Last night’s performance by Lana Del Rey on Saturday Night Live got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t exactly what the singer or her label wanted: within minutes of Del Rey’s American television debut, Twitter exploded with biting comments. One likened her performance to a real-life example of what they were making fun of minutes earlier in a sketch called “You Can Do Anything”, where people who have never been given honest reactions to their lack of talent perform. But even more tellingly, the likes of Juliette Lewis, Eliza Dushku and Rachel Dratch had pithy zingers of their own directed at Del Rey’s wobbly singing. One article even surmised this might be a career-killer. Her second performance in particular reminded me of an obscure Victoria Jackson character from the late 80′s: Nancy Maloney, a lounge singer who goes from high-pitched screeching to a forced deep, husky voice all in the space of a single song.
The last time a musical guest bombed this bad on the ‘SNL’ stage was in April 2010. Ke$ha performed “Tik Tok” with an American flag cape a bizarre laser show and astronaut-suited backing band, with a pause to ask “Did anyone ever stop to think we were the aliens?”, which seemed an attempt at invoking Robert Plant’s “Does anybody remember laughter?” while just looking even sillier. Her second number, “Your Love Is My Drug” was even more bizarre, with her and her band covered in day-glo body paint. I wrote at the time that Ke$ha came off as a half-assed Lady Gaga impersonator: I stand by that assessment.
Some other SNL musical moments of note, for all the wrong reasons:
- Kanye West’s attempt to replicate his autotune album “808s and Heartbreak” on the SNL stage with a giant video screen behind him. There were a few times when the autotune “glitches” weren’t able to cover West’s weak singing ability, and the whole stage presence felt completely underwhelming. I actually don’t mind West’s other performances (despite his braggadocio) and actually thought his 2010 performance art style numbers were a bounce back from this one.
- Ashlee Simpson’s appearance in 2004 has been the subject of enough commentary already. When she was booked on the show, I just thought it was weak to have someone best known for riding the coattails of her more successful older sisters (who by that point was better known for being an airhead on an MTV reality show than any music she put out beforehand). For a brief moment, Ashlee did eclipse her sister…as the subject of scorn and derision. Once her second number began with her vocals from the first song playing, while her mic was at hip level, she realized what was going on, did a little jig to save face and then left her band on stage to play out. The show had to scramble to fill time because her aborted performance threw the timing off that night, and Simpson blamed her gaffe on her band playing the wrong song during the goodnights. Post-script: Simpson got a do-over performance for her next album a year later to mass indifference.
- Brian Wilson appeared on the show in 1976, during one of his low ebbs. Overweight, bearded and with hair resembling that of a Fisher-Price man, Wilson was there to promote the Beach Boys’ “comeback” 15 Big Ones, but despite able backing from the SNL band, was not in any shape to perform. His missing the high notes in “Love Is A Woman” is painful enough to watch even without the tragic biography, but even sadder is a solo piano “Good Vibrations” in a giant sandbox at the end of the show.
- Laura Branigan had a big hit with “Gloria” in 1982, and was booked on the show in December of that year. Unfortunately, it seems she was under the weather that weekend because her voice was shot. She resorts to speak-singing for much of the song, but at one point her voice gives out and squeaks a high note.
- Spice Girls received much criticism when they performed “Wannabe” and “Say You’ll Be There” in 1997: their vocal performances left much to be desired, but their dance moves bordered along the territory of the Juul Haalmeyer Dancers from SCTV, without the intentional comedy.
- Backstreet Boys’ appearance in March 1998 had a dance break where with the Boys doing this bit of choreography with folding chairs. Even watching this with the benefit of hindsight and a bit of distance from when they were all over the radio playlists, it wasn’t a very good performance to begin with, but the chair dance just made it look stupid.
- The Go-Gos’ appearance in 1981 was completely flimsy, slippy and lethargic at the same time. Belinda Carlisle has admitted in her autobiography that this is due to being coked and boozed up that particular night, even going so far as calling it the worst performance the band ever did.
Much has already been written about Sinead O’Connor’s well-intentioned but overly-strident protest of Catholic sex abuse at the end of her performance of “War”, and Rage Against The Machine being tossed out of the studio for hanging down an upside-down flag on their amps (which was torn down before showtime) but I didn’t really find too much fault with those performances.
Anyone who has their own nominees for infamously bad SNL performances, please leave a detailed comment.