Best of British: Breakfast with Lily Allen

By d'Ancona, Matthew | The Spectator, December 20, 2008 | Go to article overview

Best of British: Breakfast with Lily Allen


d'Ancona, Matthew, The Spectator


I am sitting opposite a demure young Englishwoman, sipping on jasmine tea, who would like nothing more, she says, than to settle down and have children. Young people and their parties interest her less and less. She likes the company of older friends now, and more sophisticated conversation. She shows me her elegant new Smythson notepaper, and discusses US politics, academic life and her plan to take her mother to Jamaica for Christmas. In person, she looks more like a Jane Austen heroine than a party queen.

Meet Lily Allen.

It is hard to reconcile the woman in the flesh with her tabloid image as the definitive post-adolescent hedonist, the pop star who supposedly 'falls out of nightclubs' (as the red-top newspapers like to put it) and feeds the paparazzi with images of crazy nightlife.

There is Lily the cartoon character, the pop princess. And then there is this highly intelligent woman tucking into an English breakfast at the Club at the Ivy ('I am having sushi at lunch, so I can'), peering over her glasses to make a point, laughing a lot, putting a napkin over her face in embarrassment when I compliment her on her new album, full of irony at her own expense.

What happened? Quite simple: the beast that helped to create her bit back -- and hard. 'I do feel really passionate about celebrity culture, because I hate it, I really despise it -- even though I'm such a part of it. Just because I think it's so vacuous and awful. There is just nothing good comes out of it except materialism and it's horrible.

It's now become like the politics of our age, that's what young people are now interested in. Kids don't read newspapers, they don't educate themselves in any way, they are reading [celebrity stories] and that's what they are getting riled up about. That's what depresses me because it bears no relevance to anyone's life at all.' Does this 23-year-old consider herself a role model? 'No, not at all. I think role models should be aunts and uncles, mothers and sisters and brothers. Why would you want to put someone on a pedestal that you know nothing about?' In its first phase, the Lily Phenomenon was spawned by the web and the pioneering use of her page on the MySpace social networking site to launch demo tracks that became her first album, Alright, Still, in July 2006. With its infectious London ska and Mockney street talk, it was the soundtrack to a summer, propelling her at light speed towards a multigenerational audience that was more than ready for some new, truly English pop music. Here, hurtling out of cyberspace, was a smart new music-hall act, a sarky English Rose who dressed like Mari Wilson, smoked and drank, and sang about pubs, and cheating boyfriends, and her brother Alfie.

This, I submit, is the point of Lily Allen.

More than once in our conversation she compares herself to Amy Winehouse, who is routinely presented as Borg to her McEnroe, Ovett to her Coe. But this is a category mistake. Born in Southgate though she was, Winehouse is quite specifically a (majestic) practitioner of the American musical arts: Motown, R&B, Al Green, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan. In contrast, Lily Allen fits into a distinctive and quite separate English tradition of word-play, irony and lyrical flourish. Her immediate ancestors are the Kinks, Ian Dury and Squeeze, with a dash of The Smiths and Pulp for good measure. Having famously rhymed 'al fresco' with 'Tesco', she offers, in a new track about God, the following couplet: 'Do you think He's ever been suicidal? / His favourite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival.' Only in England could such a line be written or, indeed, relished.

'I suppose because I don't feel like a musician really [the lyrics] are the only thing I do have control over and where I feel I can express myself and be creative. So it is the most important thing for me. I don't beat myself up over them, but I do think about them very intently while I'm writing them. …

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