Better Than: Trying to figure out what’s gonna be cool two years from now.
The crowd was split at Webster Hall last night, between the usual mob of NYU students taking up the front of the room and an inordinate number of yups–dutifully keeping track of what’s hip, no doubt–holding position in the back. Both groups were there to see Sky Ferreira and each came away with vastly different opinions of the 21 year old singer after she struggled her way through a tough, strange, hour-long set.
Opening for Ferriera were the Smith-Westerns, a band that only two years ago occupied a vogue-ish space in alternative culture comparable to the act that they’re currently on tour with. The Smith-Westerns at heart are pop-songwriters and they carried out their time onstage with a crisp sense of professionalism if not one of tremendous investment. They shine on their hookiest songs, powering through the glam-rock edge of their single “3 AM Spiritual” from the surprisingly strong 2013 album Soft Will and beefing up their set with some old favorites from Dye It Blonde. Songs like “End of the Night” and “Weekend” have aged well, though you wouldn’t have known it from the (non)reaction of a disengaged crowd. The SW’s lead singer Cullen Omori made reference to the lack of interest, after getting a wan response when he wondered aloud if the fans were enjoying themselves.
“Who’s excited to see Sky tonight?” he asked, and the crowd was suddenly more than audible. “That’s what I thought,” he said, glancing towards his bandmates as if confirming a theory.
Fereirra has been cultivating the image of a bad girl recently, posing nude for the cover of her new album Night Time, My Time and getting caught, along with her boyfriend, with 42 decks of heroin after being pulled over in upstate New York. But her penchant for pleasant pop-rock gives her away as a sweetheart, and she seemed one last night, appearing for her set promptly, dressed in a demure, doll-like red and black plaid dress with makeup that appeared to have been done by the guy who put the powder on the Munsters. The effect was that of a slightly eerie-looking doll.
Ferreira was shy and giggly from the start, dropping her microphone twice during opening number, “Boys,” and allowing the music to drown her out. She eventually gained some strength from the support of the more dedicated fans in front and ripped through standout tracks like “24 Hours and “I Blame Myself,” overcoming occasional issues with timing. Her style live reminds you she’s done a good amount of modeling in recent years–when she’s not belting the hooks of her arena pop songs, she’s mincing, striking poses, hands on hips.
At some point, either Ferreira or someone close to her convinced people that her music is somehow alternative, but despite the alt-world signifiers, her sound is only about a half step away from Katy Perry’s. That’s not an issue per se–anybody who’s complaining about the candied hooks on Night Time, My Time ought to be banned to somewhere dark and uncomfortable. The problem for Ferreira is she’s missing the accouterments that should come with that kind of pop–she needs the help of professionals who know how to mix her voice and to play to her benefit, rather than the ragged team of indie dudes that currently form her backing band. Even her strongest work of the show–those first three songs of her set—suffered from a lack of polish that may complement her image, but does no favors for her actual sound.
After those three tracks, the bottom began to fall out. Ferreira has been experiencing problems with her voice lately–she had to drop out of a run of shows opening for Vampire Weekend after her vocal cords hemorrhaged early last month. “Omanko” (which translates to “pussy” in Japanese) would be one of her worst songs even if she were healthy, but while performing the track, Ferreira started to display the effects of nerves, vocal exhaustion, or possibly something else altogether. Whatever the case, she began to sink to her knees during verses, seeming to save her energy for the chorus.
As her set went on, Sky spent more and more time sitting on the floor. It was, no doubt, a treat for those lucky enough to have staked out space stage left, but many were unable to even see the singer, who also began to delegate her singing duties to her more-than-willing fans.
She eventually had to acknowledge the strange behavior and explained both the vocal cord situation and her extreme emotion at playing Webster Hall, a venue she used to live by and never dreamed of getting a chance to headline. To her credit, she never lost her sense of humor–when fans requested her biggest hit to date, she sassed them right back, smiling: “I’m not playing “Everything is Embarrassing” yet–do you want people to walk out in the middle of the set?”
But her performance itself continued to weaken. Near the end of her set she was sitting through whole songs, and barely singing her verses, only giving it her all on the choruses. She performed “Everything is Embarrassing,” as promised, but then closed out the show with “Lost in my Bedroom,” the first song she wrote while living in New York (which took two takes to get started, after the timing was initially screwed up). “Anyway, thank you I’m done,” she said, after recounting the story of that track, but stayed on stage for an extra couple of minutes, seemingly completely overwhelmed. Her fans in front did not seem perturbed by this behavior–Ferreira could do very little to alienate them. But the grumbling in the back grew louder as the night went on, and many of the back-dwelling yups didn’t stick around to see the show to its end.
Overheard: “That was entertaining, in a different way. Not in a good way, but…”
Overheard, part two: “She’s a star. She’s simply a star.”