Holly Beddingfield discusses the singer Lykke Li’s recent live performance and what happens when women represent their own melancholia.
When Lykke Li released her fourth album earlier this year, the first thing I noticed was the all-lowercase title. so sad so sexy moved away from the artist’s ethereal ballads, offering melancholic, blurred-vision-in-the-club trap that meets the sexiest you have ever felt in your body. But before following Li’s exploration, what we first see is an album title that looks like a tweet. The identity of the internet cannot help but influence our interpretation of the artwork.
The so sad so sexy tour came to Brixton Academy on Sunday 4 November, the only UK show on the European leg. The performance transformed the internet aesthetic of the album and revealed how various moods behave beyond the confines of bedroom scrolling. The set opened with the title song, ‘so sad so sexy’, and Li emerged – in head-to-toe Mugler, no less – against a patchwork backdrop, a tribute to the album artwork featuring a close up of her eyes. It’s somewhat strange to enter the space of this album through any avenue other than the staccato intro of ‘hard rain’. You realise that Li is prepared to set the tone of the show first, surrendering the chronology attached so definitively to a ten-song album. ‘so sad so sexy’ opens with the lyric ‘open your eyes / I’m right in front of you’. It hadn’t occurred to me to question who possessed the ‘I’ space until the live show: was Li referring to herself, or to the figment of melancholia? Does she plan to leave a partner, or leave the sadness?
If Li taught us anything with this album, it’s that there is no escaping your sadness, at least not until you have faced it head on, or at least sat with it. Very still. During a difficult period in my life, I remember reading advice that said to do just that, to ‘sit with the sadness.’ It went against every other bit of guidance I had received, opposing the oft-suggested activities of getting out of bed, getting dressed, exercising, socialising. Maybe its very alienness was the reason why it was the only thing that worked. Li offers a soundtrack to that journey, through trap beats and her incredibly sexy homage to ‘90s R&B.
The rest of the set weaved together songs from so sad so sexy and Lykke Li’s previous albums. It included crowdpleasers like ‘No Rest For the Wicked’ and ‘I Follow Rivers’, the latter of which she treated the crowd to both the original and the Magician remix we remember from Blue Is The Warmest Colour. By the time that song came around, it felt like Li was rewarding the audience. She was feeding us the joy she knew we needed.
The dance party had to end, though. The rave lights dimmed and Li left the stage. When she emerged for the encore, still head-to-toe in her exaggerated-silhouette PVC suit, she joked that she had ‘no good songs left’. By ‘good songs’, she meant songs that would ordinarily be made for dancing. Li told the crowd that the ‘sexy party’ was over, paving the way for the heartbreak ballad – but she didn’t leave it there. With a certain air of mischief, she added, ‘but I feel like you can dance to this one, too’. She played ‘last piece’.
The song is full melancholia, it is sad woman. But when used as the encore to a show that glided in and out of sadness and euphoria, it felt perfectly acceptable to belt a ballad whilst winding your waist, and feel totally electric. By this point, Li had proven what we thought we already knew: that both sadness and joy can coexist. In doing so, she showed the crowd, with blue and red lights, dark and light space, her jacket on the shoulder then off, that these two poles aren’t competing, or incompatible. They elevate each other.
Moving between oscillating extremes of sincerity and irony is a familiar phenomenon. As we sit at the peak of meme culture, we consume art in which two moods appear to compete, where sad songs sound happy (Robyn’s new album Honey comes to mind), and a sad thread of tweets is punctuated with a glimpse of biting humour. But we are still learning how to negotiate the presence of two seemingly incompatible moods, particularly when they come from women.
Such tensions are complicated further by the limitations placed on the ‘sad girl’ internet aesthetic. When women write their own sadness – as opposed to assuming the role of the muse for the complex male artist – they are met with heavy scepticism. Using online platforms to present melancholia as a persona seems to invite further suspicion. Women are branded as the Lana Del Rey types, and their social media presence is read as a disposable style, rather than for its personal identity.
These restrictions reflect a broader narrative surrounding female self-representation: with American singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill, as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was followed by mass speculation about her mental state.; with the post-2007 narrative for Britney Spears. We see it in the dramatic media coverage of any time a woman cuts her hair after a breakup, and we see it with Lykke Li, when the photograph of a single eye on her album cover is used as a license to brand the album as a total embodiment of her melancholic indie persona. And yet, when the all-male Californian band LANY use the same aesthetic, we are encouraged to sympathise with the plight of the heartbroken male.
Lykke Li didn’t want to leave her show on a solemn note. Her chosen method to alter the mood? Singing Usher’s ‘U Got It Bad’, which fit seamlessly with the rest of so sad so sexy, especially as Li sings ‘I’ve been there, done it, fucked around’. The live performance of the album illuminated the complexity of female melancholia, as sexy trap rolled unpredictably into raindrop beats, suspending expectation. The show dissolved the received notion that sadness for female musicians entails a whiny album written not for the pleasure of the listener, but for the artist to moan. The electricity that Li gave the grand castle-like interior of Brixton Academy proved that sitting with your sadness might just be the most energising thing you can do.
Words: Holly Beddingfield