Past and Present Heroes: Death Cab and Lana Del Rey

Reflections on Osheaga 2016 Day 2 headliners

Death Cab For Cutie. Photo: Joel Mak Death Cab For Cutie. Photo: Joel Mak

I remember discovering Death Cab For Cutie around 2005. This was long after their initial indie success of Something About Airplanes (1998) and We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes (2000). Rather, I discovered Death Cab through Plans (2005) and ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’. I’d wager that most Death Cab fans know this song by heart—a heart which has been by the way squeezed in acid, left to dry on the shores of the Dead Sea, and then accidentally blasted away by Elmer Fudd.

I worked my way back of course. I picked up The Photo Album (2001) and Transatlanticism (2003). I learned the chords. Trying to sing in tune with Gibbard’s spiderweb-thin thread of a voice, I failed again and again. I continued to like them on Narrow Stairs (2008), appreciating their shallow foray into post-rock melodies. Listening in the mid-to-late Aughts, early Death Cab was a godsend, supplying the bed of emo on which I could rest as I hurtled towards early adulthood.

That was then and now is now. In between their first album and Saturday’s appearance at Osheaga, so much has changed. The Internet exploded. The White Stripes died and The Black Keys got poppier. Dubstep and trap happened. Like an indictment of the state of indie rock, Chris Walla left Death Cab to make ambient music. On a personal level, I found love and a full-time job. My body is at a point where I prefer to sit back rather than hang in a crowd.

Death Cab For Cutie. Photo: Joel Mak

Death Cab For Cutie. Photo: Joel Mak

Osheaga was the first time I saw Death Cab. With the setting sun, plenty of fans soaked up the golden oldies, singing along to ‘The New Year’, ‘I Will Follow’, ‘Cath…’, and ‘Soul Meets Body’. When a firework went up during closer ‘Transatlanticism’ I felt like it couldn’t have been scripted better. Alternating between guitars and piano, Ben Gibbard was on point and on pitch. The band was tight as it jammed away on ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’.

That being said, I also thought that the band didn’t win new fans.

Let’s be honest, for bands like Death Cab, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and even Radiohead, their albums and appearances are more for current fans than new ones. It’s Osheaga’s prerogative to attract ticket-buyers and the only way to do so is to keep the lineup fresh. That’s just another way to say that a headlining trio of, say, Neil Young, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Eminem might please many, but not enough. As it was, the choice of Lana Del Rey (to round off a really strong day for women on the main stages) as headliner was both jackpot for the festival and perplexing on a personal level.

Let’s compare. Death Cab’s most played YouTube video has 8.3 million views. Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’ has a staggering 270 million views. Del Rey embodies a completely different ethos of Instagram filters, poppy hooks, and 21st century me-me-me American liberalism. Granted, Death Cab was not immune to navel gazing but Death Cab didn’t—and technically still doesn’t have—Twitter. Del Rey can sell T-shirts with full-sized pictures of her face.

Lana Del Rey. Photo: Joel Mak

Lana Del Rey. Photo: Joel Mak

I like Lana Del Rey’s music. Her sultry voice makes me pay attention. The effortlessness with which she belts out a line is mesmerising. She can sing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel’ as easy as one might turn on a TV. She’s a fresh throwback to the mythic days of American dreams, desires, and femme fatales. The live black and white taping is as though we’re watching an instant classic. Her persona sparks debates. She’s a woman who sings what she wants and has thousands of audience repeating “My pussy taste like Pepsi-Cola” and nobody knows if that’s empowerment or adolescent ignorance or a joke. Albeit co-written, her songs are good and she’s got a hell of a band. Up on stage, there were dancers (who gave out flowers), two fake trees, and a screen displaying slow-mo-ed space, nature, and herself. When she lit a cigarette and rarely dragged, I understood it’s all for show and it’s a great show.

Osheaga Crowd. Photo: Joel Mak

Osheaga Crowd. Photo: Joel Mak

Something, however, was lost on me. I wasn’t as enraptured as the crowd, singing and screaming along to every song. Her pose of choice was of elbow resting on hand and every time she lowered her mic to the crowd, it was akin to flicking the audience volume knob way up. At one point I looked to my left to find three men only slightly older than I am, hands on hearts, mouthing the words in perfect sync. I wondered if Lana Del Rey would be a pre-headliner at Osheaga 2026.

On that night though, it didn’t matter if she wasn’t a phenomenon to me, she was to a majority of those present. Like her video montages, she was cosmic.

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