“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 re-emerged 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 Kesha’s winking party rap.
Hip-hop has always been about hip-hop — its beefs, its lifestyle, its shifting hierarchies. Country music is partially lodged in the swamps of bro-country, in which every hit song about barefoot girls and guys in pickup trucks recalls every other hit song about the same thing and has thus become unintentionally self-referential.
Pop’s meta moment may have peaked with the ascent of Lorde, whose breakout hit, “Royals,” took aim at some of Allen’s favorite 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.
Allen name checks Lorde on her album’s sing-song title track. Rihanna, Katy Perry and Beyoncé also are mentioned, all rivals whom she must vanquish. (“The game is changing / Can’t just come back, jump on the mike and do the same thing.”) It’s of a piece with the album’s first single, “Hard Out Here,” another examination of the unreasonable expectations placed on female pop singers. In the accompanying video, which plays like a lecherous Instagram of a 1998 McG video, Allen gets plastic surgery and makes fun of Robin Thicke while her barely clad black backup dancers twerk and pour champagne on each other’s backsides in slow motion. It was an insincere finger wag that objectifies video girls to demonstrate how wrong it is to objectify video girls. It deserved every bit of criticism it got.
For Allen, the line between cultural broadside and personal attack is thin and flexible. “URL Badman” is a portrait of a basement-dwelling Internet troll so vivid that you can practically see the Cheetos stains on his fingers. The song ends with a bleating goat. 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.
For example: In her new video for the otherwise forgettable track “Hello Kitty,” Avril Lavigne, another star of the ’00s looking to make a comeback, moves listlessly against various backdrops, surrounded by Japanese dancers. It’s a familiar patchwork of borrowed awful: The dancers of another race used as props (Miley Cyrus), the fetishization of Asian culture (Gwen Stefani), the regrettable haircut (Skrillex), the ill-fitting famous co-writer (Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger). It’s an inadvertently comical commentary on trickle-down pop culture, as if every blighted musical trend from the past 15 years sought revenge at the same time. Even Lily Allen could never have dreamed it up.