Smile

Lily Allen is almost the same age as me, and her career follows such a perfectly post-millennial trajectory. She was the first and, I think, only, person to parlay MySpace popularity into a major mainstream pop career. She released her first demos online in 2005 and a year later she was a real-life star. Obviously, no one uses MySpace anymore, but social media has become the gateway, unguarded by anyone but trolls, from obscurity to notoriety. Nowadays, it’s a near-instant process and it’s become common to see young stars following a Kurt Cobain-like trajectory from promising to prematurely dead in a matter of months, as opposed the years it formerly took for that kind of drama to play out. Oh, but in the golden mid-2000’s, when Lily Allen had the sweet hit of the year, it was unheard of. Where did this girl come from and how did she do it? There was even a grudging sense that Allen had ‘cheated’ her way to fame, that she wasn’t really a ‘real artist’ because she’d used the internet to grow her fanbase, bypassing the usual years-spent-in-the-trenches process. There was talk about the necessity of paying one’s dues in order to have earned the sweet rewards of stardom. Nowadays, that feels like old people talk. Now one cares how you came up as long as you’re generating content. Lily Allen, for her part, got herself a major label contract as soon as she could, and it was only with that financial backing and PR know-how that she fully cleared the hurdle between internet sensation and entertainment industry professional. And now she’s writing songs about the angst of being a divorced single mother, making me, for one, feel incredibly old. On the other hand, though, it’s a kinda heartwarming to see the former MySpace brat grow into a pro with a long-term career that she’s steered, bumpily enough, through controversy and personal struggles, proving that artistic longevity is possible and sustainable, even for the instant-gratification generation.

Not Fair

Here’s one for the ladies! It’s the bad sex anthem we can all rally behind. Lily Allen has run into some hot water recently with a few tone deaf statements and a video that tried to be empowering and resoundingly did the opposite. She’s earned the qualifier ‘problematic’, fair enough. Apparently she’s clever but not very smart. But, intersectional feminism failure aside, she’s been consistent in putting out an empowering message, with a cute wink. Allen pointed out, after this song didn’t perform as well as her previous singles, that nobody wants to hear a girl singing about bad sex. But they really need to. More credentialed minds than me have written about the problem. The problem being that the conversation about women’s sexuality is still stuck at what constitutes ‘consent’, while what we really need is to move past being forced to debate the absolute basics and start talking about more subtle and insidious manifestations of sexual inequality and how they undercut our lives. Or, in the simple idiom of pop music, it’s not fair and it’s really not ok that we’re still expected to tolerate male mediocrity and be grateful just to be treated with respect. Respect should be the baseline, the starting point of every relationship, not a reward that’s grudgingly meted out to a select few. Stop internalizing cowboy movies and start reciprocating those cumshots.

Him

I’ve been suspecting that poetry is dead as an art form, and now it seems that songwriting is headed towards extinction as well. Or at least, songwriting as we’ve known it in the past fifty years. While I’ll admit there’s still good songwriting going on in the indie realms, in mainstream popular music we’ve reverted to the factory style song production of an earlier era. As you know, before The Beatles came along and popularized the idea than an artist should come up with their own words, singers would be allocated (usually by their management) songs written by professional songwriters for whom songwriting was an office job in places like The Brill Building. In fact, in those days singers didn’t even see themselves as ‘artists’. Today we’re seeing a similar arrangement, in which a handful of professionals churn out songs to sell to top entertainers. Very, very few top 40 artists write their own material unassisted. Lady Gaga is one who writes all her own hits, and unfortunately, she would very much benefit from someone coming in to polish up her nonsensical lyrics. Katy Perry gets songwriting credit on most of her songs, but isn’t above purchasing a little assistance from pros. Other stars like Rihanna rely entirely on the efforts of outside songwriting teams. The difference between then and now, is that back then, the songs were good and many of them have stood the test of time and are still popular. Brill Building songwriting wasn’t in the same realm of experimental creativity that The Beatles or Bob Dylan would bring to the form, but it did produce many classic songs that were catchy, humane, emotional, funny, touching and memorable. Today’s songwriters, partly as a reaction to quickly evolving media formats and the needs of an overstimulated ADD-afflicted audience, focus on hook and beats over content. On the production end, ‘beat masters’ use software to generate catchy beats while ‘songwriters’ like Ester Dean freestyle a vocal melody and come up with hooks. Dean literally uses a cache of random phrases to fit the melody. Obviously content has no place in such an arrangement. The mindlessness of today’s popular hits is unrivaled by any other period in music history. There is absolutely no one with anything intelligent to say, except the aforementioned Lady Gaga, who has got a lot to say, but doesn’t know how to say it coherently. Which is where we come to Lily Allen, whose recent semi-retirement is a minor tragedy for pop music. Allen had a period of enormous popularity in 2007 and has released two hit albums. Since that time she’s grown bored of the music scene and has been out of the public eye, raising a family and pursuing other interests. That’s great for her and terrible for us, because she’s one of those rare people who is the total pop star package. She’s got a lovely, recognizable voice with a charming accent, she’s adorable, she’s outspoken, she’s got style and she knows how to write the kind of catchy pop song that people never get tired of singing along to. Most of all though, she’s got a talent for words, things to say, and a sense of humor. Her songs are always about something. Who else would think to write an infectious pop ditty speculating hilariously about the nature of God? “Do you think He’s thin or financially secure?” Allen ponders. You might be tempted to dismiss Lily Allen merely because she’s been a high charting pop sensation who often makes a drunken spectacle of herself, or because she’s such a cutie she can’t possible have serious thoughts in her head, but that’s plain wrong. She’s a very talented songwriter who needs to stick around and mature and show us what she can really do. And yes, Allen did collaborate heavily on the writing and production of her first album, while the second one was much more her own vision. It stands to reason that she should continue to grow as an artist and here’s hoping she ends her sabbatical and comes back with some more sorely needed intelligent pop songs.

He Wasn’t There

Father’s Day isn’t until next week, but here’s a Father’s Day song anyway. ‘Father’s Day songs’ isn’t really a thing, which is fine, because we’ve got all the bad holiday music we can handle with Xmas. But people do write songs about fathers and fatherhood, and there may be enough of them for a small compilation album. One of them would be Lily Allen here. As the title plainly states, Allen’s father, the actor Keith Allen, put more effort into carousing than parenting. Allen is known for being snarky, so with that knowledge you would expect her to really lay into old Dad for his poor parenting skills. But she doesn’t. He wasn’t perfect, but he’s her Dad and she loves him. I love the honesty and simplicity of this song. It’s neither idealizing nor angry. She’s just saying that she loves her father despite all his faults. I think that’s a better message than writing some sappy thing about how wonderful and perfect Dad is. Because nobody’s wonderful and perfect all the time in real life. Also, it shows that Lily Allen is more than a cheeky pop star. She’s a fine songwriter and I wish she’d come out with some new music.

F*** You

This is the last fucking Fuck song, I promise! Suck it up, those of you who think the F-word has no place in entertainment. Some might have the opinion that the chorus of “Fuck you very, very much” is a needless vulgarity. Don’t say the F-word, Lily, it makes you sound trashy. No, go ahead and say the F-word, Lily, because you’re adorable. I’m in favor – I find the harshness of the fuck-word in contrast to Lily Allen’s total cuteness a clever and funny combination. I’m sure Lily is aware of how being a cute girl with shocking things to say is very effective in getting attention. Also, I don’t think she wrote that chorus just to raise an eyebrow. The conventional interpretation is that the song is about George W. Bush and his crew or, more Britishly, the National Front or whatever those Nazis are calling themselves nowadays. But Lily has denied that there’s a specific target. There’s a lot of people it could be about. It’s just a protest against hatefulness. Is it right, or effective, to protest hate and bigotry by saying ‘fuck you’ a lot? It may not an effective discourse but that’s how a lot of us feel.

The Fear

It’s always the same trajectory. The first record is all about the hard times of climbing your way towards the top. Then the second one’s about all the good times at the top. Then there’s the self indulgent vanity project, the bad-times-I’m-depressed-fame-sucks album, the drug-addicted need-the-money disaster album, the post-rehab god-finding album, and then a comeback striving to recapture the spirit of the first two. Most of which is apropos of nothing. Here is Lily Allen, who’s only made two albums and has already decided being a pop star isn’t for her. The first one was a cheeky lark all about the life and times of single gal in fun old LDN (London). Between one and two Lils had her baptismal dip in the tabloids. She did some public drunkenness, some nip slips, put her foot in her mouth a few times, and quickly learned all about the merciless ways of celebrity media. This, the lead single for her second album is a song showing surprising self-awareness for a supposed myspace brat of 24 years. Yeah, the luxury of stardom is nice – the clothes, the bangles, the bottomless credit line – but it’s empty and shallow and vicious and it’s draining her and she doesn’t recognize herself anymore. Since that came out in 2009 Allen has said that she no longer has any interest in having a music career. After experiencing the notorious savagery of the British press it’s no wonder Allen is feeling disillusioned with celebrityhood. Having every move, word, and outfit hazed by strangers is a tough gauntlet for an admittedly insecure young woman to run. We have just now witnessed the conclusion of Allen’s peer and alleged rival Amy Winehouse – a gifted young star who got caught in a vortex of self-destruction, all under the eternally watchful eye of an ‘entertainment media’ that made what should have been a private struggle with substance abuse into a drawn-out public sacrifice. Lily Allen is often compared with Winehouse, because both swept onto the scene in 2006, with albums produced by Mark Ronson and both developed reputations for hard partying and unapologetic outspokenness. It’s a relief that Allen, having been burned by too much public scrutiny, has taken to protecting her privacy. She’s quit social networking, backed away from the spotlight and now is focused on her new marriage and hopes of starting a family. If she never again feels the need to express herself in music, that would be a shame, obviously, but it would be her own decision, choosing to fade away rather than burn out.

Top Ten of 2009

This is the time of year when everyone, in every media, compiles top ten lists, usually after commenting about how sick they are of other people’s annoying top ten lists. Well, I like top ten lists. (Also top 50s and top 100s.) I like lists in general, because they create the illusion of organized thought. Every year I read every stupid wrongheaded top ten list I can get my hands on, even though I end up disagreeing with 9 out of 10 selections therein. This is not only the end of the year, but also the end of a decade, and thus an extra-special occasion. And it occurs to me that I’ve never made a top ten list of my own. Until now.  Some people compile multiple lists in order to cover the culture from all angles. I’m not going to do movies this year, because I don’t really care about the cinema anymore, sadly enough. Not going to do books, because I’m not sure I even read ten books this year. Ok I have read more than ten books, more like 20, but hardly any of them were actually new. I’m also not going to burden you with my supposedly deep views of the year that was or the massive cultural rifts that sprang up between today and the same day ten years ago. Let more seasoned culture vultures hash it out. I’ll just say it was a better year than 2008, and as for the decade, at my age I don’t have much basis for comparison so I’ll say it was probably so-so in general but ok for me personally. Since it is at least somewhat special to ring out the decade, I will be going back and compiling retroactive best ofs for the previous nine years. That should keep me busy for a week or two. So, that just leaves the music; Top Ten Albums of 2009 here we come.

#1- The Hazards Of Love by  The Decemberists because it was far and away the best album of the year. When so much of what passes for music in the marketplace (I’m not going to say nowadays because it’s by no means a new phenomenon) asks that you please check all conscious thought at the door, here is a little miracle; an album that requires some effort on the part of the listener. Huge props to Colin Meloy for reviving that old mammoth the concept album so fiendishly well. One does have to play it over a few times to figure out what the dickens is going on, especially if you own it on mp3 without the benefit of a lyric sheet. The songs must go in order, so no shuffle, no wandering off, sit down and pay attention for the full duration and you will be rewarded. Hazards is musically diverse, ranging from folksy to fierce and inviting favorable comparison to the epic narratives of classic JTull. Following the musical narrative creates an emotional investment most books and movies can’t muster, leaving the listener emotionally affected but exhilarated.

#2 – Morrissey’s Years Of Refusal because he’s on a massive winning streak since his big comeback in 2004, putting out his best material since the early 90s (or, according to himself, ever.) If you have to ask if that baby is his own, you clearly don’t know Moz.  Beginning with the words “I’m doing very well,”  and ending with I’m OK By Myself, the mood is rather cheerful by Moz standards – he has been very chipper lately. Growing up, perhaps? He finally admits that “yes, there are things worse in life than never being someone’s sweetie.” Plus multiple other deep thoughts about pharmaceuticals, suicide, and um, doing…things…”right here, right now, on the floor.”

#3 – The Dead Weather’s
Horehound
,
because Jack White owns my soul.

#4 –  Devendra Banhart, What Will We Be, because someone had to revive the psychedelic freak folk of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Devendra Banhart has always reminded me strongly of both Marc Bolan and Donovan, because of his quivery vocal style and his habit of writing whimsical songs about seahorses. The world really needs a dose of acid soaked folk rock, delivered by a heavily bearded cross dresser. Don’t believe the rumblings of purists who complain that Banhart has ‘sold out’ and become somehow less authentic since moving to a big label. That’s just pretentious whining. The early stuff was good, but with the help of a heftier budget he’s made a gleaming, rocking great album, and with the help of some big label publicity maybe he’ll sell a few copies this time out.

#5 – Regina Spektor,
Far
, because ‘quirky’ doesn’t have to be a bad word. Breathy redhead at the piano, sound familiar? Regina Spektor has broken out of the army of young girl singer/songwriters by having her own eccentric style. While comparisons to Tori Amos are inevitable – same hair color, after all – Spektor definitely has an original voice. She’s both eccentric and accessible, writing songs that are kooky and catchy. Far is her most polished album, potentially commercial, but it still shows her personality and style.  Unlike so many women who also sing and play the piano, Spektor isn’t burning with angst. She’s not angry or sad. Her songs are shot through with humor. On Folding Chair she skewers the cheap ’empowerment’ of songs like Christina Aquilera’s Beautiful; “I got a perfect body, cause my eyelashes catch my sweat/ yes they do, they do.”

#6 – Cage The Elephant, because they had the most ubiquitous hit single of the year, at least here in Austin. Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked has been on the radio nonstop since spring, and I haven’t got sick of it. That’s because it rocks. Of course the fact that it sounds like something Jack White might toss off at a jam session is a big part of the appeal – and that’s a compliment. It’s great to hear a rising generation who’ve taken amped-up blues rock Jack White gave us and are making it their own. The rest of the album is…more of the same, but not dull at all. A fine debut, all in all.

#7 – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, still making music to make girls dance. OK it’s not the out and out masterpiece their first album was. It’s not even as good as You Could Have It So Much Better. Not every track makes girls jump up and dance. But you know what? It’s still miles better than 99% of everything else in the world, and thus a top ten keeper.

#8 – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz, because the Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally acknowledge the big fat debt they owe to Blondie. After decades of anti-synth sentiment, the pnendulum swings back. Cool bands are starting to realize that a good synth beat is a girl’s best friend. It’s no coincidence that the deliriously good single Zero almost-quotes Heart Of Glass. Being to hip for melodies is officially over. As Karen O sings “dance dance dance till you’re dead”.

#9 – Lily Allen,  It’s Not Me, It’s You, because I like Lily Allen and I’m not ashamed. Ha ha ha ha. Seriously though, Lily Allen may be a tabloid spectacle who gets sloshed in public, says dumb things, picks fights with Elton John, flashes her chimichangas, and sin of all sins actually sells a lot of records and gets radio play but underneath it all she’s one of the sharpest songwriters around. Sometimes she writes heart-on-sleeve songs about being trapped by the fame machine (The Fear) or her estranged father (He Wasn’t There). Sometimes she really lets herself go and writes a thoughtful meditation on the nature of God (“His favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival”). Besides, what could possible be more appealing than a kitten-faced cutie chirping a song with the chorus “fuck you, fuck you very, very much”?

#10 – Morrissey, Swords, because in an otherwise slow news year, Morrissey put out two albums. Yes, I’m aware that Swords isn’t even new material. It has been an excruciatingly dry season, and it’s not every year we get the extraordinary opportunity to contribute to Morrissey’s cat food fund not once, twice. Oh we are ever so grateful. Swords is a collection of b-sides and rejects from the last three albums (I continue to marvel that the very of concept of a b-side still exists). Some of the songs must have been left off the proper albums through some mistake or mere time constraints, because, say Christian Dior is more than worthy as a single. Some tracks are frankly odd, but that comes with the territory. It wouldn’t be a Morrissey album without a dirge or two thrown in. It’s neither ‘meek’ or a ‘disaster’. Finally, to hear Morrissey’s butchering of Drive-In Saturday alone is worth the price of admission.

Honorable Mention:

Bob Dylan, Christmas In the Heart, because if anyone out there is unclear on the meaning of the term So Bad It’s Good, Zimmy has kindly provided us with the ultimate definition thereof.