And Finally Artist News Beef Of The Week

CMU Beef Of The Week #183: Lily Allen v (Insert your own perception here)

By | Published on Friday 15 November 2013

Lily Allen

Lily Allen is back. And she has returned with what we now come to expect of her: an easy to digest critique of modern pop culture in the form of a pop song. So, hooray for that. Or not, depending on which side of the massively polarised internet you sit.

Actually, Allen has done something quite impressive and managed to have two big comebacks in the space of a week. First she provided the soundtrack for the Christmas advert of a department store, which for some reason everyone has decided is now a thing (the Mirror even live-blogged online reaction to the advert as it debuted on ITV, this is the world we live in now).

I’ve not seen the advert, because I’m not about to start seeking out adverts on purpose. And I’ve not heard the song Lily provided for it either, because I can’t see how anyone could possibly turn that Keane song into something I would enjoy listening to. Especially if it’s on cheesy a Christmas advert. Also, the mere mention of Keane makes me think of David Cameron, but that’s a whole other thing.

So, while you might think I’ve missed the pop culture moment of the year, I’m quite happy to live a life where I don’t get excited about adverts or Keane songs (except that one they did that I liked).

Anyway, the pop culture event of 2013 has actually been the ongoing advancement of misogyny in pop and the battle to beat it back with endlessly repetitive opinion pieces (or ‘open letters’ as now all articles and blog posts expressing an opinion are known). This has not passed Lily Allen by, despite the fact that she’s been working hard in the studio in between nipping down the bank to pay in cheques from major high street shops.

And so it is that her proper ‘comeback’ came in the form of ‘Hard Out Here’, the first single from her new album. The accompanying video opens with Lily undergoing liposuction, as her manager and the surgeon discuss how she’s ‘let herself go’. She then explains through the medium of song that she won’t be singing about her cars, chains, or her sex life, and she definitely won’t be shaking her arse, despite the pressure put upon women in music to do so, which all makes it “hard out here for a bitch”.

It’s not subtle, but Lily Allen rarely is, and she makes valid points all round about the way women are often portrayed in the world of pop. The song also lampoons the use of Autotune. Well I think so, anyway. I can’t think of any other reason for it being so liberally and badly applied to the song’s already quite weak pre-chorus.

As the video for the track continues, Lily and six dancers gyrate around a car, waggle chains, endorse e-cigarettes and Beats speakers, pour champagne on arses, and generally show up all the tropes of a modern music video. Sometimes in a way that seems like parody, sometimes in a way that just seems like, well, a modern music video. There’s also the announcement via the medium of balloons (mimicking a similar scene in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video) that “Lily Allen has a baggy pussy”.

I don’t doubt that Allen and video director Chris Sweeney’s intentions for the video were admirable – particularly as, for the most part, it comes across a bit like a French & Saunders sketch. But then again, when taking against something, you get onto shaky ground when it’s not always clear exactly where the parody is in your parody. It does, at times, feel like the video is saying, “Close-ups of twerking arse cheeks are bad and objectify women. I mean, just look at this close-up of some twerking arse cheeks. In slow motion. For a while… Hey, I wonder what they’d look like with champagne pouring on them!”

Nonetheless, the track and its video were met, at least initially, mostly positively. Lily Allen was back, which is a thing people wanted. And here was a popstar taking a stand against the pressures placed on women by her own industry, which is a thing people wanted, and wanted of Lily Allen. It was only later that the dissenting voices grew louder, in particular those suggesting that the video might just be a bit racist.

One blogger, BlackinAsia, noted that while Miley Cyrus is routinely called out for co-opting black culture and objectifying black women in her videos, Allen seemed to have got a free pass with hers because it’s a ‘parody’ – the dancers in her video being mostly, though not exclusively, black.

While arguably this element of the video is also intended as parody, hence its inclusion, there’s also all that slow-mo and champagne I mentioned. And you could also question why it is that only ‘urban’ music videos are taken to task in Allen’s political piss take, when plenty of other music videos sidestep cars and twerking and still manage to ramp up the misogyny.

BlackinAsia writes: “The video is meant to be a critique and satire of popular culture and manages some deserved jabs at Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ videos among others, but in the end it just reduces itself down to elevating Lily Allen’s white female body and objectifying and utterly denigrating those of the black female dancers she deliberately surrounds herself with from start to finish”.

In conclusion, he says: “There is an incredibly valid critique to be made about hip hop culture and music videos which consistently demean black women, but to ignore her enormous privilege as a white woman and engage in exactly the same racist, degrading objectifying fuckery as Miley Cyrus is disgusting to say the least. I keep asking myself when will white people learn, when will they stop degrading my sisters under the auspices of being ‘progressive’, and when will they stop lauding shit like this as ‘saving pop music’, but the depths and depravity of racism don’t make any sense, especially in the context of the racialised anti-black misogyny that black women face every single day”.

In response, Allen said via a post on TwitLonger: “If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they’re wrong. If anyone thinks that after asking the girls to audition, I was going to send any of them away because of the colour of their skin, they’re wrong. The message is clear. Whilst I don’t want to offend anyone. I do strive to provoke thought and conversation. The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture. It has nothing to do with race, at all”.

Director Chris Sweeney also denied any claims of racism in an interview with Noisey, saying: “We just chose the best dancers. Suzette who choreographed it is an amazing dancer herself, she does the Major Lazer tour and things, and we said we want twerking dancers and so we got the six best. Four of the girls are black, two of them weren’t and I felt that was a good balance in the sense that I didn’t want to comment on race, but it was just who was good”.

He added: “There are hundreds of girls who are in those [type of] videos and they come to the castings without getting told what they’re doing beforehand, they just have to walk in on the day and shake their arse. With this video we spoke to the girls in the casting, we talked about what we were doing and they all thought it was really funny … They all stuck around after we’d finished and hung out and became really good mates with Lily and stuff. The whole thing from the beginning was that it was sisterly. If you notice the manager in the video is never talking only to Lily, he’s always addressing the girls and Lily as one. It’s not her standing at the front saying ‘look what these girls have to do’. It’s her saying ‘look what WE all have to do’ and I think that was really important”.

Which is all well and good, though that does sound rather similar to the defence of the ‘Blurred Lines’ video given by its director Diane Martel, who claimed the women in her pop promo were “subtly ridiculing” (the fully clothed) Thicke, Pharell and TI with their nudity. So does that mean that the ‘Hard Out Here’ video is actually a parody of a parody? Who knows. But what we do know is that a lot of people watched them both, and then some people wrote lengthy opinion pieces about them. So, perhaps music and journalism at large are the real winners here. Or perhaps not.

You have to wonder what would happen if the video for ‘Windowlicker’ by Aphex Twin came out today, it having done pretty much exactly what Lily Allen has just done nearly fifteen years ago.