Living in an American metropolis makes one privy to a number of cultural events. The amount and scope on any given day in New York gives a sense of the provenance for the superlative “World’s Greatest City.” Yet by virtue of such egocentrism, this nation often overlooks countless international phenomena. Every year the pop factory scrambles to find the next (literal) American idol, simultaneously snubbing the most consistently appealing (and profitable, if you want to speak in the suits’ terms) artists abroad. Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, and Toshi Kubota are certified stars in their homelands but have seen only a fraction of that shine in the United States.
That said, allow me to play angel’s advocate and suggest that missing the Texan-size profit margin isn’t such a bad thing. Case in point: Bic Runga, one of the highest selling artists in her native New Zealand, playing an AB-negative-rare solo acoustic show in a tiny Downtown, New York club.
The March 21 performance on a limited tour (rounded out by appearances at SXSW and in Los Angeles) was meant to promote her most recent album, Birds, which is finally being released in the States after being available in New Zealand for a year and a half. The album, her third, is a relatively sober affair; it was recorded in the wake of her father’s recent passing. In spite of the somber turn of events, the album does not dwell on death so much as ruminate on the fragility of life and relationships through the singer-songwriter’s signature, tender pop. Which would sound trite if it were not for the fact that New Zealanders dug the record enough to purchase more than three million copies. Perhaps there is something to the old adage “Write a song for the American Pie soundtrack, find yourself in the eternal sunshine of consumer favor.” Or, perhaps there is something genuinely appealing about the singer and songwriter.
Which leads me to the second (presumable) reason for Runga’s seemingly left-field appearance: another stab at reaching out to the elusive American market. In spite of the aforementioned product placement (her Imbruglia-esque “Sway” achieved a modicum of success — enough to make my friend V, who did not know who I was talking about when I first asked her to come with me to the show, remark during the set closer, “Oh, I know this song”) and marketing of her considerable charms (evident enough to make V comment repeatedly about how pretty she is), Runga has yet to make a foothold in the American market. The desire or interest in expansion makes sense when considering the extent of her success back at home; hell, she has been made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a national recognition almost on par with receiving knighthood or damehood.
Though it seems fitting Runga would reach for a slice of that American pie, it also seems appropriate that the just desserts would elude her. Playing to a packed house of cosmopolitan pop fanatics and New Zealand expats, she presented herself with a disarming lack of self that practically screamed, “I am not a star!” Quietly performing songs from Birds on the acoustic, the show was less a show than two hundred people eavesdropping on a neighbor rehearsing in her living room. Not to say Runga placed a wall between her and her audience. The atmosphere was far more intimate; she joked casually about the brevity of her half-hour set being accommodating to her hankering for potato pancakes.
In a way, the performance epitomized Runga’s peculiar limbo between celebrity and civil societies. On one hand, fans came en masse to see this gorgeous creature and to absorb her tender songs of love and life. Yet the fragility — no, the normality — of the performance stripped away any pop mystique. In fact, she did the unthinkable: She was a pop star without being a pop star, conflating and deflating the mythology at the same time. So, kudos to Bic: For a brief moment, she wasn’t just another pretty face singing songs of love and woe in a SoHo club; instead, she gave New York some of its edge back.