There’s a lot that we think we know about Lily Allen. We think we know a lot about most celebrities, but there’s a difference to the way we talk about a normal member of the British upper crust – say, Victoria Beckham – as opposed to someone like Lily. We’re not flabbergasted by her lifestyle or fascinated by her marriage. We’re not whispering about whether she’s had work done. Part of what makes celebrity so fascinating is that these people are untouchable pillars of marble, people who could technically be living in the same postcodes as us but who are somehow still in another dimension. That’s what has always felt different about Lily Allen. She’s been around for a while; she’s outspoken; she sort of looks like someone you’d meet in a smoking area. She’s touchable. Knowable. And hence breakable.
Speaking to Eve Barlow in a recent interview with Vulture, Allen revealed what we don’t know about her. That she, for instance, cheated on her husband during her last tour. That this led to the end of her marriage and that the album she was promoting – 2014’s Sheezus – was a rushed post-baby product conjured in the midst of a breakdown and postnatal depression. “With Sheezus, I didn’t give enough respect to it,” she says, with trademark honesty. “I was having an identity crisis. I was listening to everybody else for the first time. Maybe I had postnatal depression. All I wanted was to get on the radio. I wanted magazine covers. When those things didn’t go to plan, my world collapsed.”
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the fact that Allen is still locked into a five-album deal that she signed at the age of 19 with EMI for £25,000. So, £5,000 an album. “I have enough money to support my kids. I don’t live in a castle. I don’t have a driver. Just ’cause I’m in the Daily Mail all the time doesn’t mean I’m a multibillionaire.”
While you can chalk up the small deal to the fact that Allen was young and virtually unknown at the time, it’s no excuse for the fact that, over a decade later, she’s still not respected by her label. And that, despite being a pioneer of the online music scene (she and the Arctic Monkeys amassed huge followings on MySpace) and having huge influence in the Twitter universe, her label has no interest in any of her digital-marketing ideas. Or, to put it another way: EMI signed an artist known for her work on the internet, then ignored all of her insight about the internet.
She tackled orgasm inequality in It’s Not Fair and obsessive individualism in The Fear
“I wish they would listen to my ideas more, even with MySpace in the beginning [Allen built her fan base there after she was signed]. I put the music up there before it was on the label’s radar. The idea of giving music away for free – they hated it. They said, ‘No! You’re mad! Pirates!’ Flash-forward to now, they give everything away. With Sheezus, I was trying to do behind-the-scenes, two-and-a-half-minute movies for YouTube before you could load videos to Instagram. They’d be like, ‘Oh God Lily, demanding money [from the marketing budget] and being all diva-ish.’ [Social media] is how Dua Lipa is marketed now. I’ve always been one step ahead.”
I’m usually sceptical of anyone who refers to themselves as “one step ahead” (it smacks of Silicon Valley, right?), but you have to admit that Lily Allen has perpetually proved herself ahead of the game.
“I wish they would say, ‘Lily knows about the internet, let’s listen to her.’ But no. The information has to come from some digital marketing male. Literally, I’ll say something to them and they’ll say, ‘No.’ Then they’ll hire someone else who’ll say exactly the same thing and they’ll be like, 'Great idea!'”
This is where the knowability of Lily Allen feels so real and raw. Everyone has had their ideas ignored, stolen or talked over. Everyone has gazed around a room, dumbstruck, with the feeling of “This is a joke, right? Everyone just heard me say the exact same thing, right?” It’s the kind of sexism that’s so blatantly unsubtle that you want to laugh out loud at how much it resembles an employee video titled How Not To Do Sexism.
This is the kind of injustice that Lily Allen’s music has always been so good at parodying. She tackled orgasm inequality in It’s Not Fair and obsessive individualism in The Fear. The time is ripe for her to make music about being a thirtysomething mum who can’t catch a break at work.