Google image-search my name and a balding English chump with a sickly green, diapered ostrich puppet materializes. This explains the giggles from Britishes whenever I introduce myself, and reminds me how U.K. pop culture can often feel drastically more, well, foreign than exports from Dakar, or Paris, or Havana. So when a five-star Guardian review introduces Lily Allen's Alright, Still as "Sex and the City as re-enacted by Marmalade Atkins, with various cameos from the Bash Street Kids," what's a simple Yank like me to say but "Cor!"
Her voice wisping with trip-hop buoyancy between the sung and spoken, her beat gravitating toward a deracinated electro-Caribbean lilt, the 21-year-old Allen makes pop as only the Brits know it. And with "Smile" having spent two weeks atop the U.K. singles charts, she's cheerily anointed herself a tabloid gadfly, slagging celebs whose existence you and I have the luxury of forgetting: Victoria Beckham ("too thin"), Bob Geldof ("a cunt"), the Libertines' Carl Barat ("a twat"). When Allen herself isn't dissed as a "chav" (an adorable Angloslang slam that combines the snobbery of "white trash" with the crypto-racism of "wigga"), she's dismissed as a "poor little rich girl" (even though less-than-beloved comic Keith Allen was, reportedly, an absentee father).
This all means something over there, I'm sure. Yet though Alright Still is still unavailable stateside—it'll hit U.S. stores just as the advance hype has fully ebbed, no doubt—an illicit spin on your P2P of choice will turn up that universally familiar pop quantity, the breakup record. For starters, Allen sweetly coos, "You were fuckin' that girl next door/What'd you do that for?" on "Smile," then one-ups Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" with her video: Rather than trashing her ex's apartment herself, Allen outsources the mayhem to some thugs, tossing in a couple of extra bills to have the loser jumped in an alley—though she's the one who doses his drink with Ex-Lax.
Neither Allen's limp star-sniping nor her quite ordinary (though ballyhooed) MySpace blog prepare you for her masterful ability to tell lads to piss off. "Oh my God you must be jokin' me/If you think that you'll be pokin' me"? All well and good, but she's even craftier on "Knock 'Em Out," dodging unwanted pub advances with increasingly drastic excuses: misplaced cell phone, pregnancy, syphilis. (The album version cuts the single's climactic "AIDS! I've got AIDS! Yeah, I forgot my Vagisil.") Naturally, Allen's spunk, perk, and other stereotypically bratty feminine traits have drawn lazy comparisons with Lady Sovereign, but the variously attributed online mal mot "Mike Skinner with tits" is more apt. As with the Streets' bemused rhymer, Allen's charm lies as much in her timing and the inherent musicality of her phrasing as in specific lyrics.
She could stand, perhaps, to absorb a smidgen of Skinner's empathy. Like plenty of bloggers, her wits outpace her heart—surely her good-natured tweaking of her grandma, "Nan You're a Window Shopper" (left off the LP for the usual sample-clearance reasons), crosses some sort of line when she asks why the old girl still clips tampon coupons. But at least she balances her nasty breakup number "Not Big" (which follows "You never made me cum" with complaints about impotence and premature ejaculation and a threat to "work my way through your mates") with the wistfully reluctant breakup number, "Littlest Things." (And in a rare show of restraint, only the title of the former refers to dick size.)
Then again, such cattiness not only befits a web-spawned artist like Allen, it seems destined to inflect any discussion of her. For instance, at TheModernAge.org, the now-venerable NY scenester site that has long championed Anglophilia and snug-trouserophilia, Allen's disparaged as "a low class version of Natasha Bedingfield" (the boldface is Ms. Modern Age's, not mine—I use ALL CAPS for that effect) who's struck a chord "because some dudes think she's hot. But I don't even think she's all that hot!" Anonymous comments that "she has a face like a pig" and "she's hot in that 'I'd let you fuck me in the ass then cum on my face without thinking twice about it' way." Ugly as it is, this is the world Lily Allen comes from.
And yet, as she surveys that world, Allen's songs focus consistently on the gap between appearance and reality. As she cycles through her seemingly bucolic hometown on "LDN," she jauntily points out the crack whores and muggings, as the track's tourist calypso offers an ideal analog to the faux gentrification she exposes. And on "Everything's Just Wonderful," Allen rhymes "weight loss" with "Kate Moss" and worries about bad credit as Cardigans-worthy lounge-pop puts on a chipper front. Undercutting sunny tunes with acid lyrics is perhaps the simplest form of pop irony, but Allen gives the time-honored trick a new twist. One reason her Britishness feels more familiar than it might, after all, is that the online world is increasingly accented with the intimate chortle of British tabloid pop—superficial, gossipy, and porny. Lily Allen doesn't just speak that language fluently. In fact, if I weren't averse to so posh a word, I might say she makes art out of it.