samedi, janvier 06, 2007

Lily Allen, girl of the year

A year ago, she was another hopeful uploading songs on MySpace.

Today, even your parents know who Lily Allen is. Hermione Eyre charts the irresistible rise of the biggest - and mouthiest - pop star of 2006.

Imagine the past year as a pop parade, and what do we see? McFly dressed up as soldier boys marching at the front, perhaps; Ghostface Killah borne along on a float made out of a massive gold medallion; Joanna Newsom riding on a unicorn, preceded by elves strewing meadowsweet; Jarvis, looking glum, dressed as a skeleton, being cheered to the rooftops; Sandi Thom getting jovially pelted with old fruit. Last but not least, here comes 2006's official pop princess, riding on a candy-pink float, wearing a tatty tiara, glugging on a beer can and throwing sherbets at the crowd: it's Lily Allen.

She's had a heck of a year. In November 2005, she uploaded four of her songs on to MySpace, the yoof networking site. They were witty ska-lite numbers, and as catchy as nits. By May they had been downloaded 1.3m times, and she had 24,000 close personal friends - or rather, close personal MySpace cyberfriends. This was a fanbase you could build a career and possibly a small town on, so Parlophone rush-released her first single "Smile", which went to number one in the singles chart in July. Lily was at the T in the Park festival in Scotland when she found out. "I was hammered and going up to all these boys in bands who were all skinny jeans and haircuts and I was saying, 'I'm number one and none of you are!' They all fucking hated me! Like, who is this obnoxious girl in a ball gown?"

Lily, as you may have inferred from just that snippet, shares everything, especially stories which make her look silly. She can't help it. It all comes babbling out, the disses - "Carl Barat is obviously convinced he is God or something" - the trivial confessions - "I wanna eat spaghetti bolognese and not feel bad about it for days and days and days" - the insecurity - "[at the gig] it was very apparent from the looks on peoples' faces how rubbish I was" - the vivacious highs, the poor-me lows. She blabs, in other words. Either to journalists, or on her blog at MySpace, or, best of all, in her music. Here she writes things that ring true, not things that sound good. "We'd spend the whole weekend lying in our own dirt/I was so happy in your boxers and your T-shirt" is not what you would call a classic love lyric, but there it is on her wistful break-up song "The Littlest Things". Why? 'Cos "that's what life is like, isn't it?" she chirrups. "It's not 'Oh yeah, crazy baby, will you be my lady?'"

She brought a breath of freshness, then, to 2006, as Amy Winehouse and Miss Dynamite did to their first respective years of fame. But can we pause, please? Quickly, before she becomes a diva, produces a concept album, marries three times, gets her autobiography ghosted and turns 22, can we freeze her now in all her puppyish (im)perfection, just for a moment? And while she is suspended thus, let us consider, what is this thing called Lily Allen? Wherefore was it made?

The background: "Lily Allen - child of privilege" is a tag that has provoked pantomime levels of debate. Oh yes she is! Oh no she isn't! Her famous father helped her get a record deal! Oh no he didn't! Enough already. Let us calmly survey the known facts.

Lily Rose Beatrice Allen was born in 1985, the second of three, to film producer Alison Owen (whose credits include Elizabeth and Shaun of the Dead) and TV personality Keith Allen (actor, singer, football pundit, man of the people, whatever). When she was four her dad left, and her mum, then a lowly production assistant, was "always on the phone to him for support"; nevertheless, Lily attended the prep school Hill House, and public schools Millfield and Bedales, amongst 10 other educational establishments.

She was Trouble, expelled twice, asked to leave three times; she ran crying from all her exams. "Education is great for some people but for me it just wasn't," she told Jo Whiley on Radio 1. Aged 11, though, at a London Catholic girls' school, she had a breakthrough. She sang "Baby Mine" from Dumbo so sweetly that all the parents in the audience started crying. They had known her previously as Angry Little Lily, a problem kid, she says, but now they saw she was good at something. Crowbarred into the way she tells the story is also the mournful little phrase: "My mum didn't turn up to the concert but all the other parents did."

This poor little rich girl, then, had membership of the Groucho aged 17, but perhaps never quite as much attention as she needed. "It was middle class and everything was quite comfortable, but everyone was mental". Her parents may not have been very rich, or very nurturing, but they were spectacularly well-connected, which, to the modern blogger, is the most unfair of all. On YouTube, a looky-likey called "Trilly Talent" rips into her, warbling an altered version of "Littlest Things": "I'd tell you sad stories about my childhood/ Like when I couldn't ride my pony till I'd finished all my pud." To be fair, Lily can take the joke, describing herself as "crushed" but the lyrics as "GENIUS".

The look: Street Cinderella; prom queen goes mad in Ratners.

Lily favours a tulle ballgown, decorated with half a tonne of hastily-chosen jewellery and finished off with a pair of Nike trainers. You can't say it's not her own look. She has her father's "shit-eating grin" and "brown boobly eyes", according to one journalist; to another she is a Muppet with a Beatles haircut. Strangely no one pointed out how much she resembles a baby dinosaur, until she posted pictures of herself online dressed as one.

The drugs: How are you going to celebrate your number one, Lily, asked the NME in July. Her answer apparently contained the words "gak" and "lots of". She has since made it very clear it was "a sarcastic joke" that the NME took out of context, sensationalised, used to their own publicity advantage, etc etc. But then again, Lily took her first pill at Glastonbury aged 13, at 15 she spent a summer in Ibiza working in Plastic Fantastic "selling E's and being bad". The years 16 to 19 are a dope haze. The only real proof that the comment to NME was a joke is her song that lambasts a friend for taking coke. "You're just a waste of time, girl/Why don't you have another line, girl?"

The internet: The poster girl of MySpace, she records on her blog that she spends, like, an hour and a half every morning accepting MySpace friends. She now has 100,000 of them.

MySpace made Lily Allen, but it has also got her into trouble. Pete Doherty? "I do think he has to be exterminated." Victoria Beckham? "I don't care how much she says that's her natural weight, that's bull." Bob Geldof? "Sanctimonious prat." Oh well. Three down, 99,997 friends to go.

She can also hit back online, to bad reviews, to "haters", or to the NME (see Feminism, below). "Probably a lot of tastemakers and music journalists are getting pissed off with me writing on MySpace because it's essentially eliminating them... I'm allowed to have views, aren't I? Isn't that the point of living?" The online diary allows for unlimited amounts of unmediated public self-expression. It's enough to drive a stalker crazy. We hear how her tour bus caught fire, how her Nintendo almost broke... She burns her toast, we hear about it. Already, we know her better than we know most long-established stars. Cyber-accelerated fame syndrome? Check.

The Woman Thing: "Being in this industry has turned me into a feminist because it just angers me so much the lack of respect and how patronising especially male journalists can be." The NME got her goat when they photographed Lily, Beth Ditto and The Long Blondes' Kate Jackson for a cover celebrating women in music, but then decided to feature male indie band Muse instead.

Hell hath no fury like a cover star scorned and Lily wrote that the NME "should take their heads out of their arses" and "think about their responsibilities to youth culture and to women in general". When the editor soothingly commented that she, Ditto and Jackson "brought new energy to the music scene" and were "living proof that you can still rock a crowd when you're wearing stilettos", Lily blew a gasket. "I mean how fucking patronising. Is that all we are, stiletto-wearing people? Is that all he could say, that we brought a 'new energy' to the music scene? Don't make me sick, we've always been there."

The future: Big names are after her. Chanel (because Karl Lagerfeld digs her look). Pharrell Williams might be her record producer. Whatever happens, she is determined to play Glastonbury next year: "That would make me so, so happy". And as for getting complacent? "I still feel like I've blagged all of this."

For more information about Lily Allen: