Reactions to Lily


God knows I don’t need to write anything further in terms of parsing the Lily Allen video, so I’ll largely refrain. Instead I want to note a few things about the reaction to it.

The response of the white ‘faux-feminists’ of the broadsheets has largely been a textbook example of the issues discussed here. They have been perfectly willing to throw questions of race and class under the bus because this privileged private school woman has poked fun at ‘misogyny’ in pop/hip-hop music. It’s interesting that Russell Brand’s recent foray into politics was met with many furious blogs and tweets about his sexism and how this discounted his opinions while these same people are defending Allen against accusations of sexism/racism/classism on the basis that ‘her heart was in the right place’. If this doesn’t underline the self-interest at play here, what does?

The discussions around misogyny in pop tend to be absolutely woeful, going no deeper than ‘women take their clothes off, waaah!’ Certainly sexism is a thing in pop but it’s far more complex that this and, indeed, exists in responses which condemn women for showing flesh while having absolutely nothing to say about the litany of boy bands and Biebers who are permanently semi-naked. Pop music itself is sexualised – any discussion of women in pop has to start from this point. It also has to note that the genre is particularly dominated by female singers while ‘rock’ is dominated by men. Questioning why this may be and even understanding that someone like Allen is in a position of huge power (not least over her dancers) leads to difficult, but far more illuminating, discussions.

Another aspect of the response which has been interesting has been the wailing from the kind of POP FAN who endlessly bemoans ‘snobbery’. They’re known as Poptimists and you’ll find them on most pop forums or reviewing albums in The Guardian. I’ve long noted the very peculiar brand of self-loathing exhibited by this type, who will follow Lady Gaga in insisting that ‘pop will never be low brow’ and insist that it deserves to be taken seriously while adopting a corrosive irony about the thing they ostensibly love. So they will celebrate the insincere mocking tone of The Big Reunion or self-consciously rejoice at dancing to Eternal b-sides. It’s all surface, all a posture – any earnest appreciation for pop as an art form is absent, any serious analysis of it is off-limits. We recently saw this with Lady Gaga’s appalling Aura song which made ‘Burqa Swag’ a thing. You can read a great commentary on the problems behind the track here but such serious reasoning seemed to be almost entirely absent from the outlets which routinely celebrate and discuss pop music. Instead, the only acknowledgement of these issues was a loud chorus of snide mocking that anyone would possibly think that it could be racist. Racist?! It’s a POP SONG! It’s fun! It’s POSITIVE! We see this exact response with Lily Allen’s video, where anyone advancing a critical opinion of its problematic content is dismissed as ‘reading too much into it’, ‘taking it too seriously’ or ‘not getting it’. This reveals the curious contempt for pop-as-art which seems to lie beneath the surface of so much Poptimism, which is shown to mean banal and ostentatious applause for pop and not sincere appreciation. Pop isn’t to be taken seriously, the deployment of ‘fun’ an assertion that it simply lacks the weight to carry serious socio-political impact. It’s a joke. Rather than acknowledge this, of course, the issue is projected onto the critic: it is Sara Ahmed’s ‘Bad Feeling’ writ large.

This blaming of ‘the dissenting voice’ for interrupting the bland, ‘happy’ consensus has been particularly notable with white, gay, male pop fans shouting down black females who have advanced an opinion that Allen’s video is racist. Clearly there is a lot going on here in terms of the overlaps between sexism, racism and the gay community and it’s interesting that a lot of gay men have adopted the ‘faux-feminism’ of the twee commentariat. In their eyes, then, it’s a great thing that Allen has ‘raised the issue’ and those who find problems in the video are bitter try-hards who are ruining the liberal love-in. Of course, as I noted in the ‘Dig Deep’ piece, modern Gay Politics has much in common with ‘faux-feminism’, more concerned with a self-serving victimisation than with intersectional solidarity. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the voice of the privileged white pop singer instantly wins out. Allen’s video flatters the ego of these viewers, assuring them of their moral superiority without asking them to consider more complex interactions of power or, indeed, their own position with regards to race, class and gender. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I have no particularly strong feelings about Lana Del Rey. I’ve heard a couple of songs and like them well enough. I couldn’t care less about what her ‘real’ story is in terms of whether or not I enjoy her music. However, this piece, and particularly its adoption today as some kind of rallying cry for pop, infuriates me.

I’ve written a few times about inverted pop snobbery and well, here it is. The worst kind of petty sneering at some imaginary oppressive enemy. It is, to borrow a currently in vogue phrase, reductive. This piece skates over all of the ambiguities that surround (and indeed make) Lana Del Rey. It relies on the fatuous premise that ‘alternative’ writers (who these people are, we are never told) gravitated towards her blindly and naturally, as if she and her marketing have had nothing to do with it. Once you accept that Lana Del Rey did not magically appear one day but has actively touted (and been touted) to specific audiences (a point noted in kind by the admission that there a heap of remixes aimed at ‘alternative’ audiences), then her past becomes relevant. In just the same way that Popjustice found Duffy’s past relevant in this article:

He is reluctant to fully accept the ingenue image. “From the beginning she was very stylised, shot in black and white, sold with the story that she’d barely heard a record before coming to London. The early press releases didn’t mention the fact that she had won [sic] the Welsh X Factor.” But he is not entirely disparaging. “Duffy shows that a manufactured artist can be good, if created by talented people who care about music,” he said.

The ‘Welsh X Factor’ thing in particular was a common fixation that, as far as I can tell, originated with Popjustice. I don’t see how it is any more or less relevant to what Duffy became than Lana Del Rey’s history is. All artists have a story, all artists are creations to some degree, and all people who write about music have every right to examine that and believe it to be relevant.

Now, the particular point being made here is one beloved of Popjustice: that the ‘indie’ world dismisses ‘pop’ music out of hand, particularly if it is manufactured. I think that’s why PJ went to pains to claim Duffy as a ‘manufactured’ artist. It’s also why something like the idea that Lana Del Rey might be terrible live is called a “boring idea of authenticity”. This approach to pop is, I think, cynical and damaging. In short, it treats pop as the disposable trash that these imaginary ‘alternative writers’ would believe it to be. In the effort to create a level playing field between pop and other, presumed ‘superior’ genres, the effort goes into levelling down, not up. So we hear the endless arguments about how everything should be approached as if it is of equal value; about how who writes the songs is irrelevant; about how the ability to perform live is the tedious concern of muso snobs. There is no argument for pop music as something capable of serious, transcendental moments (and I don’t use ‘serious’ here to mean ‘morose’, I mean sincere, affecting and without irony). There is no recognition of the unique brilliance of a pop auteur . There is no appreciation of the fact that the brilliance of ‘manufactured music’ like Motown or Dusty Springfield or most of Kylie’s output has come about from a perfect match between artist and song, a balance and interpretation which is worthy of examination itself and which is cheapened by being lumped in with all ‘manufactured pop’ as if any judgement acknowledging this fact is snobbery.

The urge is clearly to argue for pop as something which must inherently be ephemeral. Obviously this is often true – but ephemeral does not mean worthless. More often than not, however, the pop that truly connects with us, moves us, inspires us, makes us feel impossibly alive, is the pop that treats it as an art form. It has effort put into it and a value placed on it. It is the ‘boring idea of authenticity’ beloved of Motown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Elton John, The Beatles, Mariah Carey, Abba. Why did Girls Aloud work? Because the people involved took it seriously. They didn’t treat it as pap which would be forgotten in a year. 

On some level, I think PJ knows this. While there are endless digs about ‘authenticity’ and jokes at the expense of U2 or Coldplay, when it’s an artist they like, the notions of ‘authenticity’ sneered at above are suddenly taken very seriously. Nicola Roberts can speak at length about writing music, name-drop cool producers and advance the idea that she’s just making music for herself without comment. If Matt Cardle does the same, it’s a recurrent joke. Lady Gaga is clearly seen as being on a different level to most of her contemporaries. Whether you agree with this or not, the arguments for her being so rest heavily on notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘credibility’ sneered at in this article, however much it may be argued that she just ‘makes great pop’ or whatever.

The (inconsistent) efforts to disassociate from these notions lead to a horrible conservatism which veers towards dismissing anything that isn’t electro-pop. A radical band like The Beatles are lumped in with dreary indie for no apparent reason other than the fact that they were a band of white men. A brilliant British pop star like Adele is labelled as the spearhead of ‘The New Boring’ for writing sincere, moving songs which lack flashy production and dance routines. An act like Little Mix are elevated beyond all reason simply because they fit the bill and, being explicitly manufactured, can be held up as a totem against these imaginary ‘alternative writers’.

I did spend some time on Google in an effort to identify the hordes of hipster writers who hate Lana Del Rey for being ‘inauthentic’. I found plenty of criticism for her dire performance on SNL – but that has sod all to do with her origins. I did find an article in that most archetypal of alternative voices, Pitchfork. I’ll end with a link to it because I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s fair to say that it’s ambivalent towards Lana Del Rey but it teases out that ambivalence with great insight and certainly doesn’t dismiss her out of hand for her past. Its strength and why it works? It treats its subject as something worthy of serious thought and develops an argument placing it in wider musical contexts. It treats pop with the respect it deserves.

A note to Pop Fans Making Straw Man Arguments