UK ska-pop princess Lily Allen rules the Euro-singles school
For those of you living in a cool-free cave out by the FM tower, Lily Allen is hot property. Her first single, the ska-tinged "Smile," has topped Britain's charts and has been oozing out of iPods and shopping malls alike as the song of the summer across Europe.
Allen's album, Alright Still (Regal/Parlophone), is a collection of rocksteady pop that veers between sweet crooning and sassily blunt day-in-the-life raps à la "Cool for Cats." (In fact, she covered Squeeze, citing "Up the Junction" as a favorite song.) Like Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford, Allen doesn't shy away from the seedier side of London life, taking on would-be suitors in bars, catty girls in clubs, the occasional crack whore, and an obvious favorite, the loser ex-boyfriend. On "Smile" she laments, "When you first left me I was wanting more/ But you were fucking that girl next door/ What ya do that for."
Humor is indeed one of the sharpest weapons in Allen's arsenal, adding a layer of verboten wit to her otherwise radio-friendly dancehall beats. It's not the first time that ska has infiltrated mainstream airspace, but where Gwen Stefani plays an edgy vixen of the runway, Allen comes across as the sexy, streetwise girl next door, more clubhouse than penthouse — an urban chanteuse with a penchant for strapless sundresses, throwback fly-girl gold ropes, and downtown kicks.
Shortly after signing her deal with Parlophone in September 2005, Allen started a MySpace account and began using the site to test her demos in front of the general public "just to see what people's reaction was to them. And it was pretty good," she explains on the phone from London. "I think that gave the record company more confidence in me than they probably would have without it." "Pretty good" is an understatement, with her plays now exceeding four million, her "friends" nearing the 80,000 mark, and GQ calling her "the first lady of MySpace." Followers also hit Allen's account to read the brutally honest, sometimes hilarious blog updates that chronicle her ascent to pop stardom.
One such entry finds her attacking the bottle to calm her nerves before performing in front of 30,000 people at a festival — and getting so drunk that her management sends her home in a car, where she finds that she has no keys and must sit in a gold ball gown in the middle of her street. These tales of transformation — her gilded coach seems in constant danger of reverting to a pumpkin — endear her to a dedicated throng of fans who respond to her words with comments numbering in the hundreds and sent her single to the top of the charts for several weeks running.
But not everyone loves Allen. Speaking and singing in a decidedly unposh London accent on songs like "LDN," a bouncy, carnival brass band romp, has caused her to be ridiculed as "mockney," for fronting a ghetto background. (Her father is comic actor Keith Allen, and her mother is a successful film producer.)
Obviously tired of these accusations, she fires back, "My mum came to London with absolutely no money, a daughter at the age of 17 years old, no job, nothing. We lived in a council flat, which is like the projects in America, so I get a little insulted when people say, 'Oh, she's a middle-class girl who hasn't experienced anything.'”
Allen has also been labeled a man hater for her lyrics about men, arrogant for her commentary on icons like Madonna, and overly vain for her choice of clothing. She thinks she knows why. "I'm a 21-year-old girl, and I speak my mind," she retorts. "I'm not going to film premieres in revealing dresses and having my photo taken and giving [journalists] nice little sweet sound bites about how brilliant everything is."
As formidable as her detractors would like to seem, however, they're no match for the album-buying fans who, Allen is happy to report, have snapped up "300,000 already."
One of the album's tracks, "Friday Night," is a rude-girl meeting in the ladies’ room in which horn blasts straight out of the Skatalites' "Guns of Navarone" echo and obnoxious scenesters make Allen's night out a living hell. She isn't having it and informs the snotty girls, "Don't try and test me cos you'll get a reaction/ Another drink and I'm ready for action." "It's funny how people completely misunderstand that song and think it's about me being aggressive towards others," she says softly. "It's actually about hating that kind of bravado in other people." There's little such cockiness when Allen confirms that she "can't wait" to start her club tour of the States, where she has already surpassed mere Britpop buzz, poised to prove her worth as the lone jewel in the pawnshop of throwaway starlets. SFBG
Thurs/12, 9 p.m.
330 Ritch, SF
$12 (all tickets sold at the door; ticket vouchers will be distributed at 8:30 p.m.)