Lana Del Rey took the stage last night at the Aragon accompanied by what is really the only Beatlesesque aspect of a pop concert experience these days: the Scream. The teen scream that greeted Lana was unlike any sound I’ve ever heard in person, save perhaps on a runway. Lana Del Rey was briefly an “indie” sensation, but as a fully formed pop heroine, she belongs to the pop masses, who in a large part are young women, young women who love a good public scream on a Friday night.
By now, you’re likely familiar with the Lana Del Rey story.
Celebrated as a next big thing by the indie music press a few years back, her discovery status was revoked when it was discovered she had previously recorded pop tunes under her real name, Lizzie Grant. Worse yet for the authenticity police, it turned out she was signed with a major label long before the “organic” wave of hype had begun. It looked to some as if this contrived character of Del Rey with her impossibly pouty lips, trailer park glam image, perfectly executed promo photos and button-pushing viral videos had somehow duped a music media and us as well. The tastemakers at Pitchfork were so helpless to resist her expert popcraft they’d forgotten to man the indie barricades properly.
An immediate backlash, aided by a tentative vocal in an SNL performance, followed. But the haters had nothing on Lana Del Rey who went on to be among the biggest new artists of 2012. While the album Born to Die hardly measured up to the seductive and hypnotic singles that made Del Rey a sensation to begin with, it was good enough to get the job done and connect with young women in a big way. Del Rey’s doom-and-glam mix, her unfunky rapping, her deadpan to almost emotionally numb delivery and American gothic aesthetic connected in a way that betrayed something deeper than industry savvy and creative director dreamed-up visuals.
Two years later, you would think that this backdrop hardly matters. Born to Die was the number 5 worldwide seller of 2012. The truth is that Lana Del Rey is authentic as they come—Marilyn Monroe and Joe Strummer also remade themselves for showbiz. But authenticity doesn’t translate into great music, a great backstory or a great night out. Del Rey is equal parts an industry hustler and a dreamy east coast girl who launched her pop career from a trailer park in New Jersey. Since then, she’s made a short film (the snicker-inducing “Tropico”), turned out some convincing festival performances and surfaced with a new Dan Auerbach–produced single “West Coast.”
So at the Aragon last night, we were hoping to find out if Lana Del Rey can deliver the magic again, if her show can overcome the somewhat drab production on her multi-million-selling album, see what that alchemy was to begin with and get a taste of the next potion. Frankly, it was hard to suss any of this out.
Del Rey played “West Coast,” the new single off the upcoming Ultraviolence album but refrained from unveiling a new raft of tunes. Instead, she stuck to Born to Die. Why artists with new albums won’t play their new songs live is beyond me; it smacks of cynical anticipation building. It was more about leaving them wanting more than giving them their money’s worth last night. Isn’t it more fun to play some new shit though?
On the upside, Del Rey has a warm presence. She slinked around the stage slowly, almost as if she’s partially underwater, never overdoing it. She’s more class than sass, with her enthusiasm for her fans coming through in earnest banter (“This place is so gorgeous”), perpetual smiles and lengthy autograph-signing sessions for the front row. She’s not so poised as to be sophisticated and bored, and noticeably more relaxed in bare feet. She returned from one front row visit wearing flowers in her hair, looking more like many of her fans than when she took the stage.
As far as I know, she can sing, effortlessly it seemed, moving between her casual rapping style and the torch-song-like approach she takes on Born to Die. In a venue with better acoustics, this might have been a marvel or her limitations might have been revealed, but at the reflective, echo-drenched and hazy-sounding Aragon, it merely meant that Del Rey held her own, but her vocals were far from intelligible.
It’s hard not to notice that the gloom and glamour mix Del Rey debuted with may not be so potent as before, especially delivered from a smiling, healthy Del Rey. Her songs, built around a singular voice on record, don’t have the same impact when lit up by a rock band with guitar and live drums playing around trees and furniture that give the stage the feel of a Pier 1 Imports made up to look like the Garden of Earthly Delights.
Del Rey had plenty of memorable moments amid a physically reserved set. Her leisurely booty drop in “Body Electric” brought forth a roar from the crowd. Her shimmy dance in “Radio” had a charming, unguarded quality to it. Musically, her most unsubtle singalong material, “Summertime Sadness” for instance, trumped her more somber tunes. The jazzy “Million Dollar Man” classed things up with a lounge singer-worthy piano intro, but Del Rey hasn’t yet figured out how to make the sets ebb and flow in a journey that works to her advantage.
It was a night in which the crowd, ravenous for a bite of Lana Del Rey, was always looking for a seat at the table, a place to participate in the phenomena. There were some singalong moments, but at the end of the night, despite the enigmatic presence of Del Rey, these personal American anthems don’t seem to fit right on the big stage. They’re better on YouTube.