The Unglamorous World of Noughties Pop – A Breakdown of Lily Allen’s Autobiography

Lily Allen

As the title suggests, ‘My Thoughts Exactly’ is an autobiography that’s frank, honest and unapologetic.

I’ve never been one for autobiographies, but Lily Allen’s experience in the spotlight has always intrigued me. Cool, liberal and grounded, she’s been at the core of a male-dominated industry and at the mercy of the press for almost 15 years now. Since obsessing over her debut album ‘Alright, Still’ in my primary school days, the star has remained on my radar while growing up. This involved listening to her latest songs on Radio 1, watching her perform at festivals on TV and of course, spotting her name in gruelling, hate-fuelled headlines. Her autobiography has opened up a new set of stories that exist beyond the tabloid’s tales and it certainly shatters the glamour associated with noughties pop stars.

A young woman ahead of her time, but unprepared for what was ahead

Pyramid stage slots at Glastonbury, a vintage fashion label and even campaigns with Chanel – Lily has an eclectic repertoire of work up her sleeve, all of which came about by unashamedly being herself. This rings true in her very first songs ‘Smile’ and ‘LDN’, which she recorded in Manchester in her late teens. She speaks about how naturally the lyrics came to her, because it was all there in her head. One goes into the gritty depths of a breakup, while the other describes her observations in the streets around her.

The songs were written and recorded before securing a record deal, which resulted in her doing so without any expectations and without knowing all the rules. She reveals that the ‘la la la la la la la la la…’ section in ‘Smile’ was entirely improvised after a hurried call with her manager, because she wasn’t sure what the ‘middle eighth’ of a song was. She was free as a bird, singing about things that meant something to her, while being completely unhampered by any external pressures.

‘Who the fuck is Lily Allen?’

Despite her effortless songwriting abilities, her entrance into the music industry was far from extravagant. After months of searching, she was signed by Parlophone in a five-album contract for a measly £25,000. She immediately knew her place and took it in her stride by getting her head down. After all, she was a small fish in a pond submerged with the likes of Gorillaz, Coldplay and All Saints.

While her management ignored her existence, she put her energy into uploading songs onto Myspace. It was a revolutionary platform in the world of noughties social media and it enabled her to build a loyal fanbase. Thousands were streaming her songs and eventually, with the help of Parlophone, she released ‘LDN’ as a seven-inch vinyl. All 500 copies sold out immediately. People were listening and they were interested, but there was still a way to go.

Carving out her own entrance

For Lily, Myspace didn’t just draw in listeners, it escalated her career. Never mind today’s influencers on Instagram, she was one of the first stars to reap the seeds of social media. A young journalist called Rosie Swash was equally ahead of the game and messaged the singer directly – she was a writer for the Observer Music Monthly and saw potential for a great feature. Lily had no press photos to hand, so the pair set up their own photoshoot at her Mum’s house.

A prom dress, trainers and chunky gold jewellery – it’s a look we all associate with the artist in the early stages of her career. She rocked it at a whole host of festivals, including her Glastonbury debut in 2007. The look rebelled against the classic pop star image and more importantly, it gave her a sense of identity amidst the wash of talent around her. This came in especially handy when her OMM article resulted in a front-page feature with the magazine. Writer Miranda Sawyer understood exactly what Lily Allen was about and as a result, her management finally did too.

Lingering Britpop misogyny

Finally, her fame had taken off and with it came a new set of hurdles. Her whirlwind entrance into the spotlight has similarities to Caitlin Moran’s latest book ‘How to be Famous’, which brings to light the gritty misogyny of mid-90s Britpop. The noughties were a lot better of course, but women in the industry were and still are restricted, as Lily never fails to mention in her interviews. She’s explained multiple times that the industry has made her more of a feminist. The boys are allowed to misbehave, mirroring the sex, drugs and booze-ridden culture of Britpop Britain, but a female getting involved? Disgraceful.

On one hand, female artists were flourishing and beginning to diversify. From Girls Aloud to Amy Winehouse, there was hot competition at the time. Except this was the issue – the girls were grouped as one entity and were compared against each other, rather than against the boys. Looking back, Lily resents the fact that glamorous girl bands could wear skimpy outfits and be praised for it, but at the same time acknowledges her own privileges. She could write her own songs and ultimately have more power over her music compared to more manufactured pop groups. That goes without saying that Lily and her female peers were equally at risk from the unforgiving pursuits of the British press.

Being hounded by the press

The rock and roll lifestyle is reserved exclusively for men. Any woman partying late into the night is seen as ten times more vulgar. In Lily’s case, she found herself unable to recognise the woman who was being portrayed in these stories and named her ‘Cartoon Lily’. She’s had to endure images of her vagina in national newspapers, created using flash photography and invasive angles. Even the teen magazines weren’t accepting of Lily – she was never placed on the pedestal next to well behaved pop stars who kept their mouths shut and looked pretty all the time. This is the Lily Allen I remember in the press while growing up, someone who was shaped as a grotesque woman with bad manners.

Her private life was just as much of a commodity. The Sun rang her agent to confirm whether she was pregnant, ahead of a story they were about to run. Completely boggled as to why they would think that, she begged them not to run the story, but a week later realised she was indeed pregnant. This meant they had somehow found out before she had. The whole ordeal resulted in a fake miscarriage and the end of her then relationship. Not only was the press warping her past reality with false narratives, they were now affecting her reality there and then.

Caving in to the pressures created by the media

In her book, ‘Cartoon Lily’ is described as a tabloid editor’s dream, not just because of her party girl lifestyle, but because of her ever-changing physical appearance. A particularly harrowing section focuses on the paparazzi – ‘a wall of men’ – who would wait outside her flat, ready to capture the next headline. She’d dye her hair whacky colours. She’d make the effort to look nice. She’d go out looking rough with no make-up at all. It was all open to a brand new narrative that she had absolutely no control over.

Unfortunately, the media’s scrutiny can lead to an all-too-familiar rhetoric, resulting in unhealthy relationships with body image. Lily admits to being bulimic for a number of years as a result of these pressures. She’d also take sleeping pills so that she could avoid eating for days on end. Reading this highlighted the sheer power that the press have over their victims. Although her autobiography was released in 2018, reading it in 2020 felt uncomfortably close to home, given Caroline Flack’s death earlier this year.

Looking back and taking things forward

It’s clear from reading her book that Lily has had a rollercoaster of a journey, yet she accepts responsibility for every action she’s taken. She goes into depth about so many different themes – marriage, divorce, sex, growing up, drugs, mental health, motherhood, stalking, abuse, you name it. She covered a lot of her journey unknowingly in her 2009 single ‘The Fear’, a song she herself claims was ahead of its time, with lyrics that delve into the broad spectrum of fame, from the good to the bad.

It’s clear that letting people in to this extent is something she feels strongly about, so that she can give readers context beyond the headlines while opening up about the dark side of the music industry, both in a professional and personal sense. Her writing is compelling and engaging, which I suppose was to be expected, given her natural ability to translate her thoughts into such clever and culturally-relevant lyrics.

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