On Lily Allen (and feminism, genitalia balloons and other things we’ve never thought about)

Lily Allen released her first single in four years this week. And go figure, none of us are talking about that particular part of her backstory and what her new single “Hard Out Here” means in the grand scale of her musical career. I suppose that makes sense. Most of the backlash behind “Hard Out Here” may be apocryphal in its nature. Allen’s intent is to satirize the objectification of mainstream culture (although she mostly accuses hip-hop of it, if the video is to be the judge). Naturally, the response generated is more because she’s willing to use the idea of women of color to play with that satire. Also, because the satire and the song aren’t very good.

Of course, this is a very thin line in satire as is. It’s hard to make something that is funny, pointed, and topical all at once. It’s a wonder it can be done at all. “Hard Out Here” tries its best to use Allen’s instinct for biting humor, but is not remotely close to her predecessors. I don’t see often in the debate of whether or not the video is racist that Allen has tried this before, albeit more generalized in songs from her still very good 2009 album It’s Not Me, It’s You. She’s made a very strong case in the past for attacking the Hollywood complex of stars over the rest of us and seems to use the pop form to best attach that motif to millions. Of course, most looked past Allen and she’s more noted for this one incident, it seems, than ever before.

That is not to say that I blame those who immediately praise or dismiss the song. I don’t think it’s very good, and the satirical images are still a bit goofy. (Wahey, here’s someone pouring champagne on a nearly exposed ass. Satire!) But I’m more disappointed that the music isn’t there. For as awful as it sounds, I can forgive a lot of failed intent, casual sexism and misogyny, etc. in popular music because even problematic works tend to have interesting ideas. It is awful that Kanye West is obsessed with sexualizing women while attacking materialism. But at the same time, music (like other media) is often about confronting non-ideal depictions in life. We want media to change and be more inclusive, because it makes it better for all of us. I’d love to see a Le Tigre out there all of the time or feminist video game makers or stories about undermined cultures. But sometimes, the bigger difficulty is in realizing what is and isn’t worth dismissing.

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Certainly, Allen’s white privilege makes her an easy target in this matter. The parody Twitter account White Feminist quipped that “Hard Out Here” is her new empowerment anthem, exposing the bigger rift between those popular in mainstream culture for feminism (Lena Dunham, Jezebel, Allen herself, etc.) and those who feel those names fail to incorporate intersectionality in their feminism. I don’t know where I fall on all of these ideas, but it is worth exploring by someone who could rightfully discuss intersectional feminisms in music. I think this is the beacon call for Ann Powers.

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