I saw Lily Allen play her first L.A. show in October. A dancehall Holly Golightly, all hoop earrings and baby fat, she had charmed me on the radio with her bouncy white-girl reggae and neo-cockney wit — “Oh my gosh you must be joking me/If you think that you’ll be poking me.” Half of Hollywood (Gwen Stefani, Orlando Bloom, Sean Lennon, Lindsay Lohan) had rolled up to see Allen, a MySpace phenomenon with a No. 1 U.K. hit. But, as is often the case with super-hyped artists, the reality fell somewhat short of expectation. Allen’s singsong voice was shrill and warbly. The arrangements were unimaginative. She lacked the blue-collar grrrl-appeal of Lady Sovereign, emanating instead what could only be described as aloofness. Her trademark petulance, so endearing from a distance, was enervating in person. It didn’t help that she didn’t know the words to all her songs — they were written on a piece of paper by her feet.
Maybe, I wondered, she just doesn’t give a shit. “My ultimate goal,” she told me on the phone a few days later, “is to get married and have children and have a house in the country with pigs and bikes.” But for someone who only wants to have babies and raise livestock, she sure does work hard. There she is, pouting on the cover of this month’s Urb. Grinning from the pages of Bust. Giving me the proverbial finger in Rolling Stone — and Pitchfork, Blender, Vibe and Paper. NME calls her “the archetypal singer-songwriter for the iPod generation.” TheNew York Times says she “symbolizes a new blogging-age.” Spin reports that the 21-year-old Allen, with her undeniably wicked style, might be the next face of Chanel.
It’s not surprising she’s getting all this attention — privileged, bratty and cute as a button, Lily Allen and her rags-to-riches story are a publicist’s dream. Her dad is British actor Keith Allen, who was best friends with Joe Strummer — “Uncle Joe” to Lily — and her mother, Alison Owen, is a movie producer (Elizabeth, Shaun of the Dead). She spent her first 10 years poor, living in council estates, and claims she didn’t have a relationship with her father until she was 15. She took her first hit of Ecstasy at 13 and checked into the Priory — Britain’s answer to the Betty Ford Clinic — in 2003. She “can’t really remember” her teens, most of which were spent getting kicked out of expensive private schools. Allen’s ex-boyfriend Lester, the inspiration behind her sarcastic break-out hit, “Smile,” sold his tell-all story to a British tabloid and used the money to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn. It’s enough to make you cry into your Us Weekly . . .
Bloggers and tabloid journalists alike delight in her rants, gems like “Pete Doherty needs to be exterminated,”“Bob Geldof is a cunt,”“Carl Barat is obviously convinced he is God,” and — my personal favorite — “People who buy Paris Hilton’s album should be killed.” Comments like these, plus her amazing online rise to fame and a wardrobe full of Chanel, no doubt helped create what is the Lily Allen Media Phenomenon. Before the U.S. release of her record Alright, Still (which dropped Tuesday), Lily Allen is already a star.
But what about the music?
“Her success isn’t just because of the persona,” says KCRW’s Nic Harcourt, an early fan of Allen’s. “There’s something about the way she writes that people can relate to.” I agree — her storytelling has a colorful authenticity. Nonetheless, I was a little perturbed to read a KCRW press release comparing Allen to Randy Newman: “one a living legend, the other on her way up that ladder.” Though Newman himself was equally effusive, calling Allen “the best new artist since Eminem,” it seems premature — irresponsible, even — to assign legend status to a girl who, just weeks earlier, had given such a flat performance at the Troubadour.
Sat Bisla, host of Indie 103.1’s Passport Approved, was the first to play Allen on the radio in the U.S. He, like many others, uses the word “quirky” when describing Allen’s appeal. And, despite the façade, he insists she “does give a shit” about her career. “She’s been around many successful people, and she’s seen stars rise and fall,” he says. “I think that’s why you get this cheeky, obnoxious person onstage who acts like she doesn’t care. Deep down, of course, she cares.”
I suspect he’s right.
Lily Allen plays the Henry Fonda Theatre, Mon., Feb. 5.