In Georgian England, wit could trump even wallet in determining one’s eligibility for courtship. And physical appearance, though rarely a dealmaker, was always mentioned first.
Consider Jane Austen’s iconic character Emma Woodhouse, introduced to readers as “handsome,” “clever” and “rich.” In that order.
Now fast-forward to the lilting pop tune “Not Big,” one of 22-year-old British singer Lily Allen’s numerous anti-tributes to a double-dealing boyfriend, a song contained on her irresistible debut album Smile.
“You’re not big,” she chants, lightly and devilishly—and she does mean down there. “You’re not clever,” she sings next. (There’s “clever” again, 200 years later and still at the same place in line.) And then: “You ain’t a big breader.”
Do I sense a pattern here?
Like Austen’s novels, which regularly erupt in new movie versions thanks to an era-proof motif—love sucks—Allen’s Smile is for anyone who’s ever been ignored, insulted or dumped by a lover. And who hasn’t?
The album’s girl-power streak is a good part of its charm. Far from helpless in her heartbreak, Allen vows to get even by sleeping with all her ex’s friends. But the hurt and the hate are surely universal: “When you first left me/ I didn’t know what to say/ I’ve never been on my own that way/ Just sat by myself all day … Now you’re calling me up on the phone/ So you can have a little whine and a moan/ And it’s only because you’re feeling alone.”
Allen’s are hardly the first get-even songs written from a female perspective, but her silky delivery renders even the most talented snarlers ridiculous: Rid of Me-era P.J. Harvey comes to mind.
“Oh my gosh, you must be joking me/ If you think that you’ll be poking me,” Allen breathes in “Shame for You.”
“Gosh.” And “poking.” In the same line.
Did we ever take Alanis Morissette’s screeching seriously?
But Lily is not a rebel of the hardscrabble school. The daughter of actor/comedian Keith Allen, she was raised rich, though she affects a Cockney accent in song. She plays no instrument—the chugging reggae and Calypso beats backing her lyrics on Smile were largely provided by production team Future Cut.
But, though lacking true grit, her rebellion is still mighty stylish. Allen dabbles as a designer, putting her name on dresses intended to cover curves, though the self-professed “chubby” singer looks like a size 8 at most. Kicked out of some of the most prestigious private schools in England, Allen is an eager critic of her musical peers, a stance that can be chalked up to natural fearlessness or simply immaturity. And she defied a major label’s early interest by uploading her songs on her MySpace site, from where they were consumed, shared, and propelled into the stratosphere.
Smile made American best-of-2006 lists before the record was even released here.
“There is safety in reserve, but no attraction”
Ripping it up on the U.S. tour which brings her to Bonnaroo this weekend, the singer has shown up this spring on Saturday Night Live and Conan O’Brien. Fresh off a live, Memorial Day weekend appearance on the Today show, where she warbled a rather ill-advised duet of “Heart of Glass” with Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Allen sent brief answers to a series of e-mailed interview questions. (Attempts to track her down by phone at her NYC hotel proved unfruitful: “Lily’s left the building,” her British assistant tartly informed Xpress.)
Asked if writing Smile was therapeutic, the singer offers only a terse “yes,” but also goes on to admit that her songwriting technique is hardly the result of laborious effort.
“I only begin writing once I’m in the studio,” she responds.
After learning that she is “very happy and in a relationship” right now—read: long over the cad skewered in Smile—one wonders what shape her next album might take.
“I go into the studio tomorrow to begin writing,” Allen reveals. “I’m not sure what direction I will go till I get [there].”
So is she a quick-witted freestyler—or just a lazy chit unwilling to spend tortured candlelit hours crafting trenchant poetics? Either way, at least she doesn’t try to paint herself as an artist.
In fact, something about Allen’s answers suggests that manipulating the press is her best-honed skill. Prompted to name what she likes and dislikes most about being in America, the controversial Allen simply writes “meeting fans and missing home”—hardly the quotable gush or diss you’d expect.
Bringing up her song “Nan You’re a Window Shopper,” a parody of 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper,” proves more fruitful. It’s funny, in an awful sort of way. And it is, like most of the rest of Smile, insanely catchy. But trashing your grandmother? It’s like the point in 1999’s Slim Shady LP where you realized through all the bratty, cathartic fun that Eminem was rapping about decapitating his wife. Allen paints a blithely cruel portrait of her crumbling old Nan, delivering a poisonous giggle after these lines: “You only buy the paper just to cut out the coupons/ You’re saving 50p but what do you want with tampons?/ You’re always at the doctor picking up your prescription/ And they throw in some KY just to ease up the friction.”
Good gracious. One is reminded of the passage in Austen’s Emma where the heroine tosses a lighthearted insult at eccentric old maid Miss Bates. The glib barb lands with a dismal thud, irretrievably souring a picnic. It’s the turning point in the book, the incident that makes Emma do some soul-searching and begin to check her high-flown ways.
Of course, it’s not likely anyone’s going to check Lily Allen anytime soon.
“It’s easy to be mean about someone in a song if they can’t retaliate … hence you may as well make fun of a grannie,” she writes in our interview.
And yet … her cheeky rhymes are so hypnotic; her incongruously modest, long-dresses-with-sneakers aesthetic so refreshing. Listening to Smile is like drinking spiked lemonade after a season of dark, flat beer: It spoils you for anything heavier. Lucinda Williams’ probably brilliant West, released around the same time, sounds by comparison badly in need of a vitamin boost. (Consider this: Williams, 54, is biologically old enough to be Allen’s grandmother, though hopefully she hasn’t yet sprung a leak in her colostomy bag, as suffered by Lily’s “Nan.”)
In the end, despite Emma’s eventual transformation from breezy, thoughtless heiress to still-breezy-but-slightly-more-thoughtful heiress, it is her early conversation with her friend Frank Churchill that sticks as the book’s central theme. Speaking tongue-in-cheek about a mutual, quiet acquaintance, Frank says: “There is safety in reserve, but no attraction.”
The swells of fans attracted to pop tart Lily Allen—“I find there are more guys in my audience”—would tend to agree. Shrugging off a suggestion that Smile is the ultimate last-word album, Allen writes: “Everyone likes to have the last word. Smile is about having the last laugh.”
Lily Allen plays 6-7:30 p.m. Friday, June 15, at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., on a stage TBA. See www.bonnaroo.com for the latest update on ticket availability.
“Sir, you have been entirely mistaken”: More proof of the Jane Austen/Lily Allen connection
No fool could accuse the blithely potty-mouthed Lily Allen of not telling it like it is. Similarly, in her day, Jane Austen was marveled at for the incisive social commentary embedded in her now-classic novels (Pride and Prejudice, Emma, et al.).
Neither woman is willing to let bad behavior, namely the wrongheaded acts of careless men and designing women, go unexposed.
Allen’s theaters are the bedroom (where one might discover one’s boyfriend’s “dirty, grotty magazines”), the nightclub (where she calls out silly girls who only “want attention from the boys”), and the seedier streets of 21st-century London. Austen’s English dramas played out in the parlors and ballrooms of country estates in the early 1800s.
But both writers are attached to the same topics: romantic breakups and patch-ups, dangerous flirtations, unrequited love. In her signature song “Smile,” Allen accuses her philandering ex of “messing up her mental health.” In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood almost dies of a grief-induced “putrid fever” after the man she thinks she loves proposes to another woman. Parallels are easier to pull out than leeches from an invalid’s back. Here are more:
Parallel #1: Don’t sweat his fickle behavior: live your life
• “If he is satisfied with only regretting me, when he might have obtained my affections … I shall soon cease to regret him at all.”
(from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
• “I can see it in your face as you break it to me gently, you really must think you’re great/ Well, let’s see how you feel in a couple of weeks when I work my way through your mates.”
(from Allen’s “Not Big”)
Parallel #2: Love cannot be forced
• “Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.”
(from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility)
• “Alright, how would it make you feel if I said you that you never ever made me come?/ In the year-and-a-half that we spent together, yeah I never really had much fun.”
(another line from “Not Big”)
Parallel #3: Back off
• “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.”
(from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
• “I don’t know who you think you are/ But making people scared won’t get you very far.”
(from Allen’s “Friday Night”)
Parallel #4: Don’t be presumptuous
• “Encouragement! I give you encouragement! Sir, you have been entirely mistaken in supposing it … you have [not] been more to me than a common acquaintance.”
(from Austen’s Emma)
• “Oh my gosh, you must be joking me/ If you think that you’ll be poking me.”
(from Allen’s “Shame For You”)
Parallel #5: Breaking up is hard to do
• “Once so much to each other! Now nothing! …There had been a time when … they would have found it most difficult to cease to speak to one another. There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers.”
(from Austen’s Persuasion)
• “I remember when you started callin’ me your missus/ All the play fightin’, all the flirtatious disses/ We’d spend the whole weekend lying in our own dirt/ I was just so happy in your boxers and your T-shirt/ … Dreams, dreams of when we had just started things/ Dreams of me and you/ It seems, it seems/ That I can’t shake those memories/ I wonder if you have the same dreams too.”
(from Allen’s “Littlest Things”)