Royal & the Serpent, the oxymoronic moniker of Ryan Santiago, embodies the duality of life, in her persona and artistry. She views life from both the perspective of an angel and a devil, much like a third-culture kid who belongs to two cultures but unable to fully identify with either. While her songwriting gravitates towards self-expression and autobiographical storytelling, it is this tale of two cities that captured the eyes and ears of many, over this past year, when even the most angelic people had encounters with their pessimistic alter-egos.
In the summer of 2020, Royal & the Serpent’s song “Overwhelmed” became a viral success on TikTok, when content creators cued the song to video transitions that reflected said dualities of demeanors and personalities. Since then, she released an EP called searching for nirvana as well as collaborative tracks with Yoshi Flower, The Knocks and phem, to name a few. Subsequently, she was invited to open for PVRIS on their cross-country tour and played at the renowned Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles last Thursday.
From the get-go, it was clear that Royal & the Serpent’s quarantine success was not withering away with the pandemic, as she came on stage rocking a bloody wound on her forehead in a cheerleading uniform, shaking her pom poms to embellish her performance of alt-pop anthem “i can’t get high.” Shouts of exuberance permeated the venue as I gazed in adoration of what can only be described as beautifully grotesque.
Her spectacular presentation was complemented by her theatrical performance, particularly during her song “Choke,” when she wrapped the microphone cord tightly around her neck to depict her internal suffocation. While this draws obvious parallels to the song’s lyrics “Loosen your grip before I choke / Can't catch my breath, I'm gonna choke / I wish that you'd just let me go / I don't want this, I promise, just leave me alone,” the ingenuity of this metaphor extends to her moniker. As the microphone cord went round and round Ryan’s neck, the perfect balance was ruined - the serpent overshadowed Royal. The entire performance of “Choke” came from Royal’s last breaths. Gasping for air, she cried desperately for the restoration of Yin and Yang.
Moment after moment, song after song, Ryan’s intelligent and intricate storytelling paired with her fearless stage presence made me feel like I was at the Pantages right across the street, watching the perfect horror rom-com musical unravel. The cast not only included Beauty School Dropout who played instrumentals during the whole set including a performance of their song “Starphucker” (that features Royal & the Serpent), but also guest appearances from Phem on “girls” and Slush Puppy on “EAT SPIT!”, both surprising treats exclusive to the Los Angeles crowd. With each feature ramping up the enthusiasm of the crowd and keeping everyone on their toes, Royal & The Serpent ended her set with the most anticipated “Overwhelmed.” Whether it was clapping, dancing or yelling, the Fonda crowd was fully invested and gave it their all to send Royal & The Serpent one final hurrah.
Writer’s Note: What an honor it was to experience such profound and exceptional artistry. Can’t wait for a headline tour!
Photography by Enoch Chuang