amazed. Her between song banter barely exists and when it does it’s either mumbled or inaudible because of all the clapping and cheering going on. I do remember while “National Anthem” was winding down she said something like, “Ugh. I don’t want to go home now. You’ve been so good.” It was adorable and I really didn’t want her to go. I went a little crazy during that song, throwing my hands up in the air and singing along with her. I made sure to scream that “kiss kiss” part. In the demo it was much more prominent but it’s still there on the album proper. When she performed “Born to Die” The Boy and I turned towards each other when we heard her sing “Let me fuck you hard in the pouring rain” instead of the tame PG version that’s on the album. She played one of my favorite bonus tracks on the album “Without You” and changed the lyrics a little bit. Usually I don’t like to hear new songs I don’t know by a band in a live setting but with Lana Del Rey it’s different. I was eager to hear something new. To hear something post-Born-to-Die. The new song “Body Electric” gave me chills. After a little bit of googling I got to hear some more of the lyrics. She name-drops Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jesus and Walt Whitman. It might sound more of the same but I’m totally into it.
My one gripe about the show or shows in general is the lack of change. All six dates she played were exactly the same. Same setlist. Same order of songs. Same everything. She did change outfits and hairstyles but other than that she seemed to follow a script. What kind of artist does something like that? Doesn’t an artist want to explore the possibilities? Doesn’t an artist want to see what works live and what doesn’t? Doesn’t an artist get bored playing the exact same songs, in the exact same order every night? Did she want to keep all the shows democratic? Did she want each fan to have the same experience as the next fan? By not changing the setlist, did that offer more people to come to her show since most people wouldn’t want to see the same show twice? Is it how I prepare for a presentation in class by literally reading off of my paper. If I did something different, went off on a tangent, or was asked a question I wasn’t prepared for, my entire presentation would fall to pieces. Perhaps consistency keeps her focused? Keeps her nervousness at bay?
While Lana played song after song, and my heart was racing and my body was shaking, the shrubbery started to make sense to me. It resembled a garden. Or a jungle. Like she’s Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. Or perhaps she’s Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon. Is it the Garden of Eden? Is she Eve? The original sinner. Is she playing up Nabokov’s Lolita? The seductress. The femme fatale. The Siren. Lana Del Rey has said in interviews that she is obsessed with aesthetics. Colors. Shapes. Textures…in sound and material things. She uses words like “sonically” and “theoretically.” The shrubbery on stage at Irving Plaza has significance. Bushes, shrubs, trees, etc. Lots of green. Foliage. Barely flowers. Just a hint of spring. A hint of blossom/blossoming. Almost style over substance. But isn’t that okay in an image-obsessed society? I feel as if these six shows she played on both coasts of the United States were meant to seem intimate and ethereal. She chose to strip down these songs even more so than on her album with just her voice and a few string instruments. She wanted to create this naturalistic space on stage, to play these “acoustic” and raw versions of these songs. It almost seemed like an ode or farewell to this version of herself. Not an actual valediction. I think the hint of blossoming flowers on stage and the fact that she closed her show with probably her most upbeat radio-friendly song “National Anthem” is her turning the page of her narrative. “National Anthem” is her most nihilistic, self-absorbed, shallow song. It’s shamelessly materialistic and self-indulgent. It’s the only song out of the ten she performed that didn’t quite fit with her downtempo natural acoustic tone. I think she is ready to begin a new chapter of Lana Del Rey. I think she’s ready to show the world another side of herself. She wants to step away from the ballads and quiet songs and pursue another version of herself. The pop vixen if you will.
After the show we decided to hang out outside of Irving Plaza and wait for her to leave the backstage door. Security set up guardrails, so we knew she was coming out. Little did I know that she would spend at least a half-hour signing CD booklets, posters and drawings. She smiled for pictures and hugged people for an awkward amount of time. She was sweet and thoughtful. She knew when she was being taken advantage of and who her true fans were. She had a sexy British “handler” that was escorting her through the crowd. I was so intimated by her. It was so surreal watching her interact with her fans. She’s awkward. But it’s endearing. I was trying to formulate a sentence in my head that I would say to her and I couldn’t even do that. So, there was no way I would be able to convey that to her. So, I watched everyone scream her name. “Lana! Lana! Lana!” It was rather bizarre. People were sometimes pushy and aggressive to get close to her. Celebrity and fame is such a strange thing. I can never wrap my mind around it. They are like ghosts. They seem unreal when they are in “real” locations. She was genuinely interested to interact with her fans. It didn’t seem inauthentic or staged. She was adorable and endearing. Everything rang true. All I wanted was a hug from her that lingered a little too long. I have that image of that boy she consoled outside one of her Los Angeles shows. The way she cradled his head in her chest seemed so genuine. She is a different breed of pop star (if you can call her that). She speaks to a whole different emotional set. She sings about the despondency of lost love, ruined love, loneliness, depression, etc. She’s not singing about claiming your identity (Gaga’s “Born This Way”) or (Katy Perry’s “Firework”) or (Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R”). These are love songs not a human rights campaign. Simple yet not. It’s what lured me to her initially with “Video Games.” There was something about Lana Del Rey that I connected with deeply. She gets it. She just gets it. And I know that hug would have completed my affections for her. Everything would have seemed all right for just those few seconds in her arms. Without her even knowing my name, we would instantly connect with a simple hug, a simple touch. It’s extraordinary to connect with an artist on such a level. It’s takes someone special to do that and Lana Del Rey is fucking special.
* For the record I’m a little monster for reasons I explain in other blog entries. I’m not your typical Gaga disciple. I promise.
** All photographs were taken by me with an iPhone 4.