Let us now praise Nellie McKay, the walking definition of one-of-a-kind, defier of genres and categories, contemporizer of the old-fashioned, nostalgizer of the new, wittifier of the tragic, and profundizer of the trivial. There is no one cleverer, or more likable, words like “talented” were invented in the vain hope that they might describe her. It is best, as she advised us last night at DROM, to just keep drinking, as she slips and slides between comedy and chanteusery, makes of girlishness a kind of feminism, yanks out the ukele (again!), conjures an imaginary elevator speech in memory of Rachel Carson. She can drive a chord on the piano with the best of them, warble like a nightingale, go all Bourbon Street jazzy, or rally the team like a small town cheerleader. All that in one of the sedater performances I have seen from her – the which suggests that a pause in the panegyric may be in order.
It is all too easy to catalogue McKay’s paradoxes and eccentricities, enthusing at her talents and ingenuities, and fail to ask what her brand of dizzy, ditzy satire adds up to. I think the reason that I found her less trenchant than usual at DROM was that when I have seen her previously, whether in her own show or someone else’s, she has had other principal players, usually singers or comedians, to bounce off of. Let her on stage with you, and she is a constant reminder that although you are “in” today you could be “out” tomorrow. She is all about cultural instability, proof positive that the stodgiest genres can be subversive, and the most innovative ones can stultify. All that we think solid in politics, ideology, culture and personality is subjected to parody and redefinition.
By herself on Saturday night – and this is not to devalue the musicians she played with – she was a little less potent, like a catalyst in search of chemicals to react with. She had us of course, and her own wild variety, all of which went, as you can tell from the way I began this commentary, a very long way. There is no one quite like Nellie Mckay, except, of course, for all the rest of her.