Those expecting Lana Del Rey to fumble spectacularly in front of a crowd of cynical New Yorkers, be warned: last night the polarizing chanteuse performed an assured (though brief) set at the Wooly, an intimate speakeasy tucked within Manhattan's Woolworth building, in celebration of her H&M Fall 2012 launch.
Though the long-hyped collaboration between the musician and the Swedish omni-brand already has seen both print and TV ads go to press, this was the first real-world appearance Del Rey has given on behalf of the brand. The Wooly, with its smoky decor, blaring post-war-era music and a menu of spirited libations, is an ideal anachronistic hub in which to experience the retro-obsessed singer. A generous littering of Victorian cameos shadow the walls; "VIPs" sip Russian mules on velvet chaise lounges most nights. The Wooly is the sort of place you're not supposed to know exists, so of course Del Rey loves it.
"Hi," she tittered into her mic as she took the tiny, neon-lit stage around 9. "We're going to play a couple of songs for you tonight." Thus began "Blue Jeans," a sedated, string quartet-accompanied version which saw Del Rey deliver some of her stronger vocals to date. Presumably showcasing looks from her H&M campaign, Del Rey was dressed simply in a black sweater, which she later removed to reveal a lovely black maxi dress with a dangerous slit. Her newly darkened locks a glassy near-black, she appeared vaguely ominous in the eerie blue lighting. But she was in high spirits, and as the audience greeted her with rapturous applause, she beamed at them in relief. This was a safe zone.
"I see so many faces I love!" she announced to the packed room before launching into "I Sing the Body Electric," a song from the upcoming album she described as an "afterthought" to Born to Die, Paradise Edition.
"Elvis is my daddy/ Marilyn is my mother/ Jesus is my bestest friend" go the song's opening lines, a pure distillation of Del Rey's aesthetic intentions. But the song's swooping melody, compulsive refrain ("I'm on fire, baby, I'm on fire") and forlorn orchestration make it one of her most fully realized compositions to date. She seems to know who she is now – or at least what "Lana Del Rey," the myth, represents in contrast to the 2012 pop climate – and she owns her material more confidently as a performer. Love her or hate her, she's a brand now, and she's honing in on a more coherent message.
But of course, it's "Video Games" that will remain the vital core of that brand, even as the Del Rey empire expands into fashion and lifestyle collaborations. The delicate and spare torch song came second-to-last in Del Rey's brief set, naturally garnering the most response.
"Wow," the singer exclaimed. "If we'd known how happy you'd be, this wouldn't be the last song!" But it was. As anticipated, it was "Blue Velvet," the craftily chosen H&M campaign song that dates back to Bobby Vinton's 1963 classic but, in accord with Del Rey's purported David Lynch obsession, is forever linked to his 1986 film of the same name. Thanks to Del Rey, the context of a nearly 50-year-old song has once again been subverted. That may infuriate those who are already predisposed to dislike her, but it will only confirm what her admirers already suspect: she's a little more special than the rest.