Brief thoughts on Lily Allen

Lily Allen’s ‘feminist’ video ‘Hard Out Here’ is old news, a couple of months old, but I’m behind the times and I’ve just encountered it, and its critical responses, today. Its flaws have already been amply pointed out, with particular attention paid to the video’s exploitative attitude towards black women, who are merely sexual objects here. But so far I haven’t seen anyone critiquing the music.

I don’t think that the video, shown below, is remotely critical of the sexist ideological universe it is ostensibly critiquing. The lyrics do, it’s true, give us a sarcastic view of pop videos and popular cultural attitudes to women, but the video still provides the ideologically necessary titillation. The music contributes powerfully to this. In form (the way verse and chorus alternate conventionally) and content (the shape of the melody and the song’s harmonic features) it is extremely simple and digestible: the music is bright, perky, pleasant, unchallenging, and so readily accessible that its essential musical point can be grasped by many millions of people within a few seconds (the YouTube video has had nearly 16 million views to date).

This simplicity of form and content, the catchiness of pop music, its immediacy and appeal, is what makes it the favoured commodity form for music in advanced capitalism. Really Lily Allen’s song is just like everything else in this regard. Pop music seems to offer the instant gratification that we are taught that we desire from music, without being ultimately satisfying (because if it satisfied us, we’d stop consuming it). For much of the time, when songs have any evident content, it is, as a first-year student of mine noted in a presentation last term, some more or less bland statement about love, money, sex, or drugs. These bland statements tend to meander around a narrow space bounded by a conservative ideological frame. We should all pursue the One; we should want money but not too much, because that makes us nasty, shallow people, when instead we should be pursuing the One; we can be terribly liberal about sex, and even allow it between persons of any age or race or sex, because we’re so liberal, but ultimately the One is the person we should focus our sexual interest on; and drugs are our permitted transgression, the thing that gives us edge, but without posing a real challenge to convention. The simple appeal of the music that presents this network of messages serves the purpose of sugaring the ideological pill: it’s a positive pleasure to internalize these ideological messages.

Back, finally, to the specifics of Lily Allen’s song, which presents itself as being antagonistic to modern forms of pop-culture sexism. Overall, the interaction of music and video does little more than provide the ideologically normal objectification of women with a nice reassurance that it’s ironic, so we can feel good about ourselves while nothing at all is changed. The catchy nature of the tune absolutely contributes to this: it says ‘Look, it’s really easy and pleasurable to be a feminist: not only will the experience be perky and pleasurable, but you don’t even have to change the materials you consume – you can still look at close-ups of women’s backsides being sprayed with champagne as they mock-fellate a bottle, because it’s all a joke. If it gives you a hardon, it’s OK: it’s a feminist hardon!’. It’s as cynical as a major corporation saying that the purchase of their goods is somehow a way of giving to charity, a way of making us feel good about preserving the status quo. Yet I suspect you’re unlikely to read a critique of ‘Hard Out Here’, or Jessie J’s ‘Do It Like a Dude’, or any other ‘critical’ pop that targets the musical materials in the same way, because there is an unquestioned assumption that because pop appeals to millions, it must be ‘democratic’. I think instead we need to return to the old Marxist position, nicely developed by Adorno, that what we’re mistaking for democratic reach is the poisonous and anti-progressive narcotic effect of a musical opiate for the masses.

8 thoughts on “Brief thoughts on Lily Allen

  1. I’m not aware of any serious pop music critic saying that “Hard Out There” is a successful critique, especially because of the video, and because the use of irony is so heavy-handed. But in her defense, in late capitalism a piece of political critique that takes its cue from the form of late modernism you advocate–”all the masses need is some late Beethoven and the revolution will be nigh!”–is not going to be very effective.

    Needless to say it’s a very old argument in pop music studies, but of course the song is formally conventional. Not only as a matter of irony, but because those who actually listen to mainstream pop music seriously (I don’t mean scholars, but fans) are much more sophisticated in their listening than the analysis presented here. Hearing songs that have verse-chorus-verse and a catchy melody as merely “conventional” is like saying that every symphonic movement in sonata form is merely conventional.

    Again, this particular song? Not a great song, or useful politically; Lily Allen is capable of much better. As you say, the video is extremely problematic in its radicalized language, and you can certainly make an argument about a feminist hard-on or whatever from the imagery. But if you really are concerned about them musical “itself,” I wouldn’t write off verse-chorus-verse.

    1. I’m not aware of anyone saying ‘all the masses need is Beethoven’, either. Certainly not me. But saying, as you do, that focusing on classical music isn’t going to lead to meaningful critique is a different matter from the one at hand, which is the claim that this particular piece of music, and as I suggest pop music generally, is not very effective as a means of critique. The effectiveness or otherwise of the study of classical music as critique of capital does not directly illuminate the question whether pop music, or the study of it, is effective.

      I agree that many listeners, including scholarly analysts, read much more detail into the music than I do here, but would suggest that they’re finding evidence of what Adorno calls pseudo-individualization, the endless differentiations between products that are inducements to further purchase. Of course I have nothing against a simple ABA(BABA…) structure, or a purely strophic one, or a simple binary, or whatever but, first, there’s a considerable difference between a pop song form and a sonata form, whose demands on the listener are much greater even in the simplest forms (so I reject that comparison), and second, between a musical form which fills a simple ABA with materials that themselves have a greater level of artistry and design in their melody and harmony than pop like this does. That being said, I don’t subscribe, either, to the doctrine that simple is bad and complex is good. But I do think it worth pointing out that the way we can spot a commodified form in music is by paying attention to the combination of simplifications and levellings-off, in the music and in the text, and as appropriate also in the video imagery, that in total make the artefact extremely easy and pleasant to digest. That’s what I was doing, briefly, here.

  2. I will cop to (obviously) over-simplyifing the late modernist line. I’m a Cage guy, and thus certainly like a good knotty form myself, and as a teacher try to push students to think about the political implications of form.

    But I do feel like your argument is a bit of a straw man. The critical consensus as I’ve read it has been that the Lily Allen song is (a) not very good politics and (b) not a very good song. And a quick look at Wikipedia tells me it’s having sort of middling sales. The new Beyoncé album has a lot more to say explicitly about feminism, even using the “f” word itself; and here in the US, her album is currently sitting at the top of Billboard 200 album chart. If you want to critique commodity form in music, I’d rather see you take on something like that. Maybe Beyoncé’s sex appeal is involved, maybe we’re just brainwashed into buying whatever she releases. But I’m pretty sure there are other possibilities out there, ones which I think would lead to much more fruitful political engagement.

    (Ian: could we not replace “sonata movements” with “verse-chorus-verse songs” or “AABA songs” in your statement?)

    1. ‘(Ian: could we not replace “sonata movements” with “verse-chorus-verse songs” or “AABA songs” in your statement?)’

      No, I think the first category is quite different in terms of being less fixed even in terms of basic attributes. It’s not just that there are some exceptions (which would prove the rule), but that the history of the genre shows such a degree of flexibility and fluidity of approach that the nineteenth-century attempts to tie it down to a fixed set of conventions produced a caricature. Some of the weakest sonata movements (some of those by Schumann and Chopin, say) are the ones which try to follow a textbook idea of the form.

      1. I just want to offer a (perhaps needless) reminder that form isn’t the only way music, classical or pop, offers complexity and individuality. Timbre, orchestration, rhythm, melody, etc. all participate. In music with lyrics, the rhythm and structure of the lyrics and the interaction of poetic and musical structures also contribute to the musical identity of a piece. In modern music, add in the possibilities afforded by electronic manipulation of sounds and simple verse-chorus structures become a small piece of the musical puzzle.

    2. This crummy article – http://thegrio.com/2013/12/17/is-beyonce-a-feminist-icon-new-album-reignites-debate-between-black-and-white-feminists/ – argues that:

      ‘One track on the new album, Flawless, is a remix of Beyoncé’s Bow Down, a song heavily criticized for its use of the word “b***h” when it leaked earlier this year. Perhaps in reaction to accusations that using the b-word is the antithesis of the “girl power” ethos the superstar tends to tout, Flawless features a sample from a presentation by renowned Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Titled, We Should All Be Feminists, in the talk portion sampled for the song, Adichie defines a feminist broadly as, “[a] person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” This is a wide definition that can include many forms of feminism — including a feminism that is body-positive, sexy, and proud of wealth accumulation.’

      That’s pretty much written things off for women who are older, do not have particularly attractive bodies, or are living in relative poverty, then. But I suspect that celebrating body fascism, commodification of sex, and wealth accumulation is what Beyoncé is really about, and an important component of her success.

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