“You’ll have to excuse me,” Lily Allen explains three songs into a sprightly 70-minute set. “I had one of your Philadelphia cheesesteaks a few hours ago, and it’s playing havoc with my stomach. I keep burping… or barfing, as you call it.”
Despite this linguistic faux pas—one which the evening’s sold-out crowd quickly corrects—it’s obvious that Allen likes language. Her songs are full of it, and so is her blog (how else would I know she likes In-N-Out burgers?). Tonight she doesn’t disappoint, using her words to diss everyone from her ex-boyfriends (“Not Big”) to the previous night’s New York crowd (“They said absolutely nothing,” she explains, before bursting into the song of the same name) and other bands (after acoustic covers of fellow Brits Keane and the Kooks, she sates: “Back to my songs, they’re much better than them.”)
What she lacks in social graces, Allen makes up in charisma. Tonight she’s full of buoyant confidence, energetically bounding from one side of the stage to the other, microphone in hand, pulling at her ponytail and flashing a flirtatious smile. The crowd, mainly gaggles of young girls and 30-something couples, is enamored. But just to make sure, she changes the lyrics of her opening song, the reggae-tinged “LDN,” from “walkin’ round Londontown” to “walkin’ round Philly town.”
It all seems too easy. Since bursting onto the scene last summer—thanks to her MySpace page, its snowball effect, and the subsequent blog hype—the diminutive Londoner has dug deep into the international pop landscape. You want to talk numbers? How’s 300,000 albums sold in Britain alone, not to mention 100,000 MySpace friends? And now she’s ready to take on America. Though her debut album, Alright, Still, was just released here last month, this tour, her first full-length US jaunt, is sold out.
The hype may have something to do with MTV’s hourly rotation of five 30-second “vignettes” showcasing Allen’s music (but, then, who watches MTV for music anymore?). Or it may have something to do with her recent staid, but solid Saturday Night Live appearance (but who watches Saturday Night Live anymore?). Then again, it could have developed when Blender magazine named her ‘‘No. 1 Reason to Love 2007’’ (but who reads magazines anymore?).
Of course, it could just have to do with her music—an inoffensive mix of ska, reggae, and R&B polished with a pop sheen and some choice samples (Professor Long Hair, the Soul Brothers). These horn-adorned tunes are topped off with urban(e) observations full of English colloquialisms like “filth,” “fags,” and “flats.” Catchy and crude, the songs are candy coated arsenic pills.
The 21-year-old isn’t without detractors. Her middle class upbringing, famous dad, and ‘mockney’ accent have led to claims of nepotism and record company manipulation. It’s hard to see, on paper, why anyone would want to create Lilly Allen: she’s (in a pop sense) unconventionally pretty, uses outmoded genres as musical markers (ska and reggae), and is prone to cursing (it only takes 13 words for Alright, Still to be slapped with a parental advisory sticker).
All that said, if this show is any evidence, she is a consummate performer, commanding the stage and setting up songs with witty one-liners. She even censors herself, missing out a whole line during the calypso-infused disco pop of “Friday Night” (the offensive word rhymes with ‘runt’). “I can’t do it, there’s a kid there,” she says instead, pointing at the front row, a little flustered. It’s the only time she goes Tipper Gore on us though. The rest of the show is full of foul words strewn about her tales of birds, bars, and ex-boyfriends.
In essence, it’s these three topics that drive Lily Allen’s songs. “Smile” is an ex-boyfriend brush-off disguised as a sanguine slice of laidback island pop; “Knock Em Out,” tells a taut tale of British bar-life; and “Friday Night” combines all three, dealing with the cattiness of girls in bars, possibly fighting over ex-boyfriends. Allen, though, would like us to think she’s deeper than that, introducing “Everything’s Just Wonderful” as a song about “sticking it to the man.” The man, she continues to say, could be, “Bank managers, mortgage lenders, Prime Ministers,” before whispering, “Presidents.” Realizing she’s out of her depth, Allen quickly retreats: “I’m not going there; this is my first American tour; I ain’t no Dixie Chick.”
While she certainly isn’t a Dixie Chick, she does share some of that group’s bravado. Backed by an airtight seven-piece band fitted in matching polo shirts, Allen’s in control, orchestrating the music, conducting the introduction to “Friday Night” like it’s a philharmonic orchestra. Anyone privy to her early MySpace postings and mix-tapes will hear the progress she’s made as a performer. Augmented by a three-piece horn section, tonight’s tunes are punchier, if a little overpowering. “Knock Em Out,” in particular, sounds stunted. On record, it’s a raucous account of recourse anchored by a Professor Longhair piano sample, but tonight the cheer that emanates when Allen dedicates it to the ladies is louder than her vocals. Things come together on “Littlest Things,” when the band takes a back seat, allowing Allen’s voice to shine on her self-described only love song (albeit one in which the boyfriend spends more time and money on trainers than the relationship).
Whether Lily Allen is a person or persona remains to be seen. On tonight’s evidence, though, her fans don’t really care. She walks onstage for the encore with a cigarette in hand, nonchalantly flouting the city’s smoking ban, as the band bursts into the jaunty cartoon Euro-pop of “Alfie.” In it, Allen lambastes her little brother for smoking too much weed, cheekily rhyming “computer games” with “getting laid” and, despite her derision, affectionately calling him “mon frere”.
As I said earlier, Lily Allen likes language.