Remember the “rockism” vs. “poptimism” debate of a decade ago? Prior to to 2010, rock music was looked at as being the superior musical art form because artists of that genre played their own instruments and wrote their own songs. Thusly, they were more “authentic” than pop artists.
This train of thought enjoyed a decades-long run until “poptimism” entered the picture at the turn of the decade. In it, fans of that genre claimed that the artificial identities created and assumed by pop artists is an art form in and amongst itself. It didn’t matter that the artists had experienced nothing of which they sang; a good hook is a good hook, and “being” the song simply no longer mattered.
Lana Del Rey is a poptimist’s poster child. Why? Because Lana Del Rey isn’t Lana Del Rey. She’s Lizzy Grant, a once-unknown performer whose first album was released in January of 2010 to complete silence. It was pulled immediately, and the alter ego Lana Del Rey was adopted.
Undeterred, In 2011, Del Rey released two self-made videos for “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” to YouTube. They went viral, and the rest is history. Six albums, including her latest, “Norman F**king Rockwell,” in August of 2019, have positioned Del Rey as a bonafide pop music darling, as was apparent by the reaction of 3,200 fans who packed Veterans Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Ballroom in Des Moines Sunday night to see their favorite poptimist in action.
It’s been five years since a concert was held in the ballroom, but the choice of venues was strategically perfect. Del Rey’s performance and stage show is intimate enough that her band, props and background dancers would have been lost in a cavernous arena setting.
Flanked by a pair of sultry dancers, her band and a minimal stage, Del Rey took to the stage after the typed words “You f**ked me so good last night, I almost said ‘I love you’ ”appeared on the screen set centered and behind the stage. Shock box: check.
Del Rey’s stage presence was an odd mix of an untouchable, self-confident diva and an “aw shucks” artist who giggled between numbers, signed autographs and accepted roses from a fans. The majority of the show, though, was spent slowly guiding effortlessly near the center third of the stage, eyes closed and singing in perfect-pitch throughout to acutely hidden recorded backing tracks, both instrumentally and vocally. Not a sin of any sort inself, but in the world of a poptimist, authenticity takes a back seat to everything anyway, right?
Dressed in a white, demure dress, Del Rey crooned her way through the aforementioned “Video Games” and the well-received new tracks, “Bartender” and “Cinnamon Girl.” Covers of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” and Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” were met with some of the loudest cheers of the performance, which was cut short due to Del Rey’s hour-long delay to start the show. She (sort of) apologized for it later in the show, in her own, semi-dissonant way. Go figure.
It was lost on the denizens in attendance, however. Del Rey could have showed up a day late and it wouldn’t have mattered. The youthful crowd hung on every word of the back-to-back delivery of “Cherry” and “White Mustang.” Del Rey teed up “Summertime Sadness” late in the show to a montage of imagery on the backing video screen and multiple pivoting spotlights, and “Blue Jeans” was a vocal highlight with her lonely brooding. As expected, “Venice Bitch” closed the set.
You have to hand it to Del Rey, who was, at one time early in her career, the target of mass critical examination of her music, where it belonged, and, more directly, if she did, especially after a widely-panned performance on Saturday Night Live in 2012. Six albums deep now, it’s safe to say that, authentic or not, she’s done it her way.
Whatever way that may be.