It's 'Hard Out Here' For Lily Allen & Myself

Thursday, November 14, 2013

There's been a little flutter of news that Lily Allen has released a new song and video, but this isn't a yawn, roll over, I'll post about it tomorrow kind of deal. For her brand new single the British pop singer returns after a four-year hiatus with a even more highly sharpened tongue for "Hard Out Here" and on this pow-pow pop track she reflects on the standard "music industry is wack" rebel yell --- one that has previously explored just this year on Lorde's "Royals" with great aplomb. Yet, as broken record as this subject is, Allen's spin on this much discussed topic is interesting to say the least, as she takes a stab at the music industry's treatment of women and gets rather rowdy about it --- as do I.

Let me explain....

Stylistically, the song isn't anything above what Lily Allen has done oh, eight years ago, it downright sounds like a throwaway from her 2006 Alright, Still, but "Hard Out Here" is the case of a song's message overshadowing its overall blase structure (see Janelle Monáe's "Q.U.E.E.N." for example), as it boasts lyrics such as "you should probably lose some weight 'cause we can't see your bones" and (my favorite) "if I told you about my sex life, you'd call me a slut, when boys be talking about their bitches, no one's making a fuss". Lyrics that reflect Allen's flair for the witty comedic well, but also make rightful retaliations against misogyny.

What has got people twitching, is the song's accompanying video, which enhances Allen's case about how the music industry suffocates women's abilities to be themselves, in the wake of trying to look absolutely flawless and as erotic as possible for the sake of fame and fortune --- and duh, male consumption. In it, we see Allen go through liposuction, is taught the "right way" to shake her rump and lick particular items --- all of this guided by her "well-meaning" manager. A lot of it feels like a jab towards reality TV culture as well as silently calls out certain exploiters (*cough* Robin Thicke *cough*) and pop tartlets as of current.

In recent months, since Miley Virus Cyrus began wagging her tongue and trying to shed her Disney soft shell, there has been a lot of talk about Cyrus being a bad influence on young girls as well as the term "race appropriation" being tossed around. For young girls, yes, there are a lot of image distortions out there that can give the wrong impressions, and Cyrus, like most pop stars of her ilk, past and present, have been under fire for them, never the mind we shouldn't note them as role models. Yet they are out there and visible, and to some extent do leave impressions.While there is nothing wrong with a woman owning her sexuality and being upfront about it, there are grey areas where that confidence can be taken the wrong way, and thus exploited, and never in the favor of the woman at hand.

On the note of appropriation, I'm one to say, as a Black woman, I find the whole twerking/hip-hop culture baiting business Cyrus' management is concocting as a image shock makeover doesn't subscribe to what is my Black experience. Still, I can understand that others may feel different and I respect that, because those women could be me, could be my family and friends, future generations of girls. Thus, to some extent, Cyrus is just like everyone else who has paraded the objectification of Black women around like it's a circus act, and has gotten away with it, and it's deplorable.

Maybe I'm not wholly offended as hip-hop and its 'cash n' ho' culture approach was always something that didn't resonate with me. Growing up in the '90s in a suburban section of my Texas hometown, I couldn't really grasp the "street life" lyricism that was filling the radios. As hip-hop took over during that decade, gangster rap eclipsing the more conscious acts I grew up listening too, all I heard were supposedly grown men calling women "bitches" and "ho's", lacing their videos with images of women grinding on cars in vulgar sexual acts that were uncomfortable to my young eyes --- and don't get me started on Snoop Dogg treating his women like pets with leashes in tow. Terrible. That wasn't my life, never will be my life. So you can call me obtuse, Oreo cookie, and not "down" (I've been called worse), but those images, that lifestyle just never appealed or applied to me, and seemed offensive as a whole, and like I said, wasn't my Black American experience.

Yet, as racism goes in the US the stereotypes attached to those images were being ascribed to my so-called "sheltered" life, painting me into a neat racialized box, even though I wasn't a part of it. While I appreciate hip-hop's past movement towards its prominent hey-day in the '80s and early '90s, the artists today who don't cheapen the pushed envelope with their rhymes, and the genre's obvious influences in some areas of the music and lifestyle spectrum, it's still a culture that has its problematic moments and a lot of those moments I just cannot stand and support.

In a lot of ways Allen's video is hard to view not because of all the gaudiness and butt jiggling, but the fact that the images we're seeing are something that we've been so conditioned to that it's almost an overload of crassness to the point of ridiculousness. It looks like a parody, something that should have a laugh track behind it, but there is nothing to laugh about as this has been a trend, a culture, a reality, that's been force fed for far too long on impressionable people.

In the context of the song and of Allen's previous riot girl tunes, I don't think Allen meant to be offensive, but I'm not fully in her corner though. I have side-eyed her offensive jab at raptress Azealia Banks when they were in feuding mode (note link is NSFW). Also her open letter response to the criticisms towards "Hard Out Here" doesn't resolve any qualms, but elevates them as she claims that the video isn't about race. Oh, bless your heart, Ms. Allen, but yes, yes, this is about race. In a way, Allen she should have let the video sit and speak for itself, because the lyrics and images tell all I need to know. Still I think Allen didn't set out to offend, in fact I think she was being whole-heartedly progressive in her notion. She is just ignorant to the complexities of this situation as she's not seeing it through the eyes of a woman of color, not seeing it without privilege and ready-made-forgiveness in her wake. Allen probably didn't realize how much of the surface she really did indeed scratch, and how she did drop the ball in a lot of areas as far as a her open letter is concerned. Her ignorance showed when she diminished race in this case, as Black women, once again, felt shut out of the conversation even though they are a huge part of it.

In fact, before I read Allen's open letter, I saw that the first few minutes of the video really do show how all the sexist and racist imagery found in mainstream music is being green-lighted for money sake, without regard for self-awareness --- and that is profound. How this hyping up of women to possess perfect, thin bodies and the over-sexualizing of women, especially the degrading of Black women, in these kinds of settings is warped thinking, and well, she's fed up with it, because how can she as a female artist find her voice when she's being told how she should voice it? Just look at all the champagne and booty popping, all the draping over expensive hot rods, the act of sucking out fat to look unlike yourself --- it's ridiculous, and its been ridiculous, and yeah, it's hard to be on the opposing team, when you have those images being flung at you as if it is the norm.

In a way, Allen shows through this visual, and her song, that all of what we see in these videos sets women entertainers way back, makes us all become one-dimensional ho bags, and how a lot of people (including myself) are rag bone tired of the music industry cheapening women and their bodies and stripping their dignity of self for profit. While I don't need Lily Allen to speak for me as a Black woman (I've got Monáe, TLC, Erykah Badu, and a bevy of other Black women artists and anthems for that, thank you), I appreciate that Allen at least had the gall to throw this out there, even as ill-matched as it is.

Female singers come along with anthems like this every decade --- Madonna with "Express Yourself", Tori Amos with "Cornflake Girl", Queen Latifah with "U.N.I.T.Y.", TLC with "Unpretty", etc. ----, and some are better than others, but these messages are still poignant and timely, and if we continue to have people not get the message, these tunes need to still be made. "Hard Out Here" isn't the greatest pop song to challenge the big bad wolf of the music industry. It's also crass in its delivery from visual alone. Oh, and yes, it is offensive to many, and isn't as envelope pushing as one might like, but what I saw in four and half minutes is what I saw growing up and what I still see now every day --- and yet, we never bat an eye to it, never challenge it. Lily Allen didn't approach this the way everyone wanted it to be, but if we turn the sound off and put the controversy on mute, she's showing the sick and sad reality of how damaging these images are to a lot of people, and that to me, speaks loudest of all.

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