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The Calvert Report

An American Nightmare: Lana Del Rey Live By John Calvert
John Calvert , September 27th, 2012 06:02

This week The Calvert Report attempts to understand Lana Del Rey live, "chart music where death is a 'dark paradise'". Live photo by Katja Ogrin

I met her last year. She talked about loneliness and how she never had any time for religion, until she got into some trouble in New York and prayed in her bed, and God became a light. She laughed like a hellion and at other times was melancholic, said she would never sing again if anyone hurt her family, said she hoped I wasn't an assassin, because the week prior to our conversation, and the week after 'Video Games' blew up, the American blogs had written terrible things, about her father and her past. She told me all her best friends were Glaswegian and that sometimes she felt out of control. She told me depression was something she knew all about, after she was sent away to school at 15, and again at 18, when she moved to Manhattan and would walk the streets at night in lieu of having anyone. She said she'd been the prey of industry seniors, fiends testing how far she was willing to go for success, and that things can get 'a little crazy' in that way. She said that she was looking for love not sex.

I listened back on that interview tonight, this night on the edge of winter, on the way up to the fearsome queues and The Roundhouse. I noticed something I hadn't a year ago. At the end of the recording I speak softly in farewell and the way you do when you're being grateful. She responds to my newly tender tone with a baby-doll at bedtime act; her small-town accent, permanently on the verge of a croak, pulled into tongue-clicking cuteness. Yes it's Psycho(tic)-sexual. It's Marilyn in white and blood. I think about The Exorcist, Karras replaying his dark afternoon in reverse in a shabby office, alone with the knowledge of his imminent fate on the steps of M Street. I was spooked on the Northern Line to Camden Town.

You see, whoever works on marketing Lana Del Rey as pop star, and deriving this image from the raw material of Lizzie Grant, got the idea only after meeting the girl. I'm sure of it, always have been. Because what are we talking about here but pop music as self-abjection, as self-defeat, a distorted sexuality and a very American kind of strangeness, completely at odds with an art-form where vitality, competition, confidence and most of all triumph have always been the real message, however agonized the subject matter. And it is for this reason – the woman she is and the music she inspired - that tonight is a bust for the iTunes competition winners. The songs are slow - slow in their crawling, blossoming darkness and slow in their languorous glamour. It has a way of highlighting just how rare Born To Die was, how depth and measure are a lost art amid the most prolonged dominance of dance pop since the 80s - the same hegemony that made 'Video Games' such a exotic proposition last year. But tonight these widowed ballads leave the audience at a loss for what to do with themselves. And I think to myself 'what were they expecting?' Light years from the days of Britney-pop, this is chart music where death is a "dark paradise", where lovers are united only "on the other side", where the wish to die is always placed in uncanny parallel with sexual longing, and where affectless 'Lolitas' give themselves over to gold-toothed wolves, who watch them "through the glass" like "trap door mammas." Irresponsible? Manufactured in some studio laboratory? Detrimental to the cause of feminism? Yeah, all these things. But frankly I don't give a fuck. Because this is pop music at its most sinister, and which has found its way into the very highest levels of the mainstream - maximum exposure. And so 2011's most ubiquitous pop song expires on: "Now you're doomed... Now you're doomed."

And as I always do when I'm covering these kind of events, in order to better understand the artist I try to put myself in the place of the artist's fans, in this case the battery of teen girls at the front; no mean feat for a semi-neurotic 32-year-old male with short hands and weird hair. How do they relate this stuff to their own lives, I think. Do they identify with the perceived artistic beauty of suicide? Or the thrill of bad men? Or maybe the apocalyptic melodrama, because every setback seems like that as a kid? Ah maybe I'm over-thinking it and it's just the glamour and the great singing they like. Then again, maybe they feel empowered by their female idol? Who knows? In truth, for all I know the Lynchian aesthetic is so ingrained in the popular consciousness by now that even kids understand and take as much pleasure in Lynchism as an adult film fan such as myself does. But if so, then just what the hell are they internalising here, at such a young age? I think about my ex-girlfriend, who played this album for weeks on end, and who dealt habitually with obsession and hopelessness like they were knives she kept. I know now what she saw in old Lana.

The underwhelmed audience are whelmed further under by a number of factors. For starters, there are no drums – substituted for a piano on rhythm duties. Along with lending extra menace, on Born To Die the drums modernised the songs, offering either Bjork-ian industrial percussion or slow-jam R&B rhythms: sorely absent here, at least where the good time revellers are concerned. To make matters worse, there's an extended section featuring just Lana and the piano, stripping 'Million Dollar Man' of its pendulum-assed strut, while the (let's face it) Shakespeare Sister-esque 'Radio', Born To Die's most bewitching track, loses its hip-hop beat and fatalistic synths. And with just the ivories as accompaniment, 'Video Games' is suddenly upon us and suddenly over. It's a non-starter when it should have been a blockbuster. There's no peaks, no downs, no arc here; no signposts and markers to orientate the crowd around the set; just a listless and twitching plateau.

And then there's Lizzie herself. Reaching out from behind dramamine eyes is a frail, dazed and, yes, industry-coerced person, entirely ill-suited to the world of corporatised entertainment, with its expensive sets and Howitzer-like TV cameras; with people everywhere, sitting around the floor, swarming the sound desk and leaning from between rigging, or else watching live from home on the iTunes livecast.

She creeps on stage, as if there's a chance we won't notice. So that she can feel comfortable in herself, you sense, she's dressed down in a white sweatshirt and blue jeans, with long curly black hair everywhere. She looks like my sister's mates did in 1992: mooching and insecure, listening to 'Under The Bridge' on repeat and wishing they were Julia Roberts in Dying Young. She moves poorly around the stage, awkward with tension, from one predetermined stage position to the next, and holds her mic close to her chest and under her lowered chin, like a 12-year-old. She switches hands on her mic stand several times in the space of seconds, and occasionally hunches over it, grappling for support. She puts one hand in a hip pocket, removes it, and mutters unintelligible stage patter between mic sounds of snuffled, breathy tittering.

The front rows scream regardless, but she's lost the outlying crowds already. Throughout the second half of 'Video Games' she climbs carefully up to the crowd and, unsure of what to do next, stands there like a marionette, making twinkly stars out of her hands as girls paw at her hair. She's sniggering awkwardly again, through the chorus now, as she poses for camera phones - brow to brow with sweaty teenagers, still singing, always smiling. This is the real Lana Del Rey, how I remember her, and the person who Lizzie Grant is as yet unable to relight in pop angles - to make transform. She is struggling, dark-headed, always smiling.

Of course, being a massive fan of terror and tragedy in a pop context, all this only adds to my fascination with a faltering myth, and tonight's bizarre exhibition. Like any child of the 80s, who for the first decade of their lives only knew America as some electric-blue perfection, the subversion of that lie will always be alluring, however constructed the delivery. I still get a kick out of a desaturated JFK descending the steps of jet planes at Idlewild airport, as is played in ghostly slo-mo on the screens behind Del Rey. The entire show is a little like going to the cinema for me - a neon magma flows, removing everything until you're warm again. And when I step out to go to the toilet I feel alien and exposed in the relative silence and the bright empty corridors, anxious to get back in and between the dreamy shadows below the overhanging balcony. Her new song, the unreleased 'Body Electric', blows me away. It's La Dolce Vita meets Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? It's Maria Callas opening the veins that lead back to the heart Onassis broke when he spurned her for Jackie Kennedy. It's phantasmic, monochromatic, smooth as marble. Lana sings with purity, possessed and empty, and the string quartet fall around deathly notes.

And all the while the apparatus of pop spins away from her fingertips - the sound team, the stage engineers, the session musicians, the lights, the queues, the posters, the synergised drink promotions, the security staff, the ticket booths, the people. They throw into severe relief her isolation horror within the immensity of a business infrastructure, beyond the limits of which she'll only meet with rings of fandom. And what that does, by the end of this queer night, is inadvertently make somehow evident, somehow verisimilar, the Del Rey shtick: the madness of that waxed-Caddy conformity, that American nightmare which anchors her music. The nightmare that Suicide once rendered in dire shorthand. What Lydia Lunch could only recreate in exaggerated visions, in art - this psychopathic modern phenomenon - is suddenly real. Because Lana's a real popstar. And for all of Gaga's hard-honed shocks, her provocations are vanilla next to the something terrible that watches from the corners and behind Grant's inescapable reality. The show begins with a one minute countdown. On screens the digits are shown counting through 60 and down. The crowd shout ten to zero... a detonation, Lizzie Grant walks backwards into her fate.