With its high visibility, SXSW offered Iggy Azalea a chance to reclaim her damaged narrative. But critics say it felt like a missed opportunity.
AUSTIN, Texas — I don’t know how much an electronics company paid Iggy Azalea to headline its so-called Milk Music Lounge at the South by Southwest music festival Wednesday night. Whatever the amount, though, I’m pretty sure the Australian rapper didn’t come to Austin just for the money. She was looking for a reset, too.
The beginning of 2015 has been rough for Azalea, who dominated pop last year with three monster singles — “Fancy,” “Problem” and “Black Widow” — that at one point were all in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100. So impressive was her ascent that when she was nominated for four Grammy Awards, many observers predicted (some worriedly) that she’d win them all.
But then things started falling apart. Azalea was unexpectedly shut out at the Grammys. She quit social media in response to the “hatred and pettiness” she said she was subjected to online.
And last week she postponed an upcoming arena tour, citing “production delays” widely assumed to be code for lack of interest.
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Even in the days before her performance here, the Internet pounced on a video showing Azalea rapping incoherently — a small crime for some but a damning one for a white MC many have criticized for appropriating a black style with little regard for its meaning. (“The Vine that proves Iggy Azalea can’t rap,” the blog Vulture called the clip.)
So with its high visibility and its audience happily susceptible to spin, SXSW offered Azalea a chance to reclaim her damaged narrative, to brush off the haters and show us why she’s still worth paying attention to.
Well, maybe next time.
Sparsely attended by the sardine-can standards of many high-profile SXSW concerts of years past, Wednesday’s gig felt like a missed opportunity.
The problem wasn’t her rapping, which was confident — and more or less comprehensible — in songs like “Beg for It” and “My World.” Wearing a gold-and-black jacket over shorts and thigh-high boots, Azalea stomped across the stage like she belonged there — a victory of sorts, I suppose, given how often her very existence has been challenged.
But she was taking no discernible pleasure in her exercise of power, even in “Trouble,” which she introduced as “a feel-good song,” and “Bounce,” during which she instructed the crowd to do the festive dance known as the Nae Nae. (The 10 or 12 people not taking pictures with their phones complied.)
And she embodied no palpable sense of struggle in moodier cuts like “Don’t Need Y’all,” about how fame feels “like a curse latched to my blessing.” As she ran through the song with a blank look in her eyes, Azalea seemed drained by the task at hand — not just putting in her 45 minutes for a corporate-sponsored gig but figuring out the next step in her career.
But then, right before the end of the show, she tore into “Iggy AZN,” a delightfully bratty kiss-off, with the kind of intensity she’d seemed incapable of summoning until that point.
It’s probably not a recipe for happiness, but perhaps fighting scorn with scorn will be her way forward.
— Mikael Wood
Not every artist will shine in a setting like SXSW. It takes a certain mix of confidence and perseverance to survive this week, and with 20 minutes or less to set up a stage, any sense of perfectionism is better left at home. Tuesday night’s highlight, Torres (real name: Mackenzie Scott), didn’t waste any time getting on stage five minutes early and then packing high drama into taut, guitar-driven songs.
Tired, stressed and “just 23,” as she sang on “New Skin,” Torres let her backing trio accentuate her emotional anxiety rather than go for broke. Rhythms went for a “Tell-Tale Heart”-esque pounding, keyboards lit a gasoline fuse that encircled the orchestrations and Torres’ own guitar scraped along the concrete while her deep, forceful voice punched holes into the ground.
There’s a sense with Torres’ songs that a whole life has been lived within them. “Sprinter” views the world as a predatory one, and “Strange Hellos,” the lead single off her forthcoming sophomore album, simmers with tension-building guilt. Songs start out as ballads, and then become something louder, more brute, as Torres lets every chord change creak like a rusty door hinge.
At a club next door, Natalie Prass took a more refined route, though the setting wasn’t suited for it. This up-and-comer has already outgrown the tiny space she performed in, which meant getting a glimpse of the stage was mostly impossible. It wasn’t until Prass introduced her band that anyone except those in the first row had any idea that there were four people on stage.
Still, going by sound alone, Prass was in fine form. This is a compliment, but if Cinderella left the Disney films to start a band, it may sound something like Prass’ mix of pop classicism and lush, yet restrained arrangements. Hints of jazz and varying shades of warmth appear throughout as Prass’ tales of love gone wrong unfold, leaving ample space for an orchestra within them.
— Todd Martens