Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Lana Del Rey, Manchester Apollo, 23rd May 2013 0/10

Lana Del Rey attracts such polarised opinion that I was determined to see her live so that I could make up my own mind. It started so auspiciously for her: the single Video Games became a viral Internet hit in 2011, rightly gaining an Ivor Novello award for its wonderfully dark melody. Yet, the turning point was a disastrously inept performance of this song on Saturday Night Live in January 2012. By this time, the truth about Lizzie Grant’s reinvention as Lana Del Rey, and her privileged background had emerged, and critical opinion became viciously scathing. Yet, this did nothing to prevent her album Born To Die being the fifth most popular last year, and neither did failing to live up to the promise of the early singles, or presence of mundane fillers. Yet the speculation about the veracity of her looks and cosmetic surgery has acted as a distraction from the key question of her artistic ability: this was what I set out to discover in Manchester.

The buzz around this performance was immense: it sold out in minutes (prompting the announcement of a second date), fans had been queuing for hours, and the touts were out in force. She was greeted like royalty: the last time I saw anything like this rapturous a reception from the audience was for TheWeeknd. Extended interludes whilst she signed autographs and received flowers were incorporated into the act: there was none of Abel Tesfaye's modesty. It was a night I will remember for a long time to come, and one which defies attempts at rationalisation. Not having had a desire to watch TV talent shows, I haven’t witnessed a performance so inept before. That such an embarrassing calamity came not from an obscure support act in a small venue, but from a supposedly world class artist was almost as perplexing as the excitement from the audience.

The key problem wasn't the music: the cinematic sound was far from unattractive, at its best in the sadder numbers such a Born to Die. Admittedly songs such as National Anthem and Off to The Races were weaker, where retro pop and jazz blended into hip hop. The sole cover, of David Lynch's Blue Velvet was bland. More of an issue was the vocals: her smoky contralto voice sounded alarmingly off key at times, and she struggled to replicate her studio poise. Yet this paled into insignificance compared to the woeful lack of stagecraft. The Guardian described her Glasgow date as a remarkably controlled performance, yet in reality it was languid: she literally just stood there and sung. There were choreographed moments, when she approached the audience at the front rail, but this couldn't disguise a lack of any visible response to the music.

The set design was distinctive in its lack of subtlety: the stage was flanked by two enormous gold lions, the lighting was elaborate, and the backing band lavishly included a string quartet. Yet, the band never really looked or sounded as though their heart was really in it: they were going through the motions. The video imagery and Art Deco set were clearly intended to give a cinematic atmosphere, culminating in the performance of Young and Beautiful from The Great Gatsby soundtrack, the only new song in a set heavily reliant upon extras from her Paradise Edition. There was an absence of passion and a surfeit of superficiality from the stage; but the audience's excitement was real. I stopped taking videos at gigs some time ago, but made an exception for this gig, my ability to describe the truly catastrophic nature of this performance exceeds my reservoir of adjectives.

Perhaps the lyrics give a hint of the truth. Lana sings of material and carnal desire, the closing National Anthem stating: "Money is the anthem of success... Winin' and dinin', drinkin' and drivin', excessive buyin'" Conceived in the aftermath of the financial crash, the entire act feels satirical. It's a sad reflection of the weakness of human nature that the audience failed to see that they are part of a joke about the vacuous nature of celebrity and consumerism. It's tempting to suggest that Lana hasn't been let in on it either, and that she's the victim of a manipulative record industry. Yet, she's hardly naive: she overcame an alcohol problem at the  age of 14 and went on to study metaphysics at Fordham University. Watching the astonishingly wooden, inept performance, it seems that Lizzie Grant collaborated in the construction of her persona as a work of conceptual art. She holds up a mirror to society, the epitome of fake. Those dark songs are a warning about undermining human relationships through the worship of fame and money.

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