[5 May 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Despite what you may be led to believe, Lily Allen stopped being a pop star some time ago. Instead, she’s morphed into something far more interesting: a meta-diva.
Those that were drawn in to the ramshackle boiling pot of influences that made up her 2006 debut Alright, Still knew that for a radio siren, Allen showcased a songwriting ability that was more acutely developed than that of her paint-by-numbers peers. She had incisive views about relationships and tales that were born out of her unique London perspective, but what made her a success was her penchant for making such themes relatable to a much larger audience, which was helped by her ear for a good great pop hook (or, even better, a great pop producer).
However, when her 2009 album It’s Not Me, It’s You dropped, she started moving beyond simple songwriting tropes and turned into something more along the lines of a rare self-conscious pop star, one that was aware of the absurdity of her role in this world and found great fun in biting the very hand that fed her. Her ace single “The Fear” is a masterclass in media criticism, expertly dissecting the modern famelust of youth culture with a razor sharp wit all her own (plus, anyone who could successfully implement the phrase “fuckloads of diamonds” is destined for greatness).
Anyone can write a song about how the music industry is terrible, but for Allen to take her observations and marry them to pop hooks as joyous and accessible as the ones she creates with the Bird & the Bee’s Greg Kurstin, she, ironically, ends up with songs that are infinitely more fascinating than that of her major label peers. If It’s Not Me, It’s You had any weak spots, it would be during the times when she felt “obligated” to do some more straight-forward romantic numbers, because as brainy and smarmy as she could be, she knows better than anyone that meta-critiques can only go so far commercially.
Thus, when Allen dropped the aggressive, wry, and playfully vulgar feminist anthem “Hard Out Here” in late 2013, it was obvious that Lily Allen wasn’t only back, but positively energized. It was the opening salvo for what is only her third full-length album, Sheezus, and it is without question the best thing she’s ever done.
Allen wastes no time getting into the meat of things, as she opens with the title track, which name-checks Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Lorde right in its chorus before she declares that “second best will never cut it for the divas / give me that crown, bitch / I wanna be Sheezus.” While casual observers may see it as Allen simply whacking the Top 40 beehive to see what controversy will come out (and boy did it), her verses indicate that she’ll be compared to these women despite the fact that they all do different things in the pop landscape, and such pointless critical cage-matches are, perhaps, inevitable, and she’s resigned herself to the media’s actions even as she realizes she that “The game is changing / Can’t just get back / Jump on the mic and do the same thing.”
In order to prevent doing the same thing over and over again, Allen’s more “straightforward” songs are given a much more personal touch, talking in candid detail about her new husband (“L8 CMMR”), feeling sexy in the bedroom after you realize you’ve let yourself go (“Close Your Eyes”), and even feeling a lack of contentedness despite having started her own loving family (the strangely Jens Lekman-esque “Life For Me”, which features the great line “no energy left in me / the baby might have taken it all”). She describes her domestic life in concise ways, and by the time we get to “As Long as I Got You”, she nails the small details by noting to her new lover that “you never call me a baby / but you refer to me as ‘mine’.” It’s the little observations like that that give this song such gravity, but the fact that the entire thing is set to a country/zydeco raveup only adds to its down-to-earth charm.
Even with those personal highlights, there are times where Sheezus does feel a wee bit padded, as tracks like “Silver Spoon” and “Our Time” feel strangely conventional both in terms of melody and lyrical content, almost as if they’re playing into what the audience is expecting what a Lily Allen song should sound like. Hell, even a Kurt Cobain reference on “Air Balloon” fails to give that single much definition outside of its typical pop radio hook.
Yet Lily Allen is still unafraid to shy away from topics near and dear to heart, and when she gets out her claws, she absolutely obliterates everything around her. On “Insincerely Yours”, she sings with a dry sarcasm that few divas could possibly replicate, asking the real tough questions over a beat that is a few steps away from Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’”: “Whatever happened to the real DJs? / ‘cos the chick you paid / Can’t mix for shit / She’s looking good with her headphones on / With her Beats By Dre / She’s so legit.” As is the case with Allen, her pop culture references aren’t so much cheeky as they are realistic, as pointing out that this girl is specifically wearing Beats By Dre headphones says a lot about who she is, and listeners feel in on the joke.
Case in point: one of Sheezus’ out-and-out highlights is her takedown of internet commentators on “URL Badman”, writing from the perspective of a male fan who claims that “I don’t troll / I make statements”, and indicates that all of his keyboard sniping is just setting himself up, as “when I’m a big boy I’m going to write for Vice”. She paints a picture of a net addict who is formed by hype, someone who can’t wait for the “A$AP Kanye xx Remix”, but feels their commenting is enough to provide real discourse and debate in the world. It’s brutal stuff, but also extremely fun to listen to, as Allen absolutely delights in the satire of it all, summing up her thoughts on the snark purveyors and thinkpiece factories in one rather glorious line: “I don’t like you / I think you’re worthless / I wrote long piece about it / Up on my WordPress”.
Prior to Sheezus’ release, Allen wound up recording a cover of Keane’s signature song “Somewhere Only We Know” to soundtrack a 2013 John Lewis holiday advert in the UK. The song was a quick #1 single for Allen, as her unadorned vocals helped define the rather delicate piano arrangement to the tender tune. However, that song was more the exception to the rule of Lily Allen’s entire career, as she has never been noted as a great performer in the conventional sense. She has a serviceable voice, but what brings it to life is her oversized personality and her wise-beyond-her-years songwriting. What Sheezus proves is that Lily Allen is still growing and evolving as a musician, and even with a few lesser tracks here and there, Sheezus is so far her best-yet mix of personal stories and overarching cultural commentary. Make no mistake: she isn’t the first pop star to point out the foibles of the very industry that has helped her become a success, but if Sheezus proves anything to us, it’s that she just may the best at it.