lily allen’s new album signifies a millennial coming of age

The noughties icon represents a time of Skins, Kate Nash, youthful carelessness and no responsibilities. So does her new album, No Shame, mark the end of our innocence?

by Brian O'Flynn
12 June 2018, 5:15am

The iconography of Lily Allen is criminally underrated. Her figure sits eternally in the millennial mind in a satin pink dress, hoop earrings, a glossy black fringe and Nike Air trainers. When she breached the bubble of noughties British pop in 2006 with her deadpan fuckboy single Smile, she was one of a kind. In the parliament of mainstream pop, she was the urban London youth delegate, sitting in the chamber alongside peers Amy Winehouse (who released Back to Black the same year) and Adele. This trio form the quintessential chord which epitomises the British female pop sound of the late noughties. Lily is rarely credited with such significance, but these three unique voices -- Amy’s rich jazz, Adele’s booming power, and Lily’s idiosyncratically chiming talk-singing -- are so distinct as to sonically define so many of our teenage years. Far from a cookie-cutter industry product, Lily created a micro-genre of her own, through the bloodline of copycats she spawned. See fellow Brit school grad Kate Nash (AKA ‘mini Allen’), who mimicked Lily’s thickly London-lilted brand of falsetto talk-singing in tracks like Foundations, and echoed her sweary, couldn’t-care-less lyrics about useless boyfriends and the less than charming life of a London flat.

‘Couldn’t-care-less’ is the operative adjective. Lily’s sound and persona were era- and genre-defining. If Winehouse has become a timeless symbol for the dark side of noughties celebrity culture -- the era of Britney’s breakdown and hedonistic excess, the age before smartphones and Twitter when tabloids still had a monopoly on truth and the paparazzi could, quite literally, kill -- then what aspect of noughties culture did Lily capture? To put it simply, she was the embodiment of youthful indifference.

Lily’s music was about eternal teenagehood, and careless invincibility. Lily wore trainers on the red carpet like she didn’t care -- because she didn’t. It was defiant, but way too lazy to be revolutionary. She didn’t give enough of a fuck to try to be revolutionary. She just genuinely couldn’t be bothered wearing heels. Everything Lily sung was laced with profanity and underscored with a wry smile that almost mocked us. She was the real life version of Nelson Muntz scoffing ‘ha ha!’ at anyone who took themselves too seriously.

In the Smile video, she wanders around London singing about a break-up to which she looks supremely indifferent, her face blank except for the occasional sly smile of schadenfreude. In LDN, she cranked up the cheerfulness. Her bright-as-a-bell falsetto vocals peal cheerily while she sings about the sex, drugs and crime around her, the juxtaposition of sunny happiness and depressing dreariness intended to be absurd, to be comical. Everything was a bit of a joke. In later work like Not Fair, Lily mercilessly lampoons an inadequate lover over a countrified banjo melody that was almost more parody than pop song. The bombastic middle finger to society in songs like Fuck You speaks for itself.

"In 2018, wokeness is de rigueur, and to be indifferent is unacceptable. But in those heady days, when I was a young teenager, it felt intoxicatingly free."

Lily was youthful noughties arrogance incarnate. She channelled the pre-crash economic complacency of 2006 and the moral apathy that came along with it -- on The Fear, Lily went so far as to write; “I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds, I heard people die while they’re trying to find them”. In the boom, everything was always gonna be okay, so why worry, right? Apathy pervaded Lily’s earlier career -- she even declared she couldn’t be bothered with music anymore and opened up a clothes shop with her sister for a while. This ‘I can do anything I want but I dunno if I can be bothered’ attitude typified noughties youth culture, the era of Skins, when trying wasn’t cool.

Laid bare like that, the characteristics of that culture seem intolerably selfish today. In 2018, wokeness is de rigueur, and to be indifferent is unacceptable. But in those heady days, when I was a young teenager, it felt intoxicatingly free. Lily Allen’s voice, to me, is a time machine. Through the tinkling of her unmistakable vocal chime, I can still hear the cracking open of illicit cans of Prazsky in an abandoned industrial estate. I can remember feeling deeply concerned with the latest Nike Airs and who had Smile.mp3 on their phone and who could Bluetooth it to me on my new Sony Ericsson? Oh no -- can you infrared it instead?

For millennial adults, the noughties were our salad days, when everything was easy -- Lily, in our minds, stands for all of that. We involuntarily hum her music as we look at those old polaroids. Her new album, No Shame is the ritualistic burning of those polaroids. It is the end of innocence. With every line, she sings away our teenage years, our invincibility.

"We’re not teenagers anymore. We’re adults, and it fucking hurts."

Lily has been through marriage, motherhood, divorce and a serial stalker. We shiver when she sings; “...stakes getting higher and higher and higher and higher”, because we know she’s not lying. It’s all too real. Lily’s IRL struggles loom large in our minds, mirroring our own, rubbing reality in our faces. We’re not teenagers anymore. We’re adults, and it fucking hurts. Pop’s court jester is terrifyingly serious. “Why put me through it?” she pleads, and her earnestness scares us.

Lily once stuck the middle finger to everything and anyone, asking us what the fuck did it matter what the outcome was? She danced just out of reach of the consequences, waggling her tongue at them, asking who was going to make her play by the rules? In Lost My Mind, she seems fearful of them. She obediently bows to them, then gets burned anyway: “I wasn’t being difficult, but you still betrayed us.” She’s vulnerable, no longer untouchable. “Let me get off the ride,” she begs.

The last time Lily sang about a male relative, it was a caricature of her brother Alfie, who she lol-ed was always ‘high on THC’. The sliding notes of that song lended it an almost comical tone, amplified by the ridiculous puppet in the video -- these people weren’t real. Now Lily sings from the perspective of her daughter. “I’m only three, I’m only three” she repeats endlessly, like it’s a refrain that haunts her.

“I’m only 23!!” we want to scream back to our icon of youthful invincibility, immunity and unaccountability. She’s supposed to reassure us. It’s not our fault we don’t do formalwear, drugs are bad kids but don’t worry. Growing up is for later. But Lily is grown up now, and so are we. The excuses stick in our throats. “I am more than selfish. I am tired, I’m helpless,” she whispers. It feels like our older sister has just told us she’s scared our mom might not make it. We wish she’d put the filter back on, rock us in her arms, and lie soothingly.

In 2018, navel-gazing is punishable in the court of public opinion. Taylor Swift was declared ‘an envoy for Trump’s values’ because of the apolitical content of her music and public dialogue. But Lily didn’t need to make a political album to escape scrutiny -- her regular public skirmishes with right-wing figureheads like Piers Morgan already let us know what side she’s on. Her album is not concerned with political tensions and factions -- rather with the politics of her own family unit, and the minute agony of its disintegration. Yet her individualism manages to capture a deeply relevant political identity. The self she describes is, well, us. She is the selfish, disaffected noughties youth all grown up. “Stuck in a rut, kicking stones, looking at my phone all night. When I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t sleep.” We’re not okay and we’re not really sure how to fix it. All we know is those transcendent, easy, teenage times when it was okay to be selfish, are gone: “Now I sense a change. Something beautiful has slipped away,” she gently breaks it to us. We sob quietly because we know she’s right.

No Shame is the millennial coming-of-age album, the end of our innocence. It is a mirror Lily holds up to herself, and to us. It hurts because we barely recognise her -- because we barely recognise ourselves.

Lily Allen's No Shame is out now

Kate Nash
amy winehouse
No Shame
Lily Allen