Thoroughly modern Lily

October 13, 2006


  • In the music world, playing the dozens trading hard-hitting but wickedly funny insults with your opponent may be a tradition most often associated with hip-hop, which, of course, adapted it from the blues. But for my money, the current heavyweight champion is a petite 21-year-old Englishwoman who's taking the European pop scene by storm, and who's gearing up to invade America.

    "I never wanted it to end up this way / You've only got yourself to blame," Lily Allen sings in the ridiculously catchy chorus of "Not Big," from her debut album "Alright, Still." Then she really brings the hammer down. "I'm gonna tell them that you're rubbish in bed now / And that you're small in the game." (Ouch!)

    Or how about this rejoinder to an unwelcome advance at the pub in "Knock 'Em Out"? "Can't knock 'em out, can't walk away / Try desperately to think of the politest way to say, / 'Just get out my face, just leave me alone / And no you can't have my number / Why? Because I've lost my phone.'" (Oomph!)

    Then there are these lines from "Friday Night," which hardly sound like idle boasting, given Allen's track record."There's a lesson that I want you to learn / If you're gonna play with fire then you're gonna get burned / Don't try and test me 'cause you'll get a reaction / Another drink and I'm ready for action."

    "Yeah, you'd be right there," Allen says when I note that she doesn't seem to take much crap from the boys. But what I want to know is: Does she really have the perfect putdown in the moment, or are the harshest barbs in her lyrics great lines that she thought of a few hours after encountering the cad in question? The singer and songwriter laughs.

    "No I'm definitely like that in real life: I can't really help the way that I am! Most of the album is autobiographical, but some of it is the fantasy side of it. I'm definitely that angry with people when they break up with me, but I probably wouldn't tell them that they had a small penis ... although you never know!"

    The daughter of British comedian and ladies' man Keith Allen, Lily spent her early years bouncing between parents and moving all over England: She attended 13 different schools between the ages of five and 15. Music was the one constant in her life.

    "I was singing since I was 11 years old, and I sang a lot of classical music, opera and stuff like that. I knew a lot of hip-hop songs when I was about 13 or 14, and that really helped me out with my songwriting, because I write lyrics in the studio like a rapper would, in the sense that the rhythm and flow of the words is inspired by the music, and then I get in front of the microphone and improvise the melodies."

    Though there may be a hip-hop sensibility in her lyrics, Allen's music owes more to the lounge/exotica revival of a few years back, decorated by producer Mark Ronson (known for his work with Chicago rapper Rhymefest) with jaunty, '60s jet set horns and rhythms, as well as hints of the singer's favorite ska and New Wave bands. (Topping the list: the Specials, Rip Rig and Panic, Blondie and Wreckless Eric.)

    Issued in the U.K. last June and not slated for a formal U.S. release until January, "Alright, Still" was a hit long before the first CD left the pressing plant, thanks to wildly enthusiastic word of mouth generated by Allen's MySpace site and widespread downloading of her music on the Web. Once the British disc did come out, the single "Smile" shot to No. 1.

    "The Web is amazing," Allen says. "But more than it being amazing for the artists, it's amazing for the fans, and I think that's the most important thing. People say that it's the new way to launch yourself musically, but I don't really think it's about that. I think what is great about things like MySpace is not that you'll gain a career out of it, but the fact that there are kids that are able to get out there and find music that they actually want to listen to rather than what is pushed by television and radio, which are incredibly corrupt anyway. There's hardly any real music anymore; it's all bulls----."

    Clearly, Allen's attitudes about the music industry are as irreverent and independent as her views about relationships. The sense of freewheeling enthusiasm that permeates "Alright, Still" is a big part of what makes it one of the best releases of 2006. But in her typical fashion, its creator isn't worrying much about her career.

    "I don't want to do this forever," Allen says. "I never want that mentality that a lot of musicians have: 'I'm going to be making albums when I'm 65!' Why? They get bored of it by then, and they're not going to be writing as good songs as they were 20 years ago. It's not what I want: I want to get married, have children and live in the countryside. I don't really want to have a pop career when I'm doing that."

    Yet while Allen may have more conventional dreams for the future, one thing's probably for sure: It's all going to be on her terms.