While watching her new “URL Badman” video, I admitted something to myself: I like Lily Allen. It was a curious realization, since I’d never had a particularly strong reaction to her before, and even had trouble seeing what there was to love about her music. It isn’t especially danceable, nor is it usually heartbreaking (“Somewhere Only We Know” is a lovely exception); typically, the most extreme thing it’ll make you feel is “bouncy!” Some say Allen is likable because she’s an “unstoppable sass-fest” or something, but really, if I needed more sass in my life, I could lock myself in a room with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s That’s My Jam Core and the First Wives’ Club soundtrack (OK, maybe listening to a Lily Allen album is easier than that). But in trying to blog about the blogosphere-belittling video “URL Badman,” I’ve finally put my finger on what I like about Lily Allen: whether she knows it or not, she’s just trying to be a goddamn blogger.
With her recent album, Sheezus, Lily Allen took a tour of the zeitgeist with a portable grill at her side, skewering, setting fire to, and, well, grilling all facets of contemporary existence. Her videos from the album have followed suit, to varying success. As everyone knows, her satire of music industry body-shaming less satirically participated in the objectification of black bodies. In “Hard Out Here,” she sets herself apart as a sort of liaison, a voice for the voiceless. The weird thing is that her video itself ensured the voicelessness of all bodies that weren’t her own. In its attempt to show how the industry objectifies women’s bodies, it – ultimately just another video for a pop single by virtue of being totally ensconced in the industry – objectified and othered black women’s bodies.
With the exception of the opening moments of the “Hard Out Here” video, where she’s receiving lipo, she acts as a spokesperson, analyzing from outside the ideals of pop music: “Always trust the injustice ‘cause it’s not going away,” she chants, in a modest dress, while scantily clad black women twerk around her. Just as it’s sort of fucked up that I come to work fully clothed (unless I’m self-objectifying with my jorts), sit at a computer, watch pop videos, and then critique the implications of other people’s corporeal acts of bravery and/or exhibitionism, Allen here acts as an observer of the pop world she’s co-creating. This video was the first indication that her newfangled self-image was no longer that of a pop star, but a burgeoning cultural critic whose witticisms happen to be set to pop music – someone who left pop, then only halfway returned, now using her pop music as a vessel to attack the industry’s inequities.
With Yeezus, Kanye self-deified, but Allen recycles his wordplay not as an act of godly posturing so much as a comment on godly posturing in pop. The album is thus a response to other mainstream music, so tightly tied to the goings-on of the musical moment that, much like this post, its meaning will be dimmed the second its source material falls out of the blogosphere’s interest. The title track – wherein Allen lists the assets of her competition, jocularly challenging them to a boxing match – suggests that Allen is no longer casting herself as a pop star, but as a critic disguised as one. The majority of her lyrics are here delivered through sprechgesang, where her exaggerated “Mockney” accent drips with “over it” sarcasm. Allen’s known for not having the most virtuosic voice – compared to Adele or Amy Winehouse, it’s a diminutive thing. Now, with her return to pop music, its refusal to belt or bleed emotion – its refusal to be anything but sweetly sarcastic – finally aligns with Allen’s take on the whole act of music making. Allen’s voice seems more a critical device than a musical one.
Now, with “URL Badman,” it seems to all come together: here, as a response to media backlash from her “Hard Out Here” video, she repeats much of the choreography. While her backup dancers in “Hard Out Here” were black women whose bodies moved at ten times the speed and did ten times the work of Allen’s, her backup dancers in “URL Badman” are sculpturally still blogger-boys. In the video, Allen wanders between these immobilized adolescents who are diligently at work (or were, before they became frozen by Allen’s presence) lambasting pop stars from the privacy of their bedroom computers (the video opens with one such blogger’s mom yelling at them to come down to dinner in a Monty Python-ish domestic drag voice).
The video is pretty awesome: the images of the teenagers become increasingly glitchy, until their bodies split and they become weird virtual rainbow things. It very effectively speaks to the fact that a blogger is a bifurcated individual, one who can fabricate an alternate self, a formless being made of shit-talking verbiage, impervious to the emotional consequences of being an asshole in the real world. “Real talk, I’ll put the world to rights/ And when I’m a big boy I’m gonna write for Vice,” says Allen towards the beginning of the song, invoking some pretty apt stereotypes about the poison of the blogosphere. If that weren’t enough, the song begins with the sound of typing and ends with the “baah-ing” of sheep. Of course, Allen, who became famous via Myspace, owes a great deal of her fame to these sheep; in spirit, at least, she’s also part of the flock.
“URL Badman” is sort of the equal opposite of the “Hard Out Here” video: here, Allen is the most mobile person, but in both videos, the people in the background are reduced to dehumanized concepts that she, the human component of her videos, can critique. Just as I sit here with Lily Allen’s career splayed open in different tabs in front of me, vulnerable to my dissection, so too does she distance herself from the people and the worlds of her videos to examine and critique them. Her targets are either frozen or sped up while she acts in real time, speaking to her listeners as a voice of reason amid a crowd of inhumanly paced prop-actors.
“I don’t like you, I think you’re worthless/ I wrote a piece about it on my WordPress,” Allen sings, in the voice of the blogger. But that’s exactly what her latest album is: a sonic WordPress site, full of embittered reactions, self-satisfied witticisms, and oozing snark. And just as a blogger can hit “publish” on some horrifying missteps as well as, on other lovely occasions, use the platform to write essays of cultural import, “URL Badman” finds Allen playing the role of singing critic quite perfectly (albeit somewhat hypocritically). She’s a “URL Badgirl,” and she might as well embrace it.