“I wholeheartedly care about your well-being,” Jenny Hval told the crowd at Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge on Friday night. “I know I always sound like I’m being ironic but I really, truly mean that.” The Norwegian musician, who was performing her new album Blood Bitch, had been joking between songs in her (perhaps accidentally) signature deadpan. Earlier, while explaining how she felt about taking the stage after the fantastic opener serpentwithfeet, she refused to tell the audience the Norwegian term for having to stressfully follow a great performer. “It has to do with skiing,” Hval said disappointedly. “Maybe after the show I’ll tell you.”
For nearly a decade, Jenny Hval’s philosophical art-pop has pulled extensively from feminist theory, from untangling self-care mantras to deconstructing Joan of Arc and pornography in the same breath. She has written two novels, of which she writes on her website: “It’s best not to try to translate the titles. They don’t make sense in English. Trust me.” And on her latest record, Blood Bitch, she turns her gaze to the vampire as a feminist figure, pulling from ’70s horror movies like Female Vampire and the bloody ritual of menstruation.
But for all of its challenging, conceptual subject matter, like the female body and capitalism, Hval’s live performance of Blood Bitch reveals its sense of humor. For the entirety of the show, Hval was accompanied by music video director Zia Anger and artist Annie Bielski, who served as magnetic backup dancers and assistants. They moshed exhaustingly in place to the pulsating “Female Vampire” and performed a manic, aerobic dance number to “The Great Undressing,” shedding their black cloaks to reveal undergarments painted to look like nude bodies. For “Conceptual Romance,” the duo embraced each other sensually onstage, slowly binding themselves together with Saran Wrap before offering the roll to the audience, who further unfurled it and carried it across the crowd.
Aided by the venue’s aggressive strobe lights, Blood Bitch played at times like an energetic dance album, as tracks like “Secret Touch” and “Female Vampire” transformed into club songs onstage. The overall mood was deeply and humorously decadent, a tribute to the self-indulgence of vampirism. Throughout the show, Hval, Bielski, and Anger would grab flowers, melons, grapes, apples, and red wine from a table they had assembled to look like some Dutch still-life, along with gold nylon balloons spelling out “BLOOD BITCH.” At the midway point of the album, Hval lamented that shows always seem to go too fast and imposed a brief party break, and audience members watched as the band drank wine and ate grapes, passing flowers out into the crowd.
In literary critic Nina Auerbach’s 1995 book Our Vampires, Ourselves, she analyzes the versatility of vampires in pop culture, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Reagan-era ’80s movies like Near Dark. What continually captivates people about vampires, she believes, is how close they are to the mortals they prey on. “Vampires are neither inhuman nor nonhuman nor all-too-human,” Auerbach writes. “They are simply more alive than they should be.” As far as vampires in pop culture go, Hval could have started at so many places: Nosferatu, Buffy, David Bowie in The Hunger. And yet it was the vampire as a vessel for female sexuality and debauchery, seen in porny ’70s B-movies, that seems to have particularly inspired the album and her show. Blood Bitch live, with its goofily sexual Saran Wrap number, the flow of wine and fruit, and the intimate onstage circle of friendship between Anger, Bielski, and Hval, was unapologetically hedonistic in a way that felt distinctly feminine. I was reminded of teenage sleepovers that turned into funny tarot card readings and Truth or Dare after the lights went off. Why did we so desperately want to see Bloody Mary in the mirror? What weird courage did the night give us to test one another and spill our secrets?
“There comes a certain point in our lives when we more or less desperately want to be bad,” Hval sang near the show’s end on “Secret Touch,” her eyes closed, as Anger stood on a ladder and threw white confetti over Hval’s head like snow. “When we gladly exchange the good things, just for a short moment, to feel alive.” If Blood Bitch live is to be that short moment — a glimpse into the sexy eternity where vampires live out their days only in the night, a chance for women to become “simply more alive” than they’re supposed to be — then exchanging the good things might not be so bad.