Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Lily Allen: The Same Everygirl After All

The story I would like to tell pits minor songbird Lily Allen against tragic heroine Amy Winehouse--a lass whose likable tunes and perky pop persona get passing respect versus a self- aggrandizing self-abuser who's taken seriously because she makes a show of soul. I get so exasperated when I catch my fellow matures pondering Winehouse's Art as if she'd done anything deeper for her five Grammys than write a single great song--meaning "Rehab," not "You Know I'm No Good," which in my aversion to self-abuse I foolishly preferred early on. Winehouse simulated gravitas by running her suicidal tendencies through an amalgam of 20th-century African-American vocal stylings--the slides, growls, and melismatic outcries that for many matures are now the only reliable signifiers of pop substance. Allen, who, like Winehouse, scored her U.K. breakout in 2006, was far more original--no ingenue, hottie, drama queen, or doomed neurotic, she sang as a sensible young woman thinking, parrying, and wisecracking her way through the normal travails of an enjoyable young life. But because she kept things light on top, few knew it.

The problem with this story is that it's way overstated--Allen is neither as obscure nor as innocent as critical crusaders generally prefer. An American might assume otherwise because her signature hit "Smile" peaked at 43 stateside and her Alright, Still at 20, though the album went gold after a year. But in the rest of the world, especially Britain and the European market it now services so efficiently, Alright, Still added another two million sales to our measly 520,000, a healthy take in an era when the bestselling albums in America have been High School Musical (2006, four million-plus), Josh Groban's Noel (2007, just cracked five), and (breathe a sigh of musical relief) Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III (reportedly near three, 2008). These numbers are risibly diminished compared to the high-flying '90s. But even allowing for the legalized extortion that is a major-label recording deal, 2.5 million albums plus touring revenues is enough to assure a comfortable life for a bunch of years--as long as one doesn't make a habit of repairing to Claridge's, which as it happens is Lily Allen's favorite hotel. Like Winehouse, she's an A-list celebrity in the tabloid-crazed U.K.--somewhere between Beyonce and Fergie would be a rough stateside comparison. But though Perez Hilton certainly follows her goings on--Allen punched a paparazzo once and hung a blowup of her citation on the wall of her West London flat to prove it--she's been a minor item here.

Give the Brits some. Never mind Radiohead, much less Coldplay and the rest. But in the crucial arena of pop dollydom they've been showing us up. Besotted by Britney, Rihanna, and the air-brushed airhogs of American Idol and the Disney Channel, American bizzers get misty over Norah Jones and advise Alicia Keys to dial it down a little. They think Nelly Furtado is edgy and let Pink fend for herself; they ignore the material-girl provocations of Beyonce's B'day, then pretend I Am . . . Sasha Fierce is a philosophy dissertation. Their token Brit is Leona Lewis, whose anodyne virtuosity makes Alicia sound like Aretha.

In this environment, you can see why some fantasists would glom onto Winehouse and haul out the Billie Holiday comparisons. Understated and hard-won, Allen's aesthetic was too subtle for them. Raised a showbiz bohemian, she quit her 13th and final school when she was 15, which was also the year her scenester dad Keith wangled her onto the stage with Joe Strummer. Allen did turn out sensible somehow, maybe via her movie producer mom Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Proof, Brick Lane). But that everygirl thing was a construction--a sophisticated piece of persona projection, magnified by many megabytes of MySpace self-promotion, in which she shaped selected aspects of her character and autobiography into songs that would ring a bell with ordinary young women and the men who want to go to bed with them.

If there was ever a pop star like Allen before, she escaped my notice. She was such a paradigm shifter in England that soon, similar homegirls were coming out of the wainscoting. The biggest crowd pleaser has been sad, sincere Welsh soul-popper Duffy, her U.S.-gold album thoroughly likable even if it could use some cheek. My fave is nice Allen knockoff Kate Nash, who's wry at her best and poetic at her worst and gets tsk-tsked in England for being posher than she supposedly pretends. Respect too to Adele, frankly chubby where Allen merely writes love songs to spaghetti Bolognese, who we should hope doesn't find her dance-pop star flickering out as a result. There's even an American version--Katy Perry, a poptart upgrade who gets tsk-tsked for such venial sins as showbiz drive, seesawing Christianity, and telling boys she kissed a girl. But now Allen is set on eclipsing this team of rivals, and there's nothing obscure about her business plan. Delayed a year by a miscarriage and record-company upheavals, It's Not Me, It's You is getting the full treatment, including cover stories in both Spin and Billboard. These days, just going gold gets you large type. Duffy will probably be a cover story too.

It takes an effort to remember that Lily Allen won't turn 24 till May. She was an everygirl's 21 when she finished her first album, and while striking it rich she underwent several not so minor hells--tabloid fame and then that miscarriage, which ended what looked like a long-term relationship with an older musician. So she's faced with the task of revising her persona, which she'd rather think of as telling truths about her life. Either way the result has to be that all too inevitable pop standby "maturity," which when it comes this young often takes such forms as Good Charlotte exposing the dark secrets of the touring grind or the self-composed gloom and vroom of Kelly Clarkson's DOA My December. That Allen proves much smarter shouldn't come as a surprise because Alright, Still was much smarter about everygirl. Daydreaming about domestic bliss gone south, chasing her little brother away from his bong, berating her credit rating, reveling in revenge to the sunniest tune she could conjure, Allen did the strong-yet-vulnerable act her way. Her wit so playful, her vocals all buried technique and soft edges, she was a gal who can't get into toning her abs and prefers men who enjoy a little belly anyway. Groovewise, her sweetly ersatz pop-ska retro was just as original, and just as reassuring.

On It's Not Me, It's You, however, Allen declares her maturity by disrespecting her elders. Produced and co-written throughout by Greg Kurstin of the forgettable chamber-pop duo the Bird and the Bee, the album opens with a throbbing swirl of synthesizers. And though tonally, Allen's voice retains its studied naturalness if you ignore the multi-tracking, its determination to forward march renders it markedly less cute. Musically, this is an industry-friendly respectability move as unmistakable as the prefab pop of Keys's As I Am or the stiff balladeering of Beyonce's Sasha Fierce. Difference is, it's never boring. Mean tempo is middle up, and the melodies--devised by Allen over Kurstin's chords, apparently--range from indelible to more indelible with nary a dud, so much so that you don't resent her rather cheap stratagem of hammering the chorus home three and four times a song. Plus, there are lyrics.

As opposed to Nas, say, or Lucinda Williams, no one will ever teach Lily Allen in poetry class--her words have little reach without her music. But in the end it was the words that sold the breakout "Smile," and it's the words her fans love her for--the glimpses they provide into a life rendered doubly lucid, or so it seems, by Allen's obliging habit of telling interviewers what her songs are about. "He Wasn't There"? Her dad--no hard feelings. The apologetic "Back to the Start"? Her older sister, they're better now. The nice guy who can't make her come so he's also "mean," not the first such incompetent addressed in her oeuvre? Chivalrously unnamed, leaving several rejects wondering. The chirpy "Fuck You"--"Cause we hate what you do and we hate your whole crew"? George W. Bush--hard feelings. Other topics include love, money, drugs, God, and what crap it is to be 22 going on 30--not if you're Lily Allen, she has the grace to know that, but stuck in "an alright job but it's not a career" while waiting for some man to throw you over his shoulder.

Like I said, lyrics on the page aren't the natural medium of a minor songbird who keeps it light on top. But having set them up a little, I'm hoping their ordinariness will signify. Unremarkably, the drug song is anti, but note that it gives equal time to prescription meds and the kind you put up your nose rather than targeting one or the other: "Why can't we all just be honest/Admit to ourselves that everyone's on it." The love songs, which she claims incorrectly she's no good at, are either putdowns whose candor is more commonplace than male critics pretend, as in "I look into your eyes and I want to get to know you/And then you make this noise and it's apparent it's all over," or homey things involving telly, takeout, and beans on toast: "And even though it's moving forward/There's just the right amount of awkward/And today you accidentally called me baby." The one about her sister may be too situation-specific for general use, but its bridge strikes a matter-of-fact tone everyone should emulate: "This is not just a song/I intend to put these words into action/I hope that sums up the way that I feel to your satisfaction." And then there's the song about God, a typical Allen amalgam of whimsy and conscience that includes the one line on this album that's certain to be remembered as a line: "His favourite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival." It's followed hard on by just a touch of shimmering synth.

Out of the blue yet definitively unpretentious, respectful of her elders in a way that damn well brought them up short, Allen's decision to honor the most ordinary great band in rock history says everything about her style of ambition. Yes, she does love Claridge's, and though "The Fear" mocks the lust for wealth, that Spin interview allowed as how "it would be nice to have the option to give up and still have the lifestyle." Assuming she doesn't give up, persona revision will continue to present a problem--with the young ones, it usually does. I'm just glad Lily Allen has a head on her shoulders--and has some belly, too.

Barnes & Noble, Feb. 16, 2009