I do not like Lily Allen. But hopefully, this isn’t just about me. The reasons why I dislike Lily Allen should, I hope, reflect some broader concerns about pop music and culture.
My current sentiments towards Allen are recent ones. I remember the snarky bop of “Smile,” her vengeful jeremiad against a guy who hurt her. The horns had a bombastic quality that exploded into headphones. This was largely the character of Alright, Still, her first album, and It’s Not Me, It’s You, her second. Each of the singles spoke to a cynical sense of critique that impressed me a few years ago. The fact that Allen’s contemporaries bared their bodies to sell albums provoked her distaste and judgment; the idea that pop music was a vacuum of talent and meaning was one she seemed to endorse.
As I developed a greater appreciation for pop as a rich creative form in its own right, Allen’s point of view quickly became transparent. While Allen sang against vapidity, her critiques were equally lacking. Her lyrics often typecast the whole of the pop industry, erasing nuance in favor of conventional soundbyte politics (“I don’t know what’s right or what’s real anymore”). Hers is a cynicism that sees everything as the same; no one is real or credible. She is in search of authenticity, and she attempts to construct it through her lyricism and personal image (“I never go out to be photographed, never. I go to events because they’re fun.”). Implicit in her statements is the notion that the pop culture industry is some roiling machine that threatens to objectify women and narcotize unsuspecting citizens.
At first, it was refreshing. But as most quests for authenticity go, it soon provoked yawns. A similar and all-too-familiar path of degradation: Allen’s critique of vapidity soon devolved into plainly stated snobbery. Snobbery is generally a discomfort with low culture, of the sort Allen has often expressed. Snobbery rests on the estimation that some vague higher plains exist in culture; that we must turn ourselves away from the filth below and point up to the Picassos, John Cages, and haute couture designers of our day. Snobbery is the ‘authentic’ versus the reproducible, the bottom versus the top. I should warn that no one can escape this defense of the high/low cultural divide. We all are at the frontline in some capacity, because we cultivate tastes based on the oppositions produced by the divide. But this doesn’t make us all snobs. Snobs are interested in further entrenching the war of values between different dimensions of culture that are not actually strongly opposed. As soon as Coca-Cola was screenprinted by Warhol and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon appeared in The Simpsons, such divisions became even sillier.
Lily Allen, by this definition, is a snob. Her first two albums provided ample fodder for thinking of her in this way. But her most recent album might be her worst offense. On Sheezus, she has concerned herself with parodying the culture marked by Beyoncé, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus and others. “Hard Out Here,” the album’s first single expands her previous complaints: “I won’t be braggin’ bout my cars/Or talkin’ bout my chains/Don’t need to shake my ass for you/Cause I’ve got a brain.” High-nosed critique, let us note, isn’t just about the expanses of pop culture. It’s about the ideas we accept and reject; it’s about who we accept and reject. Allen suggests that ass shaking and having a brain are mutually exclusive quantities. Through Allen’s glasses, Beyoncé is much less of a “Grown Woman.” She is not authentic. Nor is anyone who flaunts wealth. For Allen, whose father is a major figure in British entertainment biz, money is governed by discretion.
Allen’s video for “Hard Out Here” was inexcusable. In an apparent critique of the culture she lampoons in her lyrics, Allen hired a few black women as emblems of hip-hop’s music video culture. The video was attempt to critique the objectification of women. There are visual cues that reference Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” moment, as well as Miley Cyrus “We Can’t Stop” extravaganza. Her sanctimonious critique, however, fails. On one level, the black women become sexualized props, swept up in Allen’s tidal cynicism. Further, however, the video begins to turn on them. The lyrics of the song spill messily onto the woman they envision; she who shakes her ass is she who bears blame. Plainly, the video was racist.
More recently, Allen has been connected to a bouquet of controversies. In a London performance, she dressed up as Beyoncé in “Drunk in Love” garb, miming the song on stage while parodying the original singer’s dance moves. The title of her new album is fueled by a similar genre of humour. This is one of many tiring moments of “candor.” But the problem is larger than Allen. Just a few days ago, California-based band Warpaint fired on Beyoncé and Rihanna, who, they claim, went too far in sexualizing their music. A feminist critique on the performances of black women by a group of white girls who’ve done shows in Native style face paint? People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
This sort of cultural haughtiness disguised as lyricism by Allen & company — it’s dangerous. It seals us off from others and ourselves. While it certainly enables racist, classist, and sexist reading of pop cultural texts, snobbery also blurs the boundaries of our involvement within pop culture. What makes Lily Allen fundamentally different from Beyoncé? I don’t ask that question in jest. I want to point to the fact that Allen makes pop music. She participates in the very system she purports to critique. The line in the sand she so fervently tries to draw is one that will ceaselessly be washed away. To think otherwise would be a delusion. But such is one’s brain under the influence of snobbery.