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December 19, 2014
Friday, May 9, 2014

Lily Allen’s back, but her meta has met its match

Lily Allen on Sheezus album cover.
By Allison Stewart
The Washington Post (*)
“I’m sick of explaining my lyrics to people, they’re pop songs, no more, no less. If you don’t get it or like it, look the other way. Simples” — Lily Allen tweet, May 1. Before it was released, British pop singer Lily Allen’s first album in five years, Sheezus, had been the subject of several controversies. One involved the song Insincerely Yours, which lobbed insults at harmless British models Cara Delevingne and Jourdan Dunn, and singer Rita Ora. “I don’t give a f--- about Delevingne / Or that Rita girl / About Jourdan Dunn,” Allen trilled pleasantly. “I don’t give a f--- about your Instagram / About your lovely house or your ugly kids.”

Dunn took exception and engaged Allen in the sort of pre-release-day Twitter spat marketing departments dream of. Insincerely Yours is a low point on Sheezus, which is otherwise a tar pit of thinly veiled insults, songs that evoke Vampire Weekend and the kind of pointed pop-cultural criticism that has long been Allen’s stock in trade. Allen got famous during — and thanks to — the brief reign of MySpace at the end of the last decade, releasing two guillotine-sharp pop albums before retreating from the business to marry and have children. Sheezus plunders just about every sound that was popular when she departed, including “Paper Planes”-era M.I.A., moombahton and dubstep.

Allen is a modestly regarded musician and a world-class observer of modern culture and its discontents. When she retreated into semi-retirement, she was one of a handful of artists making pop music about pop music. She has reemerged into a world where such self-examination is commonplace, characterized by Lady Gaga’s musings on the nature of stardom, Kreayshawn and Jessie J’s skewering of conspicuous consumption and Ke$ha’s winking party rap.

Hip-hop has always been about hip-hop — its beefs, its lifestyle, its shifting hierarchies. Pop’s meta moment may have peaked with the ascent of Lorde, whose breakout hit, Royals, took aim at some of Allen’s favourite targets — the excesses of hip-hop, the disconnect between real life and the unreachable fantasy of pop songs — but Lorde used a scalpel, and Allen uses an axe.

For Allen, the line between cultural broadside and personal attack is thin and flexible. Allen spends much of Sheezus railing against bloggers, critics and lesser supermodels, and generally — and unadvisedly — punching below her weight.

Sheezus works best when it’s personal, when it plumbs the conflict between work and family, between the tug of motherhood and the pull of fame. A sometimes uneasy ode to domesticity (“Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose,” Allen tells her husband), it’s also the most affecting pop album about marriage and new parenthood since Liz Phair’s long-ago Whitechocolatespaceegg.

The idea that Allen makes a better domestic goddess than a cultural observer was previously unthinkable. It could be that the once-deft satirist now content to bludgeon has lost her way, or it could be that pop music in the late spring of 2014 is already eating itself.

@allissonstewart

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