It’s been a hot minute since we last heard from Lily Allen, the British songstress who has built her reputation on her unwillingness to play by the rules that govern today’s celebrity industrial complex. Her last album, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, gleefully genre-hopped from electro to country & western to pure pop, all the while making sly, sarcastic statements about the fetishization of celebrity (“The Fear”), boys who don’t believe in the concept of equality in the bedroom (“Not Fair”), and her issues with the politics of George Bush (“F*** You”). Allen took the last few years off to start a family, but she clearly kept one eye on the way popular culture was evolving (devolving?) while raising her two daughters. Her first statement as a new mom, “Hard Out Here,” dropped yesterday and immediately made waves online thanks to its timely critiques of the likes of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. However, while we applaud the underlying sentiment of the song, we can’t help but feel like the final video treatment ends up betraying the song’s message.
The video opens up with Lily Allen lying prone on an operating table, draped in surgical cloth as she prepares to get liposuction under apparent duress. You see, her white, grey-haired, besuited manager is bemoaning Allen’s inability to get booked on Letterman and Kimmel because her body is not fit enough. This marks the first time that the “Hard Out Here” video hurts its own cause by getting the facts wrong.
As anyone who has watched the musical acts that get booked on late night television programs would attest, looks rarely, if ever, factor into the equation; the reality of the situation is that musical acts are mostly viewed by showrunners as filler, and they’ll book whoever is willing to show up and fill a 4-6 minute segment. This is the type of “bite the hand that feeds you” critique that would make a lot more sense if Allen directed her ire towards the major labels and their partnerships with the advertising community. Case in point: Sure, you’ll hear an incongrous song like “Radioactive” featured in a Beats By Dre commercial starring LeBron James, but you would NEVER see the faces of a band of attractive-enough-yet-ultimately-average-looking band like Imagine Dragons in a commercial of this ilk.
Once the song kicks in, Allen bemoans the double standard she sees in our looks-obsessed culture and how it relates to female musicians. “I don’t need to shake my ass for you / ’Cause I’ve got a brain,” she sings, which she then follows up with “If I told you about my sex life / You’d call me a slut.” Both of these points are spot-on, and we can’t imagine anyone with half a brain arguing against Allen’s commentary on video vixen culture, particularly as it relates to the commodification of female artists as sexual objects. Visually, as she gets the fat sucked from her body, Allen’s eyes keep turning towards a monitor in the operating room that’s showing a bunch of interchangeable African-American women twerking their asses off. This, unfortunately, is where the video trips over its own feet.
At this point, Allen attempts to hammer home her thoughts about the evils of objectification and cultural appropriation, but once again, botches the execution. Her statement that “Don’t you want to have somebody that objectifies you? / Have you thought about your butt? Who’s going to tear it in two?” is obviously dripping with sarcasm, but just as she laments that the only people in videos are Size 6s, she proceeds to insert a bunch of extremely fit and attractive African-American women in the video. Much like you’ve seen in videos like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”—both, it should be noted, were directed by a woman named Diane Martel—the camera here in (male) director Christopher Sweeney’s video tends to gravitate towards the curves not of Allen but of the cadre of ethnic women surrounding her, leering as body parts dripping in champagne shake and jiggle in slo-mo. This is problematic.
Allen is pointing fingers here, railing against anyone and everyone tangentially involved in the rampant explosion of jiggling asses in 2013: music video directors, artists who greenlight and participate in these concepts, greedy corporate suits who will gladly exploit women if it will get them a buck in return, and yes, all of you out there who have tweeted about twerking or “liked” one of these videos along the way. But, as the old saying goes, when you point your finger at something, three end up pointing back toward yourself. Allen’s attempts to have her proverbial cake and eat it, too—think of the caloriesman!—end up ringing false. Instead of succcesfully deploying the concept of parody and flipping the script by, say, showing us visuals of “unattractive” (however you define that) and/or unconventional bodies shaking their thang, Allen ends up being just as guilty of female objectification and cultural appropriation as her targets, especially because she remains mostly clothed while other barely clothed bodies orbit around her. In other words, it’s tough to claim the moral high ground when you end up utilizing the same ground-level tactics as your targets.
All that said, Allen does inject some moments of levity into her otherwise heavy-handed video (moments of which, we would argue, also occur in the likes of “Blurred Lines” and “We Can’t Stop”). Her video’s most triumphant moment needs no explanation or context, so we’re just gonna roll with it:
Don’t get it twisted, we’re still card carrying members of #TEAMLILYALLEN, not to mention #TEAMLILYROSECOOPER. We are head over heels in love with the song, as well as being quite psyched to hear the rest of her upcoming material. There’s nary a doubt in our mind that Lily Allen possesses one of the most refreshing and necessary voices in the music business today, and feel strongly that the core message of “Hard Out Here,” lyrically and musically, is delivered in a successful manner. We just lament the fact that the video undercuts the effectiveness of her overall statement by not practicing what Lily is preaching, that’s all.