Lily Loves Ivor – “A” is for Allen (Let’s Get Lyrical – solo)


The alternative title for this post would be “Lily Loves Ivor but finds a social connection with Morrissey”. Why? Let me explain.

My first entry in the solo artist songwriter category of “Lets Get Lyrical” is “The Fear” by Lily Allen. And in the tradition of anything to do with the music business it is a last-minute addition to the bill. I had a song from an artist in mind for my “A”, a big seller with a penchant for the imaginative lyric and great turn of phrase but Lilly’s winning of an Ivor Novello award http://tiny.cc/jsvq7  for “The Fear” is not only deserving of recognition for its quality but its zeitgeist.  

Lilly loves Ivor. It could easily be a 1920’s inscription on a tree. The old names for girls, such as Lily, are creeping their way back into fashion and there are lots of names ascribed to maiden aunts in the 1960’s, which seemed dismal and anachronistic then which now take pride of place on the walls of trendy office building plaques and fashion houses – Agnes B anyone?

It is a substantial achievement for Lily Allen to over achieve at the Ivor Novello awards, the Ivor of the title, sorry if anyone thought I was introducing her new boyfriend. I have been somewhat circumspect about her talent and her ability over the last few years. I also wondered if she even wrote her own songs. Evidently she does write her own songs and is talented and “The Fear” as a song and as a social comment is just too good ignore.

Lily Allen “The Fear” – Ivor Novello Award Winner

Before tripping merrily through the lyrics of “The Fear” it is worth giving  her writing a proper context. In the UK, like other key parts of Europe, we are now entering a new and uncertain political era based on a centre right coalition. Though there has been many compromises made, the central pillar of the policies is still a Conservative one and will seek to reassert the role of the community, the family and the work ethic. The general premise being that there has been a trend to excess – which contributed to the “credit crunch” – the evolution of a generation where the link between work (not study) and reward has been broken (in effect a “Generation Now”, who would not understand the meaning of saving up and waiting) and a marked deterioration in behaviour and self-restraint across all age groups emanating from the erosion of social institutions.

But this is not the time Lilly wrote her song. She wrote her song during the dying days of a boom period where the morality of excess and the flaunting of conspicuous wealth was in the spotlight, as it still is, and just beginning to be questioned. The one near absolute certainty, that money and self promotion were all that matter, had just begun to show its cracks as a philosophy for living.  Life had become so simplistic for some, that ignoring everything else, all they did was focus on the moment of pleasure. However those questioning the benefits of the boom, the loss of social cohesion, “the see it buy it” culture exemplified by the WAG’s (wives and girlfriends) of football players, were starting to eschew chasing the moment and looking to invest in longer term self-improvement projects, green issues and mind broadening travel – different from escapism and running away – or volunteering as an antidote to excess and the perceived vacuum in their lives.

What a difference three years makes. Three years ago economies were booming, the kids whether they were getting fatter or thinner, were getting it all as parents, like the Government, lost the ability to stay No!, Brands and the media obsessed in attracting the kids as they represented a sure-fire way to increase profile, getting mentions on Facebook and Twitter and in their incoherent – sometimes profound sometime puerile blogs – whilst not adding greatly to their bottom line. In a puff of smoke, caused by the fiction burns of an economy collapsing at speed, it was  all gone and the paradigm appeared to be changing. But what difference does it make?

Yes that it is a famous lyric, penned by Morrissey and Marr,http://tiny.cc/7wjon and sung by the Smiths 

 .

Lily Allen like Morrissey is a social commentator. She is certainly not in the same league for insight or depth of comment, but her muses on attitude, behaviour and beliefs make hers a valid and meaningful contribution to the debate all the same.  By looking deep within herself and by being prepared to identify her emotions and synthesizing her thoughts she has in “The fear” crystallised a moment of her own life and documented a period of our social history.

If we were to play the game six degrees of separation ( http://tiny.cc/hss34) I believe we would find Lily Allen has a lot more in common with Morrissey than Ivor Novello, the songwriter after which the award is named. In terms of timing though there are some interesting comparisons to be made with Novello. Ivor Novello lived through periods of economic and social disruption, of the 1st World War, his songs remained upbeat, playful and uplifting. The boom times ended abruptly with the Great Depression, but this did not dampen his spirits. This is partly due to the fact his real crusade was to champion sexual liberation and the right to express love as a pure form in all its forms.

The reverse is true of Morrissey who can only be described as sexually constrained. This is possibly why the world of Morrissey in song, though being well-defined and full of knowing observations lacks any sense of hope or optimism, The lyrical style could be accused of being over rationalised but equally can be excused because the pointed jibes, predictions of doom and cutting comments are all wrapped up in the fish and chip paper of a sublimely sardonic humour. Tom Gatti writing about Morrissey in the Times “His songs, too, were dramatic: bleak, funny vignettes about doomed relationships, lonely nightclubs, the burden of the past and the prison of the home”.

Lily Allen offers a very modern and unrestrained attitude to sex and its imagery. She embraces sex – in function and form – in her songs and conveys a good understanding of its selling potential. These lines from “The Fear” 

I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless
‘Cuz everyone knows that’s how you get famous

appear to give positive affirmation to every webcam site where PayPal can be used or requested, and every newspaper with a page 3 or page 5 site. This message is clear and is an illuminating social comment on the values that currently pervade within society and that both sexes appear to believe holds true: that only money and fame have true value.

The clues that this maybe not be her personal belief are firstly found in the word “shameless”, as there is a realisation that appearing nude could be regarded as shameful and secondly in the chorus where the song’s protagonist expresses uncertainty in her actions: 

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore

This suggestion of vulnerability gives a strong hint that the confidence expressed in all the earlier 1st person statements in the verses is not as resolved as it first seems:

I’ll look at the sun and I’ll look in the mirror
I’m on the right track yeah I’m on to a winner

Lily Allen appears to be a strong-minded and fiercely independent lady, and all the indications are that she is only looking to herself to fund her success.

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and f***loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them

Do or die it seems, well at least die from embarrassment – shameless!  Whatever its source this is a song about an independent female, although another recent phenomena is that guys as well as girls are equally likely to be sexually objectified. The important thing however is there is no mention of a partner and marriage.

Maybe the well off partner is caught up in terms “rich” and “money”, and a catchall approach to wealth where the end justify the means. If true this appears then to relegate the search for a partner to a more rational and calculated Wag like military operation at China Whites et al, rather than a romantic search for a compatible partner. Is this then the more driven female’s riposte to the rappers “bitch” tag perhaps?

It would have been interesting to see how the miserablist Morrissey, informed by his own circumstances personal demons and acute emotional intelligence would have interpreted and translated these attitudes, and what his sung social commentary would have been had he been a 19-year-old girl when his writing career began. It is part of his genius that he can provide in-depth analysis of the endemic failures of society and the potential – and anticipated – failure of human interaction in song. Part of Lily Allen’s good fortune is that she can live the situation, the intellect to observe it and has the tools to relay it.

Lily Allen, is prepared in her songs to engage with people and situations and simply observe events and trends, reporting as she goes. This sense of shared experience, and her choice of relevant subject matter, has allowed her to build an empathy with a core audience of Noughties teenagers and young adults, many of which are now resistance to direct instruction and deaf to hectoring messages, and who want to discover life for themselves what ever the price.    

The idea of shared experience goes a long way to explaining why Lily Allen’s lyrics often seem to be just simply repeating the received wisdom of her peer group. It also explains why her work appears fresh and current. Teenage thoughts wrapped in the hype and buzz of the internet don’t often get synthesized into a formatted as logical as a song with structured verses and a chorus, and in the phrases and vocabulary of texting and blogs usually get muddled in the delivery. Lily Allen’s songs deliver the thoughts of youthful uncertainty, distress and ambition in a cogent and thoughtful way and this is one of her main contributions as a songwriter and social commentator.

Lily Allen sings in “The Fear” about life: a young women’s real life. More importantly a young women’s real life experiences in the Noughties.  

Yep there is a tendency to excess and swearing but that’s what makes it more real and a more accurate reflection of current society and its values.

Life’s about film stars and less about mothers
It’s all about fast cars and passing each other
But it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic
And that’s what makes my life so f***ing fantastic

The massive flows of mostly trivial and inconsequential information on social media sites such as Bebo, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, the preponderance of teenage singing videos on You Tube and an avalanche of star search shows on TV, underlines where the focus is for the younger generation – be it Generation Z or Generation Now – and demonstrates that the words of Lilly Allen’s song do ring true. Self promotion and revenue generation are the new demigods of society and the undisputed – heavy weight champion of the World – type gods of the online domain.

The song “The Fear” expresses universal themes.

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When we think it will all become clear
‘Cuz I’m being taken over by The Fear

The fear of being wrong, the fear of being right, the fear of doing something wrong – and it coming back to haunt you later on, the fear of just not knowing what is right or wrong and not knowing how to find out. The last 20 years has seen a break down in many social structures, the church, the school, the government and so the question is a valid one.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt, ( FUDS) , is part of the human condition and Lily Allen has caught the mood with “The Fear”. The message is highly pertinent to teenage girls as there is a strong autobiographical element.

Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner
Now everything is cool as long as I’m getting thinner

However the general theme has a broader significance and relevance.

What happens to youth that has been empowered by the excesses of the boom times and the internet now that we are in a worldwide recession? How will they “go out and get it” if there is nothing to get. What happens if attitudes to personal morality shift and those “Shameless” photographs, or mpeg of a webcam show, arrive at the wrong moment and in the wrong place? ( http://wp.me/pTO00-k ). What happens to the person who reaches 30 without a partner, whose only point of reference is partner and untold riches by 25? Is suicide the only option if you have one goal and you have failed to achieve it? These are substantial questions for society to answer going forward.     

The obsession with youth has always been there, but never has its significance been so well understood by youth while they are actually experiencing it. The adult world in many countries maybe influencing this trend as under the weight of responsibility they appear to be retreating to the things of childhood and focusing on youth. On a psychological level it is easy to see why youth may have this focus; if you don’t have access to the two things that matter, fame and fortune, and you have a bargaining chip or an asset you will focus on it to compensate or achieve your goals. Whilst the song “22” does not deal with the subject of youth directly in a de facto way buts an upper age limit on when girls should measure their success in life.  

When she was 22 the future looked bright
But she’s nearly 30 now ……..

It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over
There’s nothing to do and there’s nothing to say
‘Til the man of her dreams comes along
Picks her up and puts her over his shoulder
It seems so unlikely in this day and age

Putting Lily Allen in the same space as Morrissey may upset some and probably some more people will be upset with the comparisons with Ivor Novello, even after she won the eponymous entitled award. However, I believe this song offers valid social comment, is sufficiently cynical to appease Morrissey, and because of its Zeitgeist is deserving of an award. It’s not a bad tune or performance in the video either!

Epilogue:

A review of the remainder of Lily Allen’s material leads me to conclude that the three songwriters mentioned here share one distinct commonality. They share the fear of not being loved, or finding someone (a man?) to love.  It’s not me, its you. (sing to close).

This jury is still out on the ultimate quality of her career spanning songwriting canon.

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