Dancing to the Diving Woman: A Review of Japanese Breakfast at Royale

Although her debut LP dropped less than three years ago, Michelle Zauner — the brains behind solo indie project Japanese Breakfast — has already built quite a name for herself. Zauner’s seamless blend of electro-pop, ambient lo-fi, and alternative rock has already caught the attention (and rave reviews) from some of the biggest names in entertainment, securing her lengthy profiles in the likes of Rolling Stone, NPR, Pitchfork, and even Vogue. Fans of alternative music often complain about how meteoric rises to fame tend to compromise the originality of indie artists; however, Zauner’s creative output shows no sign of slowing down. I had the privilege of seeing her twice last summer, where I was met with a gracefully executed bedroom-style performance, complete with soft vocals, sleepy guitar strumming, and that classic “indie” sway. Her competent vocals and rich capacity for emotional expression were beautiful compliments to the seductively melancholic atmosphere of 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, but there was not much that was surprising. Hers was a fairly conventional stage presence, and would have been familiar to any occasional patron of The Indie Rock Concert.

Last week at Royale Nightclub, however, I encountered a completely different performer. Tearing onto the stage, Zauner wasted no time in grabbing the mike, her energy reverberating off the walls almost as loudly as the beginning vibratos of “Diving Woman.” Marking every beat with a jump, a kick, or a stomp, she began wielding her voice like a weapon, injecting an electricity into her music that could only be described as unabashedly punk. Whereas a year ago she seemed almost nervous to be performing in front of 50 people, last week she confidently danced in front of an audience of more than 200, singing with extraordinary power and a spontaneity that was nevertheless grounded in her uniquely expressive voice.

While she did save some introspective moments for the more intimate corners of her repertoire, many other songs underwent a dramatic transformation. Some of her most ethereal tracks were updated with newfound dynamism, and some of her saddest love songs became triumphant anthems. Sure, her lyrics entertained the past, but Zauner was undeniably holding her gaze towards the future, exuding an ironclad optimism rarely seen in lo-fi performances.

More than simply entertaining to watch, Zauner’s buoyancy became a subtle yet striking challenge to preconceived notions about what alternative pop should, or can, be. She dared to smile while singing about all the people who have loved her imperfectly — to be exuberant while calling out a crush for their naiveté — while at the same time admitting her feelings for them. By rejecting the long-standing “sad indie girl” trope, Zauner proves that it’s possible to find strength in being rejected; that it’s conceivable to maintain one’s pride at the hands of unrequited love; and, most importantly, that it can be appropriate to dance along to even the most depressing lyrics. Like a modern-day Bowie, Zauner has an exceptional gift for subverting expectations in all aspects of her art, even extending to her choice of moniker (“PSA: I’m Korean,” reads her Twitter bio).

More than anything, though, Zauner’s Royale performance was important in marking her as one of those rare artists whose love for performing is blatantly sincere. Out of everyone screaming, dancing, and reaching out for her, the person who was having more fun than anyone else in the room was the one strutting up and down the stage, dancing with her band-members, and giving personal serenades to the audience members in the front row. As the show wound down, and the time came for her to give her final over-the-shoulder goodbyes (“Thanks for selling this show the f*ck out!”), no one looked around for the exit.

We all knew she was playing the encore.

Lucas Mitchell is a DJ for The Darker Side. Tune in to TDS from Saturday 9pm to Sunday 7am!