Lily Allen is, as always, out for blood. This is not a woman who is, or has ever been, concerned with not hurting your feelings. In her breakout single “Smile”, she verbatim sings “When I see you cry/ Yeah it makes me smile.” On a follow up hit, the aptly titled “Fuck You”, she offers a kiss off to racists and political opponents of gay marriage. The pithy, fire-breathing British beauty has shed her beta-pop-star singleness for a voluptuous motherhood wit in new single “Hard Out Here” that’s sadly fallen directly into the crosshairs of 2013’s Everything Is Racist assault rifle, and with good reason.
Like a Guardian piece earlier this week mentioned, the backlash that women face for moves that are coded as “feminist” is almost more alarming than the fact that these moves are often flawed. If this video is flawed, it’s in the way it uses the same imagery it seeks to challenge instead of presenting culturally transgressive images. The images that she’s using are, for all intents and purposes, safe. They’re expected, we’ve seen them before. I firmly believe that Allen did not consider her using black dancers and shots of black bodies to be racist, same goes for Miley. But their lack of forethought doesn’t excuse them when pointed critiques of their work from women of color indicate that these images are harmful to their communities.
I get that perspective—as much as my own ethnicity and upbringing allows me to, of course. I am Caucasian and American Indian, and I was raised in a small town in the particularly whitewashed state of Oregon, I really didn’t even think people were still racist or cared about skin color until I took an African American Literature class in my last year of college. I don’t offer this anecdote to excuse anyone anywhere of not dealing with these issues or to belittle them, but simply to highlight that for a lot of people, these concerns aren’t in the front of their mind, or possibly haven’t even been brought to their attention to the degree that they should be. In some ways, that makes the videos and performances of artists like Allen and Miley even more important as far as whose eyes their critiques open to the powerful undercurrents of racism and sexism that still pulse through our pop culture.
But. There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this video that I want to talk about in the context of Lily Allen’s career and the role of female pop stars that don’t concern the “oh shit don’t be a white pop star using black female bodies twerking just EVER please” gag reflex this video caused in me. Allen grew up as the daughter of a famous actor, got kicked out of almost every school she attended, and eventually ran away from home. She talks about how when she was 15 she used to make money by posing in a bikini and passing out fliers (1:20) and “lost the plot” by getting caught up in rave culture. She’s struggled intensely with weight loss and body issues and even with whether or not to take her husband’s name when she got married. She’s been in tiffs with Azealia Banks and Katy Perry, she’s had two children. She’s had a barbed tongue and acerbic take on men, dating culture, and modern society since she galloped onto the scene via an organic MySpace breakout in the early 2000s. There’s a lot going on here besides her new video’s graphic poor taste. She’s dealt firsthand with the pressures of drugs, selling her body and how to navigate her independence and sexuality as a pop star, mother and wife.
And it’s disappointing that a song that’s so vibrantly anti-patriarchy and deliciously girly is being eclipsed by the mistakes made in the video’s unwitting irony veiled racism. Yes, she’s explicitly calling out chains, cars, and rims—cut to her washing them in the kitchen which is a scene I personally find hilarious—and of course this has hip-hop lovers all in a tizzy just like “Royals” did. But at the same time, a lot of people do find those signifiers to be totally unrelated to their culture and art, and it seems like that’s her point here. She won’t be trying on any of these elements for her comeback—even her refusal to twerk falls in line with this. On her first album, 2006’s Alright, Still, Allen drew on Jamaican influences and even put out her own set of mixtapes to help build a buzz. She worked with Ludacris and UK rapper Dizzee Rascal. She’s not a stranger to the culture, but at the same time, her background in it doesn’t reflect a lot of the nuances hip-hop’s domination of American pop represents.
There aren’t a lot of people who still see hip-hop as a genre struggling to the top from nothing, but instead view it as the dominant medium they can’t get away from—and one that represents a lot of things they don’t support. We’re at a point where hip-hop culture has become the dominant force in pop culture, so of course there’s going to be a backlash to that. There’s always more criticism of cultural forces when they become the most popular. (But it’s not all shots because that Biggie print dress she’s wearing in about half the video is one of the best things I’ve ever seen.)
Still, playfully prodding hip-hop tropes isn’t the main crux of this song, even if it has become the focus. It feels like Allen’s purpose, as it has been in the past, is to expose and skewer sexism. Even her comment about not dancing because she has a brain doesn’t come off to me as pointed towards women who dance but refocuses the lens on female intellect over female ass. The difference in how men and women are judged for talking about their sex lives is incredibly pointed—not only can she not even discuss hers without being labeled a slut, but men can call their partners “bitches” without even a ripple of disgust among the critics. Why is it that Allen and Miley are practically crucified for their mistakes when this is the status quo for men in the music industry?
Aside from the video’s graphic opener, she touches on plastic surgery and body dysmorphia and how single women are constantly told they need to be in relationships. By pulling back the curtain on how difficult it is for a female pop star to make a comeback after deciding to have a family, she further illustrates the different battles that each gender must fight. The blow up balloons broadcasting her “baggy pussy” reveal not just the realities of pregnancy, but also the different ways our culture values the bodies of men and women. Robin Thicke’s big dick braggadocio is undercut by the realities of pregnancy and bringing life into the world, but Allen celebrates it by just broadcasting the insult instead of being morose. It’s this kind of anti-body policing that more female pop stars need to engage in to help balance the messages that women receive about their bodies.
Despite the flaws in the video, I love that Allen managed to work so many of these messages into a catchy, good pop song. Sarcasm is as much a part of Lily Allen as her British heritage, but her ironic rendition of “We’ve never had it so good/ We’re out of the woods” feels all the more poignant given the problems with the video she herself created. It’s hard out here for a bitch, but even though this video is a little bitchy toward hip-hop culture and has some serious appropriation-as-irony issues, the feminist issues it highlights shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle.