Pop culture is artifice, and the only pop star brave enough to fully acknowledge that is Lana Del Rey. The 32-year-old singer-songwriter has made a career out of authentically embracing inauthenticity, exploring the dark allure of nostalgic Americana for her generation of devotees. "Look at you kids with your vintage music," she sings to them on "Love." "You're part of the past, but now you're the future, signals crossing can get confusing." On Thursday night, there was nothing confusing at Capital One Arena, where Del Rey invited the audience to visit the fantasy world she has created.
With composer Henry Mancini's seductive "Experiment in Terror" as an introduction, Del Rey traipsed onto a stage that served as a diorama of her signature aesthetic: palm trees, cliffside outcroppings, pool chaise longues, a campfire and a grand piano. A projector turned the floor into a sandy beach or a blue lagoon, depending on the moment, and video screens recast the performance into an ad hoc black-and-white movie. Sometimes, that movie was the point, like when Del Rey and her statuesque singer-dancers lay down on the stage, playing in the imaginary surf – a postmodern approach to performance that only made sense if you were watching the screen.
It's been six years since her widely panned "Saturday Night Live" performance, and Del Rey is a much-improved performer these days. She is a self-assured singer, conscious of the limits of her breathy range but confident enough to show off birdsong acrobatics and high-note vibrato. She mixed in languid, '60s girl-group-inspired choreography, and played some guitar, too (during the night's most self-aware moment, she juxtaposed a none-more-metal Flying V guitar with the gentle, finger-picked "Yayo"). Del Rey wears her inspirations on her sleeve, but she also made them explicit. The "rosemary and thyme" of "Cherry" allowed her segue into a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair," but it was unclear whether the audience was rapt in attention or simply unfamiliar with the 50-year-old folk classic.
But for an artist whose art is defined by nostalgia, Del Rey isn't afraid to address current events. She admitted that performing the "political" "God Bless America — And All the Beautiful Women in It" made her "nervous," but she did it anyway. Later, she doubled down, turning the lyric "boys, don't make too much noise, and don't try to be funny" into "boys, don't make too much noise, on Twitter, 'cause it's not funny" – probably a shot at the tweeter-in-chief, and one that garnered a rapturous response.
That lyric is from "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing," a song that Del Rey said was inspired by the "good vibrations" that Yoko Ono sought to create during the Bed-In protests. The chorus — "Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America? No, it's only the beginning / If we hold on to hope, we'll have our happy ending" – succinctly captures her political message: even in These Dark Times, we must be hopeful, thoughtful and keep dancing (and fighting). Amid all the pop artifice of her music, her persona and her concert, Lana Del Rey finds truth.