Performance & Authenticity: Devendra Banhart Live At Hackney Empire
Veronica Irwin watches Devendra Banhart charm the crowd, and realises that what she thought was hipster appropriation might instead be something rather wonderful.
Going to school at the University of California, Berkeley, has made me especially attuned to identity politics. I can’t watch any film or movie, read any book, or watch any live performance without thinking back to the vaguely socialist rhetoric of campus political campaigns, the dense literature of my advanced feminist theory class, or the anti-oppression workshops my student-housing-turned-commune (or, to be proper, “co-op”) encourages all inhabitants to attend. I don’t think any of this is bad, per se – I actually really believe that immersion in radical student politics has made me a better person, and feel as though if everyone had at least a little taste of Berkeley brainwashing we Americans wouldn’t be in the godawful political situation we're in today.
However, as a product of this training my immediate impulse with this review was to lash out at Devendra Banhart, a man who has denied being gay or bisexual, yet whose mannerisms appear to be mimicking all of those stereotypically associated with gay men. In interviews he tells stories of discovering his passion singing women’s songs with a hairbrush around his house, and countless journalists make extensive note in their intros about his love for fashion, or his “childlike” eccentricities. It seems at first glance as though he’s been made marketable on a foundation of pseudo-queerness, something that struck me, having never seen him perform live, as a sort of gay cultural appropriation and exploitation. For many of his fans he’s absolutely adorable, a recipient of girlish swoons the way heterosexual women flock to a gay best friend. It’s frustrating, especially in a world where characteristics of sexual and racial minorities are more and more prevalently made marketable by people with no interest in their social liberation. But, after seeing him live, I realise I was mistaken.
Waiting outside Hackney Empire for my friend to arrive, I was immediately surprised by the people I saw walking in. I realised I'd imagined a lot of heterosexual white couples, ignorant to the social injustices of the world and luxuriating in their own problematic taste – sort of like a hipster version of a Miley Cyrus crowd. However, I was surprised at the amount of queer couples I saw strolling past, outfitted in the same overalls and flooded pants I expected but without the social ignorance. His crowd was quite diverse racially as well, something incredibly refreshing to see in the typically whitewashed world of indie rock. Clearly, I had misinterpreted something.
When you see Banhart live, he moves beyond tropes of the flamboyant gay guy or the macho straight man, into a realm of sexuality that is decidedly undeciferable. While the articulateness of his wrists and hands do signal 'gay' in the most media-perpetuated stereotypical way, there's also a certain macho cockiness and bravado - he makes wavelike motions while he sings, then he makes jokes about struggling to get laid at his high-school prom during his mic breaks. And yet, there’s a whisper of tongue-in-cheek silliness layered over all of it, leaving you in a place where it’s so hard to tell if it's an act or not that you eventually just give up trying to decide. I caught myself doing exactly what my Berkeley upbringing so drills me not to – studying his mannerisms to decide which direction my 'gaydar' pointed me instead of simply taking him for who he is. For once, I was consuming a piece of media that wasn’t problematic.
Rather, what shines brighter than any hyperanalysation of his sexuality is the eclectic weirdness that manages to make his sombre music incredibly uplifting. His hand gestures during ‘Saturday Night’ make it as though he is performing a monologue, deliberately telling a story rather than singing one of his most popular songs for a 1,200-person crowd. When he gets to ‘Für Hildegard Von Bingen’, he labours over the German mystic and 'medieval feminist' that inspired the piece – a moment of seriousness immediately followed by a performance of ‘Carmensita’ complete with energetic guffaws and frenzied galloping across the stage. Though he speaks softly and deliberately while he describes the meaning of his songs, he also began to take haphazard “two-second requests” from the crowd halfway through the show. And, at one point he actually became so distracted by the distance the barricades created between him and his audience that he invited a fan on stage to tell a joke and make the show feel a little more interactive. It’s all at once chaotic, merry and freeing, and the audience enjoy every unplanned moment.
What I missed while doing my research is that everything about Devendra Banhart is a self-aware performance. In his music video for ‘Foolin’, he makes a comment on American slavery through a somehow lighthearted play at S&M kink and masochism – a disturbing sight but also an exemplary moment of Banhart’s ability to mix politics with his both goofy and seductive artistic persona. In an interview with StyleLikeU, Devendra says that the way he dresses is a way for him to separate work from the rest of his life. Thus, even the dapper suits he wears on stage not only give an air of preppiness but also hide the real Devendra, covered in a multitude of scattered tattoos on his arms and chest. When you listen to his records, watch his music videos or attend one of his shows, you're interacting with an artistic persona that he drafts from a curated mix of inspirations and experiences layered in with his own natural tendencies. The result is a persona that is much more aware and informed than the mere introduction to an interview can capture.
I started to become aware of Devendra’s exaggerated theatrics when he mockingly asked “Aren’t you guys cool?” a third of the way through the show, rotating through one knee and smirking at the audience. Among the sources one can speculate influence Devendra Banhart are 40s jazz singers and teenage boy bands, conflicting to create a series of random comments that vary from suave to completely cheesy. After 20 minutes it becomes clear that Devendra is hyper-aware of the sources he draws from, carefully melding his influences with his own personal narrative into something that defies any expectation of who he is supposed to be. His entire artistry is moulded around references and borrowing that borders on controversial, but just escapes it by being self-aware and giving politically accurate credit where that credit is due. Overall, the performance sheds cheerful light on socially aware artistry, something this world needs in such a time of confusion and strife.