Say what you want about Lana Del Rey, but after watching her perform at Irving Plaza in New York City Thursday night, I can tell you one thing: She's an enigma.
Her entire persona is perplexing. With her seductive, breathy sound and swooping instrumentals, her debut album, Born To Die, introduced the world to Del Rey's voice, but this self-proclaimed "gangsta Nancy Sinatra" still has a lot to learn when it comes to stage presence.
The stage was transformed into what I imagine was the set for Lifetime's "Blue Lagoon" reboot, with manicured hedges across the stage, with giant plants and gardenia trees framing the front-and-center microphone stand. Was Lana suposed to be Brooke Shields? Or was this actually the set from "Lost"? If so, is Lana the Smoke Monster? Could this be Lana's manic pixie dream world? Where are the diamonds? The questions are endless.
Behind the mic, there was a screen projecting a mash-up of archival footage, most notably an imprint of Del Rey's name as she took the stage, resulting in an uproar from the crowd.
The artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant took the stage quietly -- with her hair hair "up real big, beauty-queen style" -- and immediately launched into a faithful rendition of "Blue Jeans," while scenes from her aligator-infested music video played behind her.
Early on into the set, she invited the crowd to sing along, a standard practice that should feel endearing but instead, felt forced and awkward. From Del Rey's first song, it was clear that she's still growing. She didn't own that stage -- it owned her.
Suddenly, her song "Without You" took on a new meaning. "I can be your China doll," she pleads on the track, and Thursday night, that's all she was to them. This audience didn't come to see a performance, they came for the character.
However, there was a moment during her short set, seven songs in, when she finally started to look like a performer. Her brazen attitude and smokey vocals were on full display as she sang her Hollywood heartbreak song, "Million Dollar Man." Sadly, as quickly as Del Rey found her fire, she lost it, launching into the slow, sing-talk song, "Carmen."
Del Rey performed a short 10-song set, which lasted all of 48 minutes. So I can't be too mad at the pouty songstress. After all, she did get me home before 11 p.m.
She even managed to insert a new track inside her encore-free performance. "Body Electric" is yet another melancholy ode to a bad romance that has Del Rey sounding utterly incapable of joy.
Here are a few standout lyrics from the track:
At times, Del Rey seemed so entranced by her own voice that it appeared as though she forgot there was a crowd of people watching her. She closed her eyes, swayed from side-to-side, touched her body and strutted across the stage like no one was watching. Though slightly awkward, she knew what she was doing.
In an age when stars are more accessible than ever, Del Rey's popularity has a lot to do with her unknowability. When was the last time an artist inspired so many conspiracy theories? Are her lip real? How much plastic surgery has she had? Did her daddy buy her a record contract? Can she actually sing? I'm not sure that I can answer that last question. To be perfectly honest, I'm still unsure of Del Rey's vocal abilities. At times, her voice soars above her heartbreaking -- and somewhat empty -- lyrics, but is her voice great? That remains to be determined.
Her celebrity is old school, like her idols, and unfortunately for Del Rey, modern audiences aren't always going to get it.
"If I was ever a singer," said a 20-something girl in the crowd. "I wouldn't be like her. I'd be like, BAM. Beyonce."
"Born to Die"
"Million Dollar Man"
Things Lana Del Rey Said Between Songs:
Follow Crystal Bell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/newyorkbell