May 28, 2014


Lana Del Rey's 'Ultraviolence' Live is "Life Imitating Art," And Not In A Good Way

Matthew Lamb/LiveNationPNW
Matthew Lamb/LiveNationPNW

Real talk: I've seen Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Paul McCartney and Nine Inch Nails twice in the past year, and I have never, ever, ever heard a crowd shriek with unadulterated joy and unhinged rapture the way they did on the second night of Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence tour. The Little Monsters may let loose with blood-curdling screams and no one shouts "WHERE MY RING AT" louder than the Beyhive, but I have no idea what the girls in the flower crowns and American flag capes are yelling about when the chorus of "Young and Beautiful" comes around.

I went to the WaMu Theater in Seattle on Tuesday night with low expectations, to be honest. I wasn't impressed by Lana's Saturday Night Live performance from 2012 where she sang like she'd cleaned out a drugstore's antihistamine section before taking the stage. And for me, her out-of-it stage demeanor reinforces the disconnect between the words sliding down her dipping, perfectly controlled vibrato and the claim that these lyrics are personal to her experience. (She does have a co-author credit for the majority of her work, despite the lounge act of yester-century.) Lana is very much the vessel for "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans," but it seems she's not the owner of them—her voice is more of a passenger than the force behind the driver's seat of a great song.

Still, news of a supposedly killer set at Coachella, her take on "Once Upon A Dream" for Maleficent and the new stuff—especially the creepy as hell and totally addicting "Shades of Cool"—had me hoping to change my tune. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted to see why Dan Auerbach wanted to produce Ultraviolence in the first place, and if Lana Del Rey could shake the negative press from her industry-engineered beginnings, especially the SNL debacle. I wanted to see if Lana singing "National Anthem" in the flesh shined a different light on the young talent with the vintage voice and epic music videos. And most of all, I wanted to see if Lana would prove me wrong.

The worst criticism you can throw an artist's way is that they were just okay. If they're great, they're memorable, life-changing, whatever; if they're terrible, you can say they've seen better days, they need maturation or they're destined for a comeback. But okay? We're not impressed, and we're definitely not invested. "Okay" is just as damning a phrase as "horrible," and that's just what Lana's Seattle show—despite the puncturing screams of the audience—was. Okay. Not awful, not brilliant, not interesting, not memorable: simply okay. 

She can sing, absolutely. But can she perform? Can she provide more than background music and command the spotlight trained on her? Most songs are brimming with emotion, relatable scenarios and moments of human connection. Who cares if you can carry a tune if you can't sell what you're singing, or at least pretend the stanzas you've memorized have had an impact on you?

The show was visually stunning, with palm trees, exceptional lighting design and a monitor blasting her music videos throughout her 15-song set. The new stuff was fun, and the crowd (including numerous chaperones who were subject to several "DAAAAAD STAHP YOU'RE EMBARRASSING ME!" moments) was all about the older hits. But they sang the words to her hits back to her with more conviction than she displayed. 

Lana seemed most comfortable in the audience, posing for selfies with fans and signing autographs for six minutes in the middle of the show. She actually took a break from her performance to hug a few rows of concert-goers and sign autographs instead. Her adoring fans ate it up, but the rest of us—those who came to see her out of curiosity or simply to see live music—rolled our eyes at a seemingly self-indulgent gesture. This was supposed to be a pop show, not a pageant. Plenty of performers sign autographs after shows and amuse their fans with photo ops. And plenty of performers do so without an audience.

Still, the band was sensational, and Ultraviolence embraces melodrama and intrigue with a newfound strength that puts Born to Die to shame in a live setting. It's the woman singing Ultraviolence's songs who's just okay, despite what Kim and Kanye have to say about her. For me, the success and scream-inducing worship of an artist like Lana Del Rey is a troubling step in a direction that not only condones mainstream mediocrity, but encourages it.