Lily Allen knows exactly what it takes to be a pop star. And she’s not interested in doing it anymore – not one bit. Her first two albums, Alright, Still and It’s Not Me, It’s You, crowned her as both the darling of the British pop media and the queen of the sales charts, but her return this year with Sheezus brought with it a shock backlash of criticism in the mainstream press and on social media. Not that it stopped her from topping the charts once again. If Allen’s taken the harsh words to heart, she’s not showing it.
“Listen, maybe I’m just not the radio pop star anymore,” Allen says from her London flat, where she’s just sent her daughters to bed. “Maybe I just make the music that I want to make, and fuck ’em all,” she laughs. “I’m not going to water my music down and start singing, ‘Oh baby you make me crazy/Can I be your lady baby?’ and [play] some crappy EDM and hope that it’s liked, because that’s just not what I do.”
The outspoken Allen stepped away from the spotlight in 2010 after touring It’s Not Me, It’s You, and has spent the ensuing years raising her children Ethel Mary (now two-years-old) and Marnie Rose (17 months). While she says her return to the studio for Sheezus felt natural – “I’m not the first person to go back to work after having kids” – she admits to being caught off guard by what came next, and by her record label Parlophone’s changing definition of ‘pop’.
“I suppose I was a little bit, because I just wrote music the way that I’ve always written music, and then once I delivered everything and it came to picking singles and sending stuff off to radio, it seemed like everyone had a completely different hat on to the one when I’d started. I feel like a lot of the songs that I would’ve assumed would’ve been the singles, and the ones that would’ve sold the album and been songs at radio, weren’t, really, and not really everywhere else in the world but in the UK.
“I don’t know what’s happened. I feel like things have got a little bit more saturated, or watered down, and the radio people, the record company were like, ‘Oh no, we can’t have that, this radio station won’t play it, and that radio station won’t play it, because it’s too controversial or too sexy.’
“And you’re just like, ‘Wait a second, people are posing naked on the front of magazine covers and still get their songs played on the radio,’ but I guess because their songs don’t really say anything – I don’t know. I’m not really saying anything particularly offensive, I’m actually just taking ownership of my sexuality and feminism, and people find that offensive – which I find astonishing, because I think if I’d have released these same songs when I first started ten years ago there wouldn’t have been a problem, but now there is, which is amazing to me. It feels like going backwards.”
Case in point – the new record’s title track, Sheezus. Allen told Rolling Stone she would’ve liked to see as a single, but people got offended by the word ‘period’ in its lyrics. On Twitter ahead of the album’s release, she agreed with a fan who called her new singles “docile pop rubbish”. “What you’ve heard so far yes,” she wrote. “The labels and the radio stations won’t play the better stuff.”
Ultimately, the Auto-Tune-heavy Hard Out Here was the first taste of Allen’s new material – and its video created an online uproar. Suddenly, the armchair experts had not only decided what Allen’s artistic intentions were on her behalf, but launched into rambling thinkpieces about why that made her an objectifier of women (for her dancers twerking in skimpy black outfits) or a racist (said dancers were all of black or Asian descent). Somehow, the satire of the clip was lost on some commentators, despite the song’s lyrics, and the words spelled out in giant silver balloons: “Lily Allen Has a Baggy Pussy”. Did it frustrate Allen that people jumped to criticise her intentions without actually asking what they’d been?
“I’m sure that people did ask, but I don’t really feel like I have to explain,” she says. “People always say, ‘What was your intention behind this song?’ or ‘What did you mean by that?’ and it’s like, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter,’ because [it’s] ethereal – once you’ve let something go and put it out into a public arena, it doesn’t matter what I intended; it matters how people interpret. If I do one interview explaining what my meaning was behind [a song], not everybody who’s heard the song is going to have read that interview, so it doesn’t really matter. I just have to make sure that when I’m writing my songs, that I stand by them at the end.
“And of course, I’m not going to forensically analyse each one of my lyrics of my songs and think, ‘Has this contradicted anything that I’ve ever said before in an interview, or in a song?’ Songwriting is artistry, and that sounds really earnest, but things are just meant to exist; you put them out there and that’s what they are.”
Allen’s not shying away from her willingness to cause a ruckus. Her next video will be the single URL Badman, itself written in response to online trolls. The song begins with sounds of a teenage boy masturbating in his bedroom – “Alexander, your dinner’s on the table!” “Yeah alright Mum, I said I’m coming!” – and while Allen’s not sure that sequence will make the final cut, the track is one she’s “proud of”. Next, she comes our way to headline Splendour in the Grass, as well as sideshows in Melbourne and Sydney.
“I’m just really excited to come back there; I haven’t been to Australia for so long, and it used to be one of my strongest territories. On my last album, I came out there and did a big promo trip before the record came out, and that worked really well, and I haven’t been able to do that this time ’round, so I feel like I’ve been neglecting my Australian fans somewhat. I can’t wait to get over there and have a presence and show them my show, which I’m really proud of, and I think is brilliant – and we’re doing some sideshows as well, and hopefully another tour at the beginning of next year or the end of this year.”
In fact, Splendour will be one of the highest-profile shows in Allen’s entire career thus far. “I don’t think I’ve ever headlined a night at a festival before, ever, so I’ll have to pull out some extra tricks – throw in an extra costume change,” she laughs.
It seems that not being pop is working out for Allen just fine. How aware is she, now, of the very idea of the pop star as a media and cultural construct?
“I find it kind of fascinating,” she says. “I think it’s maybe growing up in this sort of – not growing up, but having witnessed this X-Factor obsession and dream-of-stardom lifestyle that kids aspire to in this day and age, I find it all a bit depressing in a lot of ways. So I feel like I have a responsibility to burst the bubble and to tell people that maybe it shouldn’t be top of the list of things to do.
“I mean, I do love my job and I’m really happy to do it, and it’s an amazing gift that I’ve been given, but I do very well out of it – I write all my own songs and I’ve got a very good record deal. And those people that go into those talent shows and think that their lives are going to be sorted when they get there – they’re just wrong, because on the whole, they’ve got really shitty deals, they don’t write, they don’t make any money that way, and they just get chased by paparazzi and made to look like idiots the whole time. So I kind of feel like I want to be honest about things and smash the smoke and mirrors a little bit.”
Allen is better placed than most to judge whether the golden age of the pop star even still exists. She thinks for a moment.
“I’m sure it can, if you play the game,” she says. “But I don’t want to play the game.”
LILY ALLEN plays Splendour in the Grass alongside Outkast, Two Door Cinema, Childish Gambino and more at the North Byron Parklands from Friday July 25 – Sunday July 27.