It’s Lily Allen: Chick-flick songs for people who don’t like chick flicks


(David writing)

With a second superb album, It’s Not Me, It’s You Lily Allen immediately vaults from an out-of-the-box concept artist with a bunch of great song to a full-fledged flat-out great songwriter.  And one who seems to have something to offer nearly anybody who seeks great songs.  No, she doesn’t give up the poetry like Bob Dylan — she’s hardly beyond clever and you could say she enjoys using language, but it’s strictly a conduit for getting her points across. And these particular points are her own. Who even to compare her to? Mapping the web of a 20-something woman’s self-definition as it relates to her sexuality and her determination to not get fucked over, including by herself, only a few come to mind — Joni Mitchell, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, Sleater-Kinney, Missy Elliott, who else ya got? And I’ll start right off saying that of those, Allen’s easily got the easiest and richest sense of humor, which goes along with her standing her ground without needing rage, bravado or even much irony. She couldn’t reminisce about some stud she fucked on a Greek island with a straight face, and in general seems to find the jet-setting privileges of popdom disorienting and largely unnecessary (though word is she does love the clothing part of it).  And especially on her second album, which does without ska ventures or extra-sharp Professor Longhair quotes, she’s aiming her music at the most unadventurous pop fans this side of Celine Dion, people who enjoy a good tune and some life in the rhythms, but who don’t want to be challenged by noise, sensory overload, or anything else they not already used to. In this, she also separates herself from just about any male singer-songwriter of anywhere close to her level of specificity abnd liveliness. One way or another, they tend to be aesthetes. The only one I can think of is Billy Joel, whom nobody born outside , say, 1950-1975 northeast U.S. understands, and at least half of those don’t even admit that we do. Because one major quality that Allen has over Joel is self-awareness. Not self-consciousness, with its nervous insecurity leading to overly cautious positioning (Joel lacks that, too, very much  to his credit), but a sense of how you come off, of where you fit in compared to the characters in your songs, of what it means to write and care about them, to what extent they’re you. Joel, on other hand, well, one reason there’ll never be a biopic on him is that Will Ferrell would be too cruel in his portrayal — his best  20 or so songs deserve better, but Ferrell would get the tone close enough, that fat-headed obliviousness and entitlement.

   Last time, when she was 20, Lily Allen was a barhopping bedhopping  wiseacre who knew her limits but who also wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to diss jerks who nixed her mortgage application, kept her out of the hot nightclub or who were no good either at sex or those parts relationships that happens with clothes on.

   This time, she’s more grounded, more responsible, but never allows that either will mean she’s less spirited or fun-loving. She can start with a song about the hypocrisy and naivete of people who privilege perscription drugs over the street kind and make it sound like another cock-diss, which is also how the anti-Bush one sounds, which is why it works — she imagines him as the jerk in the next booth, and if I’ve had to wait since I was about 12 for a fully commercial-sounding pop song called “Fuck You,” well, Allen makes sure noivelty aspect doesn’t go to waste. Sure, the happy relationship song that welcomes coupling as a respite from the mundane ends with takeout in front of the TV, sure she complains “I spent ages giving head” while lying in the wet spot, this we expect from Allen already, and she still performs well. But the one about stardom’s loss of self is so closely felt I was afraid for a moment that it had actually happened, that she was just singing about loving money and doing anything for fame. “I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless,” sure, I could see that happening. “It doesn’t matter ’cause I’m packing plastic,” oh, not another one.  But no, whew, “I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny,” not our Lily, not anytime soon and probably not ever, and that she puts failure of sense of humor into a song called “The Fear” is just one thing I love about her. 

   Last time she closed with an oompah-beat laugh-a-line well-intentioned mocking of her slacker brother, while this time she breaks her own mold with a completely conciliatory plea which turns out to be for her sister. And makes you realize that she’s not breaking any mold, just delving deep and telling it as she feels and sees it, just like always. If she’s just a lot more perceptive and is brave enough to delve deeper than the norm, she doesn’t see why that makes her any less normal, or at least less understandable by normal people. Which is what I meant by the post title, by the way. Kept meaning to get to it.

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5 Responses to “It’s Lily Allen: Chick-flick songs for people who don’t like chick flicks”

  1. 1 Terry Moran

    You display a remarkable ignorance of Billy Joel and those who appreciate his music. By all means, compliment Lily Allen for her self-awareness, but don’t try to disparage Joel’s work as part of that equation. Do some more homework before you make such sweeping generalizations.

  2. 2 kmostern

    Thank you, Ms. Moran, for your eloquent defense of the obscure and otherwise defenseless Mr. Joel from writers as influential and important as ourselves. You have truly helped us to stay on the one true path. I do have to assure you, however, that David (the writer of the above piece) and I are most familiar with Joel’s music and millieu, having memorized every word together when we were 13 and 14. And while David isn’t much of a Billy Joel fan these days (I, though this is embarassing to say in some circles, still kind of am), I’m not actually sure what is so disparaging, sweeping, or generalizing in the above comment, which is quite detailed and specific, not to mention surprisingly complimentary, whether or not you agree with it. Perhaps you might do some more reading before you make posts to blogs.

  3. 3 David

    Thanks, Kenny. Another way to put it might be: Terry, why don’t you point out exactly what it is you don’t like about what I said, and (better yet) why. Otherwise someone might come along and accuse of sweeping generalizations.

  4. 4 Kenny

    I’ve taken a particularly long time to respond to this one. This is why.

    The question for me with Lily Allen has been, from the beginning, is she (1) an entertaining stand up comedian (music largely incidental), who you really appreciate having in the world but mostly just want to listen to twice and then, after the jokes are old, put aside, or (2) an artist worthy of sustained attention. In the case of the first album, the fact that it was the first album and quite unique helped — it sustained attention precisely because it was unique, and whenever I actually listened to it, I loved it. But I never became convinced by the music or certain that I’d still find the words compelling in three or five years. It ended up toward the bottom of my top ten for ’07 largely because when I didn’t have it on, I didn’t remember it as something compelling or important. This is a particular phenomenon. There are albums you remember fondly when you aren’t listening to them, but when you actually listen they aren’t that great. Alright, Still was an album I was remembering as so-so but loving when I actually listened to it.

    I’ve been having the same experience with this album and wondering what to do. I just listened for the fourth time in six weeks, which is not much for a well-loved album but is plenty for deciding how well-loved an album is, and I think it’s about 50/50 between my two reactions. The clincher — the reason I’ll give it an A rather then an A- — is “Chinese,” which benefits from being well into the second half of the album (i.e. after I’ve gone back and forth three times) and is as true to life as I could ever wish about the lived experience of a relationship where people travel, coming in and out of each others lives, an experience that has been my life for decades now. In other words, she totally wins me over when she sounds 40, not 24 (which is not fair or useful to ask of her). At that point she’s welcome to talk about “Him” in ways that would be more revealing to me if I were 24, and I’ll appreciate it, knowing that someone else hasn’t learned this yet. Even so, I don’t actually think she’s especially clever or timely or at this late late date necessary on George Bush, and I think she’ll be that much better again the day she names an album “OK, It’s Me, Too.”

    So nothing has changed. About half the time I’m profoundly grateful she exists, half the time I’m cool but a little bored, and all around I feel warm but a bit distant. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if she’s at the bottom of my top 10 again.

  5. 5 schweitzito

    Right – “Chinese” is key because all the wisecracks and put-downs benefit from the contextualization of its everyday detail — not that she can describe the everyday, but that she can enjoy it. I admit I also haven’t been playing the album the past few weeks, but then I haven’t been playing much of any new music lately. I find my enthusiasm for the new, when faced with 27000 other songs on my ipod, waxes and wanes.

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