Back in the mid-aughts, Lily Allen brought a lot of hype and promise across the pond to the US with her first album, Alright, Still. Produced by a then-underappreciated Mark Ronson, Allen was poised to become the anti-female pop star; a direct opposite to the oversexed, Auto-Tuned princesses ushered onto the charts in the late ’90s, her brand of ska- and reggae-inspired pop songs embodied a charm and wit that was sadly absent in the music of her American contemporaries. But despite the critical acclaim and brief commercial success, Allen didn’t achieve the success of, say, Amy Winehouse or Adele, who eclipsed her with their big voices and big sounds.
But another another curious pop-music occurrence took place as Lily Allen’s star was fading in America: the simultaneous rise of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, whose cheeky, self-reflexive winks at the nature of fame (combined with the tried-and-true hypersexual aesthetics) rode in on Allen’s witty, farcical coattails. It was in 2008 when those two released their first singles; the next year, Lily Allen announced she had no plans to record another album, despite the critical and commercial success of her second album, It’s Not Me, It’s You.
This explains why there’s so much excitement for Lily Allen’s return. Today, seemingly out of nowhere, she released a video for her new single, “Hard Out Here.” While not a strict return to her roots — it incorporates the electro-pop sound of It’s Not Me, It’s You — it is a welcome reminder that Allen was a rare breed of pop star: one who had the brains to point out how destructive the industry in which she works is. And she does so in a way that is sincere and honest rather than patronizing.
It’s easy to see how Lily Allen might find frustrations within the music industry. On the one hand, she was lucky. The daughter of Keith Allen, a musician and actor, and Alison Owen, a film producer, her success was not exactly the surprise it was made out to be in the narrative that introduced her on countless music blogs: that she was an unknown who found fame through posting her demos on MySpace. She’s very much a part of the industry machine, but she was definitely set apart from the others in her cohort from the beginning: she wrote her own music, she had a music-nerd sensibility, and she was not rail-thin (although, conveniently, she did happen to be pretty damn gorgeous).
But despite all she had going for her, she didn’t quite ascend to the level of fame enjoyed by the mega-stars who rule the American pop landscape. Along with looking a bit different, she was a bit too outspoken. And while Amy Winehouse’s substance abuse struggles certainly eclipsed hers, she was still a tabloid fixture on account of her partying. But in a world where that becomes at least as important to the music as, you know, the actual music, Allen’s personal life never became a part of her appeal — rather it was the voice, both literal and figurative, with which she commented on the world around her.
It seems necessary for Lily Allen to return, especially with “Hard Out Here.” The title, a play on the Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia song, has a relevant gender change. In this post-Miley Cyrus / post-trollgaze world, it feels as if pop music is more vapid and trashy than it ever was before. (You could make a jaded argument that nothing has ever changed, except that what we put up with a lot more manufactured outrage these days.) Sure, the video for (and the lyrics in) “Hard Out Here” is heavy-handed — not to mention the fact that the cadre of mostly black backup dancers twerking and getting their asses slapped in slow motion muddies the satirical message a bit. But the pretty blatant disses at the heavy hitters on the current pop charts are perfect. There’s Cyrus’ twerking, Gaga’s cheeky product placement and transparent media critiques, even a reference to Robin Thicke’s embarrassing bragging about the size of his penis, and acknowledgment of all three performer’s cultural appropriations. All comparisons of raw talent aside, Lily Allen seems to be the only pop performer still standing who has the self-awareness and wit to nail such a timely message in the space of a four-minute pop song.