”I do have a reputation, in my country, of being a bad girl,” says Lily Allen, 21, the British pop sensation who’s now making waves Stateside with her critically acclaimed album Alright, Still. Yet she’s a bit mystified by the tag, considering the evil femininity that’s out there as competition. ”I got really offended when my single ‘Smile’ got banned [during after-school hours] from MTV in the U.K. because it had the word f— in it,” says Allen. ”They said, ‘We don’t want kids to grow up too quickly.’ But then you have Paris Hilton and the Pussycat Dolls taking their clothes off and gyrating up against womanizing, a–hole men, and that’s acceptable. You’re thinking your kids are gonna grow up quicker because they heard the word f— than from thinking they should be shoving their t–s in people’s faces?”
Even without impudent, no-bollocks interviews like this one, Allen would still be galvanizing the media on the strength of Alright, Still, a brash, ribald, thoroughly tuneful CD that’s as exhilarating a debut as we’ve had this decade. No one matches her in capturing what it’s like to be a young woman today, blithely grappling with nightclub catfights, stoned brothers, eccentric grandmas, bonehead exes, and the coming-of-age vagaries of city life. And the fun continues in the video for ”Smile,” in which Allen happily pays a gang to rough up a guy who dumped her. All it took was a black bar over her profanity-miming mouth for American MTV to make Allen the centerpiece of its recent Spankin’ New Music Week.
”She’s the best new artist I’ve heard since Eminem,” raves Randy Newman, an unlikely but ardent fan. ”I know I put too much weight on people who can make me laugh, but she does all that funny, hard-young-girl stuff, and then she can do something that’s a more direct sentiment, too.” Mark Ronson, the DJ/producer who worked on two tracks, insists Allen is her own creation. ”She’s very self-deprecating and doesn’t realize the gift that she has. I’m always laughing, looking at her in her Nike Air Max 95s and big frock, going, I can’t believe this is the vessel for one of the best pop-melody songwriters of a generation.”
One of the first true musical triumphs of the MySpace generation, Allen posted demos on her page and became an international sensation before she ever turned anything in to her record label. Even now, she loves the interaction: In the wee hours after last month’s Saturday Night Live appearance, she wasn’t too tired to log on to her website to correct someone who’d mocked her wig, assuring fans her coiffed ’60s hair was all her own.
So far, the reggae-flavored Alright, Still has been a top 20 seller, partly allaying fears that her attitude and accent might be too English. ”Americans aren’t stupid,” she says. ”It’s not like they can’t get their heads past a couple of elongated vowels.” The week of its release, her label, Capitol, was effectively dismantled in a merger with Virgin. You’d think she’d be kissing the new boss’ bum, but not our Lily. ”They’re all the f—ing same, anyway, aren’t they?” she begins. ”When I was in New York, I got introduced to Jason Flom, who’s the new head of whatever the f— the company is now. [Flom is chairman and CEO of the new Capitol Music Group.] It was weird, because I’ve been with Capitol longer than he has. I just kind of made a joke, like ‘Where’s the other guy gone? Have fun…cheers!”’ We won’t even get into her already legendary candor about fellow artists — labelmates included. (”Why did Corinne Bailey Rae cross the road?” Allen’s been quoted as saying. ”To get to the middle.”)
But Allen swears she’s not trying to be provocative. ”I’m just not capable of drawing the line,” she claims. ”I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t have time to have media training. But I’m just a very honest person. I think as soon as you start keeping things from people, that’s when you get yourself into trouble.”
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Influences As a teen, Allen sang ”White Riot” with three-fourths of the Clash (her parents were pals with Joe Strummer). Her favorite song is Squeeze’s ”Up the Junction”: ”It’s part of why I’m where I am. I listen to it two or three times a week.”
Oh, Brother In her song ”Alfie,” Allen sings, ”My little brother’s in his bedroom smoking weed/I tell him he should get up ‘cos it’s nearly half past three.” On March 1, her sibling, 20, who will appear in The Atonement with Keira Knightley, was charged with assaulting their mother.
Behind Her ”Smile” The hit single is about her first boyfriend, who sold his story about their sex life and Ecstasy use to the British tabloids. ”He was my first love, which felt sacred. I wouldn’t have been so upset if it had been one of the boyfriends after. I didn’t love reading about it in the papers — my grandparents didn’t either.”