“Fuck you male misogynistic bloggers, man — seriously”
That “seriously,” like the Y in YHWH, will unlock the hidden significance of Sheezus (and we are talking about Y and its absence, chromosome-wise). To say an album is essential is lazy — the interesting and difficult question is, what essence are we ever talking about? In fact, the pop vista is rarely defined purely, or at all, by the musical quality of its crags and monoliths — if such absolute values are even measurable. Rather, it’s always a question of contrasts. And it’s the lack thereof that gives a particular piece a quality of essence, of heart, of heart which is not only the “authentically” clichéd emotions of the performer, many hearts beating as one, but also that which beats with vitality, which heralds and symbolises tectonic shifts taking place beneath the cultural landscape. Sheezus, regardless of its purely aesthetic interest, boldly stakes a claim and strikes gold in a moment in which tension between politics and prejudice is breaching in pop culture. To put it as plainly as she herself does: Lily Allen is perhaps the only mainstream pop performer who is, without mincing words or donning veils of ambiguity, actually and overtly challenging sexism and misogyny in the contemporary cultural landscape.
In a milieu in which objectification is sold back as post/feminist empowerment, in which self-objectifying transgression passes as radical, Allen stands alone. Lorde is another light, admittedly, but Allen, in contrast and as we’ll see, is beginning to explore a radical domesticity that builds on early stardom’s waning, the late style of early life: lateness as opposition, lateness that displays “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.”
And while it’s fantastic to see Beyoncé write on feminism and quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it’s still not really clear what she’s trying to do or how this fits with the rest of her persona, allowing this stance to be read as an interesting but eminently challengeable curio.
Allen’s message, on the other hand, is unmistakable. In saying that, it’s worth noting that it’s not a competition between female — or indeed any — artists to prove their feminist credentials, even if competition is the subject of Allen’s titular claim to the crown (of thorns). Although given that all the artists I’ve just mentioned are women, it might be refreshing if we were to see this kind of Paris-in-reverse process among male artists.
The reference to Kanye West’s Yeezus has been curiously unexamined in most reviews of the album. Allen addresses a culture that is on the brink of post-feminist in the worst sense, in which sexist objectification is no object to critical darlinghood, warranting an aside at most; in which Blurred Lines have become herd lines:
“Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? …
We’ve never had it so good, uh-huh, we’re out of the woods
And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’ve misunderstood”
But where Yeezus is anything but ironic, chronically incapable of meaningful self-interrogation or introspection, it’s Allen’s employment of those latter qualities, taken alongside an unmistakable politics, which mean that it’s precisely in challenging the establishment’s attitude toward sexism in popular music that Allen sets herself apart.
Kanye himself, as well as Tyler, The Creator (not to mention Pitchfork), are dismissed on “URL Badman” (one of the album’s highlights), a caustic, sarcastic take on the all-too-familiar misogynist internet troll:
“Real talk, I’ll put the world to rights
And when I’m a big boy I’m gonna write for Vice”
The very ridiculousness of her language throughout hits the bullseye of the maturity of the mentality she’s addressing. Playful yet clarion, pop like Allen’s transubstantiates (consubstantiates? let’s not argue over Sheezus) the ideologically unsound punk of Vi Subversa, the uncomfortable and jokey ska of The Slits, the abject-not-abject feminine of Ludus.
But as well as its politics, it’s Sheezus’ “human, all too human” awkwardness that makes it vital. Its messiness is not the typical and above-mentioned messiness of Ophelia-as-transgressive. That archetype is not to be dismissed, because it’s one that is deeply identifiable for many, but it has its own shaky political foundations that tend to go unrecognized. The originality of Allen’s disarray, rather, lies in domesticity. Which other pop singer writes songs wearily about being “head to toe in baby food” and too tired for lovin’ (“Life For Me”) or cheerily about the universality of menstruation (on the title track)?
As an album, Sheezus may not have the stylistic consistency or the keep-em-comin’ pop hooks of Allen’s earlier works. But that’s not why it’s critically important — to argue that that is a laurel reserved solely for works that are aesthetically perfect (a nebulous prey at best) would be mistaking the purpose of criticism as analysis. The smoking gun for this claim is found in a meta-moment that is paradoxically precisely authentic, inasmuch as a detached reflection, which is usually considered intellectual rather than emotional, pretentious rather than heartfelt, proves to be key.
How so? Allen herself has identified her very own songs as “docile pop rubbish” that doesn’t match up to the past. This kind of meta-honesty is what’s lacking in a period in which the postmodern is usually identified as being expressed in works that simply embody existing structures, while chopping and screwing them around the edges (ahem, vaporwave). This is a capitulation to what is a failure of agency and of imagination precisely in its role as a stepping-outside, as a vision of reality that recognizes the situation, the ground, but that imagines difference. Allen’s meta-honesty accomplishes the latter in a way that is at once quixotic and reflective of a triumph of feminist politics that is already in the process of being accomplished, but that has yet to come to popular attention. The discourses we inhabit are the limits of our imagination, and hence we’re doomed to fail, to docility, yet the more rigid the carapace, the more fragile, the more prone to cracks that let the light in.
Even the album’s weakest moments (Allen calls them “saccharine and beige”) feel excruciating only in the same way comedy does that strikes a nerve; even as Allen crows over her wedding ring and maternity as a symbol of romantic possession, she’s still singing about female pleasure as female pleasure (“He’s going nowhere till this fat lady sings”) rather than as a reflection of male pleasure; the obverse of an all-too-familiar trope in which the most spectacular sex is that which happens while blacked out, where the pleasure of being gazed upon and thereby objectified and instrumentalized is the only pleasure there is or possibly can be.
Thus, each contradiction reveals a perhaps-unintended (but is that really important?) strategic quality: on “Insincerely Yours,” Allen tells us how boring the perfect plastic magazine lives of B-Grade celebrities are, while paeaning her own elsewhere on the album. But at the same time, the song rips down the great Romantic myth that being an artist is somehow not a career, is separate from economy (not that music itself is separate from the economy — we’re all aware that it is not, and we have been for some time — but the actual labor of artists themselves).
And speaking of contradictions, the furore over race in Allen’s clip for “Hard Out Here” is important, because it’s the responsibility of empathy to listen to the voices of fellow humans who are hurt by our actions, rather than dismiss the unknowability of others’ experience in order to make ourselves judges of whether they should feel offended. This is a particular problem in the music criticsphere, which tends to see “call-out culture” as somehow worse than prejudice. The rage that’s felt by those in privileged positions who are increasingly forced to recognize and hear the actual voices of those who aren’t is evidence that the fight of the former is a rearguard action, a losing battle. At the same time, though, this message is not often made known overtly, in music itself, in imagery and particularly in lyrics. So in another sense, it’s a shame that that debate, and Allen’s tone-deaf response, overshadowed the recognition that, vis-à-vis gender, the song was doing and achieving something unique in the cultural landscape.
But what I’ve just described as Allen’s tone-deafness also gives her work its strength. She’s not twisted up in cultural frames of reference that allow one to conveniently interpret absolutely any act as somehow subversive or empowering. There’s a blunt-force interrogation of culture here, which is finally most apparent on the title track and on that single, “Hard Out Here.” Every time Allen enunciates the word “bitch” — confronting the listener with the social reality of misogyny bang on the album’s catchiest pop song — it sends a slight shudder of revulsion through the listener. As it should.