April 10 It was almost impossible that Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die would live up to the anticipation generated through the hype of ‘Video Games’, yet it did. The combination of the self-styled “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” character – complete with David Lynch references – with an utterly contemporary pop sensibility was a marriage made to delight our ‘Mad Men’-obsessed generation. Of course, the dark and damaged “He done me so wrong but I can’t help loving him ‘cause he does me so right” shtick is a feminist nightmare, but as a character, Lana Del Rey is instantly both recognisable and appealing to the femme fatale-literate.
So much press coverage has focused on her inauthenticity – don’t we know she’s really just Lizzy Grant? – as if somehow the creation of a character cheapens the songs or somehow weakens our capacity to really engage with the music. Surely fans of Lady Gaga, Elton John, Tori Amos and David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, not to mention many, many more, would disagree? I didn’t care that Lana Del Rey wasn’t real, any more than I care that Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson are fictional, as long as their characters live through the vibrancy of Christina Hendricks’ and Elisabeth Moss’ acting, and of course the words and styling of the creators of ‘Mad Men’. So, as long as Lana sashayed onto the stage, drinking whiskey from the bottle (or one of Don Draper’s famous tumblers) as she purred those sultry songs into the microphone, I would have believed in her poor bruised heart without caring that somewhere there might be an attic containing a large, dusty portrait of Lizzy Grant.
In retrospect, it was a lot for a twenty-five year old who isn’t a professionally trained actor to pull off. There is no doubt that the woman on stage looked the part – beautiful in her skinny jeans and visible black bra under her oversized knotted Guns ‘n’ Roses t shirt (a smart, if obvious, PR move to stoke the is-she-isn’t-she dating Axl Rose rumours that conveniently surfaced just before the show – say what you like, the machine is impressive). Her voice isn’t bad either. Though it’s slightly thin in the high parts of the songs, she hits all the notes, and sounds pleasingly smoky in the lower register. It’s obvious that ‘Video Games’ and ‘Born To Die’ have benefitted from multiple performances, as she smoulders through them. The problems come in the moments in between songs (as might be expected – should she stay in character?), and with her confidence in her performance in general.
Selling Lana Del Rey requires a bucketload of confidence. The audience have to believe in a vulnerable siren, a woman capable of eliciting sympathy from women while simultaneously leaving men slain in her wake. A big ask for even a seasoned performer; almost impossible for what at times seemed like a kid with stage fright. Though her nerves were understandable, they undermined the entire show and left me confused as to why on earth the label hadn’t sent her to a drama coach for some intensive training on how to convincingly act a character that is, after all – in part at least – her own creation. Her unsure glances to the band before each song, and her hesitant introductions also made me wonder if she’d forgotten that this wasn’t a tough London press and industry audience but rather one made up primarily of HMV competition winners who’d bought the record. An audience who already liked her. It’s hard to connect with a performer with little stage presence, but harder still when you’ve been spoonfed exactly what to expect through the PR machine and then the opposite turns up.
There were a couple of moments that lifted her performance. The first came when she asked the band for a setlist change so she could do ‘Radio’, which she said was her favourite. She sang the song higher in places than on the record, and not only did it work but made me believe she genuinely did like the song. The second came in final song ‘Million Dollar Man’ when she added some vocal licks and ad libs. When she sang, “One for the money, two for the show”, it sounded anguished, and I liked it. I don’t know if it’s because she was genuinely connecting with that lyric or because she knew she could get off the stage after this one, but both possibilities really amount to the same thing. There was no encore, and no feverish clapping from the audience to elicit one. It was a somewhat abrupt ending at a point where there was a genuine spark of potential. A few extra songs (notable omissions were ‘Diet Mountain Dew’, ‘Lucky’ and non-album standout ‘You Can Be The Boss’) might have even given us more than a flash of Lana.
After the show, she headed to compulsory cool aftershow hangout Shoreditch House, Lana Del Rey still not off the clock, though I got the feeling that the girl on stage would rather have been back in her hotel room where she could floss and curl up with a TV boxset. With the news that her label has bought the rights to her previous Lizzy Grant record, there may be a chance to turn Lana back into Lizzy and have a performer comfortable performing in her own skin rather than someone else’s. I hope so. She’s a good songwriter with a good voice, and I would like to see more of her in whatever guise comes next.
On my own way home, I played ‘You Know I’m No Good’ by Amy Winehouse and ‘Baby, I Don’t Care’ by Transvision Vamp, and thought about how well the voices, lyrics and performances combined to make us really believe in the emotion of those songs, and how just one missing element can make the illusion come tumbling down. Even now, I’m listening to Born To Die record and it’s not quite doing it for me the way it was before. It’s like I saw the Teletubbies without their heads, or got a Christmas present from a Santa Claus uncomfortable around kids. I loved Lana Del Rey, was dying to see her live, and feel inexplicably gutted that I didn’t get to.