Lana del Rey offers us exactly what we want. Her art is a perfectly executed aesthetic experience, bolder and more all-encompassing than anything else I saw this weekend.
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Let's get this out of the way: The sound sucked. It was terrible. Unless you were one of the diehard Lana del Rey fans at Governors Ball—which, judging by the number of Lana shirts visible throughout the day, was a large enough group to dwarf the audience for pretty much any other act by itself—you probably could not hear what was happening. We were packed in tighter than we'd been all weekend, just a few yards behind the sound booth (usually a pretty reliable spot for good sound), and the crowd stretched out endlessly behind us. But almost as soon as it started, eagerness turned to disappointment. Nobody could hear. Someone quipped that she would be better off listening on her phone. Someone else asked if there was a livestream he could watch at home. The girls next to me, who had just done a couple of bumps of cocaine in anticipation, decided to go see The Black Keys instead. The crowd emptied out in droves. After a couple songs, as people increasingly realized they weren't the only ones who couldn't hear, a chant of “turn it up!” started between songs. Eventually, it did seem to get marginally easier to hear. Or maybe we just got closer. By the end of the night, you were able to see pretty much the exact line at which the sound cut out because the field was entirely empty behind that.
And yet. It was Lana del Rey, in real life, wearing an impeccably cool New York Yankees dress—retro, timeless, appropriately referential. She was flanked by cartoonish stage set renditions of high rise buildings, giving the whole show an airbrushed film noir vibe. A cigarette dangled daintily from her fingers as she sang some song. She was a lounge act singing for a lounge of ten thousand people. Live video of her flickered on the screens in black and white, the old film filter and the way it was just her, solitary, framed in the vulnerable, slightly confessional style of archival footage giving it the look of an unearthed video reel. She was some forgotten entertainer, performing at the Waldorf Astoria. She was eternal, pulled straight from the collective memory of New York, and the way the music came across as a barely audible drift, without much discernible melody, almost added to its nostalgic spell.
It was cool because of course it was cool. That's Lana del Rey's appeal. “She's so gorgeous, but I can't hear her,” I overheard one fan say. And, later: “I can finally see her,” another fan said, to which her friend responded, “that's all that matters!” Lana del Rey offers us exactly what we want. Her art is a perfectly executed aesthetic experience, bolder and more all-encompassing than anything else I saw this weekend. The tattoos on the outside of her hands, which read “paradise” and “trust no one” according to lanadelreyfan.com, look so enviable when she cups the microphone. The video that plays behind her of her posing with a model's pout and turn of the head overlaid on images of flames exploding is her deftly appropriating the images everyone knows people like, or at least have been drilled by pop culture into responding to: babes and fire. Critics—especially the male rock kind who I guess prefer to trawl for meaning in the unexplained guitar drifts and sighed lyrics of bands like Tame Impala and the War on Drugs, who both played sonically impressive but visually uneventful sets earlier in the day—are scared of such image-heavy music. But that's the very reason it's so appealing.
It packages Americana in its most flattering light. It means exactly what it says it means. It sounds kind of like the feeling of driving down a dark road late at night, and, sure enough, there is a video behind Lana of driving down a dark road late at night. What is that wistful, sort of enamored, sort of bored, not-sure-exactly-what-it-is-but-it's-definitely-something emotion this song reminds you of? Ah, yes, your boyfriend's in the band, and here you are at the show, watching him play guitar (incidentally, it was this line that got the biggest sing-along of the night, including from myself, who has never had a boyfriend, let alone one in a band; having your boyfriend in the band truly is a state of mind). This plainly referential style is part of why Lana del Rey is so confounding to critics: She draws their associations and metaphors herself, and they fumble because where else, then, can they take their discussion? That's obvious, Lana, still one step ahead, seems to respond: It's about feelings, especially those vague ones that you can't quite articulate but you definitely know matter. Lana del Rey has perfected the set of aesthetic cues—the pretty, washed out visual effects, the pretty, washed out sonic effects—that convey a specific if hard to name emotion.
This vagueness is another reason, I suspect, so many critics stumble with Lana: Traditional written criticism is an art of naming things precisely as they are, and Lana del Rey operates in a world of emotional imprecision. With the caveat of this being a huge generalization, I think women tend to be more comfortable with that interior uncertainty than men, which is, once again, why many men are baffled by Lana del Rey. Yet there's a strong musical tradition of exactly this vibe: Lana del Rey is, in effect, conceptually the first shoegaze pop star (shoegaze being historically, as my colleague Megan Fredette convincingly argued earlier this year, a more feminine alternative to the otherwise aggressive world of rock). She may put her face front and center instead of staring at guitar pedals, but she's undeniably focused on that same aesthetic of not-quite-specified but definitely profound emotion.
So it was only appropriate that, after leaving a moment early to beat the crowd, we stopped on the walkway of the bridge back to Manhattan to listen to Lana play her breakout hit, “Video Games,” and stare at the skyline behind her. We stood there, not talking, and I thought about the city and life and stuff. I didn't know exactly what I was feeling, but whatever it was, it mattered.
Kyle Kramer's got that summertime sadness. Follow him on Twitter.