Remember when we hated Lana Del Rey? Three and a half years ago, when the world was a peaceable, uncomplicated place where nothing could upset our Edenic lives, along came Del Rey, an unknown (to us) singer-songwriter who'd committed the freshly unpardonable sin of commanding our attention before we could decide if she was worthy of it. The site of this incursion, of course, was "Saturday Night Live," where in January 2012, Del Rey, whom we were outraged to learn was born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, sang two sad, complicated songs with visible nervousness and humility that we had no choice but to deride as "the most polarizing 'Saturday Night Live' performance in recent memory" (Rolling Stone), "one of the worst outings in 'SNL' history" (then NBC News anchor Brian Williams) and "disastrous" (the Daily Mail).
"Based on the public's response, I must have clubbed a baby seal while singing the Taliban national anthem," Kristen Wiig, portraying Del Rey in the rare parody that doubled as a defense, said on "SNL" a few weeks later. New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica took the side of the seal, counterattacking Del Rey as a hypocrite and a phony. "A career founded on bad faith all around can't be long for this world," he wrote, "but at this point what can Ms. Del Rey do?"
On Tuesday night at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, the only question worth asking was how we allowed ourselves to doubt Del Rey in the first place. In front of a capacity crowd of roughly 19,000 people, Del Rey closed her Endless Summer tour with a confident, 16-song set that felt less like a response to Caramanica's question and more like an elimination of it. Drawing mostly from her flawed but occasionally powerful 2012 album "Born To Die" and last year's exceptional "Ultraviolence," Del Rey's performance reminded the audience that she is a songwriter first, and whatever anyone wants her to be a distant second.
In numerous interviews since 2012, Del Rey has redirected the conversation away from her offstage persona, disputed authenticity and cultural relevance toward her art, emphasizing the narrative quality and intent of her music. After all, when an artist has inadvertently inspired her own birther movement, why would she want to discuss anything else? Tuesday night, Del Rey certainly didn't seem interested in exploring much beyond the moment, inhabiting her songs with an intensity that bordered on obsession, her voice sounding at times haunted and distant, at others calm and intimate. The music, delivered with cool accord by Del Rey's four-piece band, was less gloomy and more diffuse than its recorded counterpart, a result perhaps of the amphitheater setting and cheerfulness of the predominantly young audience. As a consequence, Del Rey several times came close to disappearing in front of our eyes, the noirish, atmospheric music absorbing a performance style that can be charitably described as passive.
Dressed in an effulgent white, Del Rey entered the stage through clouds of smoke, her last name lit up behind her Elvis Presley-style, with two rows of skyscrapers blinking above her. Opening with "Cruel World," the reverb-heavy breakup song that leads off "Ultraviolence," Del Rey moved to the lip of the stage, where she remained for most of the 90 minutes that followed, leaving it only to pose for selfies with fans in the front row, a gesture that came off graceful and sincere, however orchestrated it may have been.
Saying little, if anything, between songs, Del Rey nonetheless smiled frequently, suggesting that she was not only enjoying herself but recognizing the contradictions and challenges she'd packed into lyrics such as "He hit me and it felt like a kiss" ("Ultraviolence"), "I got your Bible and your gun" ("Cruel World") and "It's you, it's you, it's all for you" ("Video Games"). Like everything else with Del Rey, her lyrics invite interpretation and reject it all at once. If you want this song to be about me, she seems to be saying, fine, then it's about me. If you want it to be about you, well, that's fine, too. If something is happening here and you don't know what it is, to borrow a lyric from another divisive, enigmatic songwriter, well, keep looking. You're bound to find what you're after sooner or later.
Despite Del Rey's trust in her material Tuesday night, a feeling that this concert would have been better set indoors persisted, especially every time a commercial airliner passed low overhead. While she was able to hold the crowd with an a cappella version of a new song, reportedly titled "Honeymoon" and sharing its name with her forthcoming studio album, Del Rey lost it during an unintroduced cover of Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel #2," the audience showing little interest in a song it didn't recognize. That was a shame, because had Del Rey's voice remained above the ambient noise and chatter of the crowd, her fans may have appreciated the irony of her singing Cohen's lyrics:
"Ah, but you got away, didn't you, babe?
"You just turned your back on the crowd.
"You got away. I never once heard you say,
" 'I need you, I don't need you,'
"And all of that jiving around."