Seductive indie-pop lightning rod Lana Del Rey performed a free in-store show at Amoeba Music on San Francisco's Haight Street last Thursday night. The first thing she did was huskily intone, "I'm obsessed with you" into the microphone, which totally took me by surprise. I mean, how could she even know I was there? I couldn't even see her from my vantage point to the far left of the stage.
Then I realized she was addressing the whole crowd: roughly 300 people crammed into every corner of the store, largely female and mainly in their early 20s and younger. They weren't hipsters, and they weren't teenyboppers, but they all seemed to be texting "OMG" or something. Del Rey had a much-publicized disastrous appearance on Saturday Night Live recently, but these people were not there to heckle her or bear witness to some kind of train wreck. They were fans.
When I was asked to cover this show, my only exposure to Del Rey had been reading her name in an email and seeing the Born to Die album art on Amazon.com. I intentionally didn't listen to her music before the performance, so as to go in fresh. For whatever reason (probably the album cover), I expected her music to be a sort of post-punk-leaning indie pop: sunny and danceable. I had forgotten the name of the album.
So when she started singing the disembodied "Born to Die," drenched in echo and in a decidedly interesting voice -- deep and complicated -- I had to completely recalibrate my notions. Through a short set of five songs, she gave off a definite Mazzy Star vibe, minus the narcotic affect and shambling guitars. The lyrical subtext of the songs detailed a proclivity for falling for the wrong person, along with the sort of unnameable sadness that results from undiagnosed depression.
I also didn't know anything about this SNL appearance, which I just watched on YouTube and, really, I don't see what the big deal is. Granted, the first song she sang there, "Video Games," is pretty somber, and may be a lot to expect unfamiliar listeners to sit through. But the TMZ vultures were all shrieking about how she just stood there and touched her hair too much and had a deep voice. So unless you get lowered to the stage in a meat costume with 40 Cirque de Soleil acrobats dry-humping each other, you're a bad performer?
The woman sings slow-tempo, heartbroken songs, and her voice is not the product of a computer. She stands there and sings. Maybe she was nervous because she was singing words she wrote herself and they matter to her. I don't know, it seemed understated to me. But I guess when Katy Perry is squirting whipped cream from her double Fs, we're living in a time when being understated isn't going to get you far. At Amoeba, Del Rey just stood there and sang. I honestly don't know what else she was supposed to do.
There is a certain amount of hype surrounding Born to Die, and the album opens with some pretty gimmick-y strings before practically stumbling into Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones territory (yikes). But her distinctiveness can't be denied, and there is definitely substance beneath the major-label machine backing her. On top of all that, I just noticed that the song " Summertime Sadness" has a sample of Pink Floyd's " Dogs"! That is cool. Del Rey is cool. No, this isn't really my type of music, but this Internet backlash isn't fair. I think it takes courage to go on SNL and sing such bare-bones music. And the fact that she doesn't know exactly how to sell herself to the mainstream is endearing.
I just wish she hadn't said, "I'm obsessed with you." That's a weird thing to say to a room full of strangers.