Friday 23 March 2018

How miss Allen became Lily Lite

Aidan Coughlan

There aren't many artists -- or pop stars, if you will -- who can divide opinion quite like Lily Allen. In the eyes of critics and punters alike, she's either been a master of high-quality, clever pop ... or a tabloid tack, whose distinctive features amount to dazzling white runners and a brash cockney accent.

When Allen announced that she was "stepping back" from the music world in order to raise a family, that in itself received a very mixed reception. But this week she announced the closest thing yet to a comeback: she would be penning the songs for a new Bridget Jones's Diary musical.

Granted, Helen Fielding's tale is hardly the best place to start if you want to win over pop cynics. But it's more than likely that Allen doesn't want to do that. Rebellion, it seems, has long been embedded into her -- and pandering to the musical elite just doesn't sit well with that sort of nature.

The daughter of comedian Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen, Lily grew into fame -- or, to take a more dim view of a childhood that saw her expelled from several schools, she grew into privilege. The spoiled-brat elements that can make her so difficult to like have always been there, but then, it was this same difficulty that made her desperate teachers latch on to those early signs of talent.

And there began a recurring theme in the life and career of Lily Allen: what makes her so dislikeable is precisely what allows her to exist and to flourish. For better or for worse.

In the run-up to her first album, Alright, Still, a miffed Allen had to force the hand of her record company -- which she felt was not doing its best to bring about her deserved stardom -- by drumming up her own support base via MySpace and the London scene.

And while she may have benefited from the media's obsession with MySpace-grown artists -- remember Sandi Thom? -- there certainly was something catching about the material she was putting out. 'LDN' formed the template for what would become the Lily Allen trademark: bleak, cynical but witty lyrics, gilded over uplifting melodies with a glowingly sweet voice.

That combination should have been enough to secure praise from all the right places -- and for a time, it was. But the album yielded few hidden gems, and a drunken Allen started to become a staple of tabloids and gossip mags as she played up to her non-existent working class roots.

Musos were left unimpressed by these extracurriculars, and she became more notable as a public love-to-hate figure than as an artist. But 'Alfie', a frustrated ode to her layabout brother, was a treasure -- and while it was forgotten as a single, its production would prove to be a turnaround moment for the singer.

As one half of LA underground pop duo The Bird and the Bee, and with production credits ranging from The Flaming Lips to Kylie Minogue, Greg Kurstin seemed the perfect man to develop the musical foil to Allen's shady, often-nasty lyrics. And with their collaborative qualities proven on 'Alfie', it was only right that he would take control of the difficult sophomore effort.

Things were looking up outside of the studio, too. The effects of all that press didn't seem so negative at this point; while any other pop fad would have disappeared into the 'where are they now' bucket, nobody had forgotten Lily over the course of three years. In this case, the question was when she'd be back.

It's Not Me, It's You turned out to be the pop masterpiece that nobody expected. Leaving aside the much-praised 'tackling' of issues such as drugs, fame, religion and US politics -- you don't need any of that for a great pop album -- it was a melodic explosion of electro-pop, of its time but not overwhelmed by its era, and bearing the observations of someone who'd done a lot of living for just 23 years.

Her weaknesses had become her assets, and even her wit had become more refined as she stayed clear of the sarcastic, snide Allen we'd heard before.

Of course, it didn't win everyone over. It bore a sound too sweet for many ears, and even her new, calm lifestyle couldn't prevent her from rubbing people up the wrong way. Darling of the critics she was not. Or, indeed, the public; she ended up closing her social networking sites due to the levels of abuse she was receiving.

Whether this Bridget Jones job marks the first step towards a return remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Lily Allen's ability to divide opinion will follow her back. And she wouldn't want it any other way.

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