AUSTIN, Texas - Among the many powers of the Internet is its ability to make the immediate infinite. Think it, write it, post it, it’s worldwide. Bye-bye middleman.
And deliberation, and prudence. The enter key can give you instant gratification and audience. It can also get you in trouble.
Lily Allen knows all about the power and perils of the Web. The 21-year-old English singer became almost an overnight sensation last year when she posted tracks she had just recorded on her MySpace page. Her sharp observations of a modern London girl, sung in disarmingly sweet ska melodies, won her a virtual army of friends. Her UK label rushed to finish and release her album. By summer she was on top of the English pop charts.
But Allen also garnered attention for other things she posted on her site: witty and withering comments about musicians, publications, media figures and whatever else was on her mind. She offered more of the same in interviews. Now Allen is known as much for her smart mouth as her smart songs.
All of which makes her a welcome addition to a pop landscape that for too long has been littered with innocuous, inarticulate starlets. Allen is a kick in the pants. And she’s not alone: A number of women who are not afraid to speak their minds in lyrics, interviews and blogs - who refuse to shut up but will definitely sing - have been rattling the celebrity cages in England: rappers M.I.A. and Lady Sovereign, and singer Amy Winehouse. Lad rock has been loud and strong since Oasis; now it’s time for the lasses.
“It must be a generational thing,” says Allen “We’re just kind of sick of seeing how women have been betrayed in the music industry for the last 10 or 15 years and didn’t want to be like that. I think guys have been doing it for years, but I think it’s been hard for women to be given their opportunity. Now with things like MySpace and the Internet, music’s actually being chosen by people and not just by record company executives and TV controllers and radio controllers.”
Allen is sitting in the courtyard of a hotel in Austin, where she’s kicking off her first full-fledged U.S. tour with two packed shows at the South By Southwest Music Conference. It’s her first chance to take her tales of club girlfights and male impotence to the American masses. Allen is hardly eager.
“I feel pretty lethargic to be honest,” Allen yawns. “I feel like I’ve been doing it for ages already and I kind of want to get on with doing something different now. I don’t really want to go out for the next six months singing the same songs I’ve been singing for the past year and a half.”
Enter another pitfall of the era of immediacy: The old-fashioned ways of getting your art out—like touring behind a record—can seem ever so tedious. It doesn’t help matters for Allen that Alright, Still was just released stateside earlier this year (adding irony to the title). Or that back home she’s famous, but in America, she’s still largely unknown.
“It’s hard going all around the world trying to emulate what I’ve done in England,” Allen says. “Two nights ago I was in London playing to 5,000 people screaming and going insane and buying up my merchandise, and then suddenly I’m in the middle of Austin. It’s difficult to judge what kind of performance you’ve got to be giving.”
Complaining about Allen having a bad attitude would be like complaining that James Blunt is cloying. Her skill at ripping all comers new orifices is half the charm of such songs as “Smile,” in which beneath the facial expression of the title, Allen sings the physical shortcomings of an ex. On “Alfie,” she paints a familiar, funny character sketch - the pothead video-game player in knitted cap who never leaves his room - based on a real-life subject: Alfie is her brother.
“He was mad at first but he’s not like that anymore so he’s over it,” she says.
Allen’s unedited frankness gives her songs their MySpace-style in-your-face freshness.
“My music is always quite of the moment and relevant at that time. When it doesn’t come out for a year and a half it becomes quite dated.”
The daughter of a film producer and a well-known (in Britain) comedian, Allen grew up with people like the Clash’s Joe Strummer as uncle figures. She should be well aware of the trials and tribulations of showbiz.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing this. I can’t really complain.”
Allen is both cognizant that she and her female peers are grabbing a moment in the sun, and tired of talking about it.
“It annoys me even how women magazine editors and journalists still kind of come to you with this idea of we’re going to do a woman-in-music special. Why? You never see a men-in-music special. The more you make a thing of wow, girls are doing it for themselves, the more it becomes a nonentity as far as I’m concerned. It should just be a given.”
Allen has both dissed Lady Sov in print and acknowledged it was the rapper who first told her about MySpace. She feels pitted against Winehouse, even when she knows that’s wrong.
“When someone goes to the record store they’re not saying, should I buy that woman artist or that woman artist? But I feel like they’re going to do that with Amy and I. They could just as easily go, am I going to buy that album or (English bedroom rapper) Jamie T.‘s album? All women are put in the same box and meant to compete against each other.”
It’s true: Allen’s contemporary urban nightlife tales have as much in common with the Arctic Monkeys’ punk as with Winehouse’s jazz-pop songs of dissolution. But in Austin, if you brought up going to see Allen, someone was sure to ask about Winehouse (then again, the Monkeys didn’t play the festival).
Allen feels more in common with older heroines: Deborah Harry, Patti Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Chrissie Hynde. Of course, back in the `70s, people pitted Harry and Smith against each other. The relentless sexism is enough to bring out the spunk in a reluctant feminist.
“It can be quite patronizing. I don’t think people really know how to deal with it yet,” Allen says. “I don’t think women have ever been equal to men. That’s something I find kind of sad.”