I was greeted on my lunch break with an absolute thrill: British pop artist Lily Allen released her first single in almost five years. I began listening to “Hard Out Here” at 1 p.m. I haven’t stopped since.
“Hard Out Here” a sharp takedown of the misogyny that dominates popular media, but Lily’s lyrics, both corrosive and clever, also use satire to deconstruct representations of women and insert her own agency within the remaining rubble of ambiguity.
Here’s what I mean.
The main idea is a giant middle finger to the patriarchal notion that somehow men are of greater value then women, which can be summed up with the lyric, “Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits.” This is, of course, a reversal of the phrase “Grow a pair of balls,” which is roughly translated to, “Man is power.” The line sets the tone for the entire song: it is a parody piece, sarcasm dripping throughout.
Despite the fact that the song came out approximately twelve hours ago, I’ve already read a substantial amount of criticism about the lyrics and music video. The backlash argues that although Lily recognizes the binaries into which women are classified, she shames women who do not fit her ideal of women-who-challenge-patriarchal-values.
Take the second verse:
You’re not a size six,
And you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich
Or real good at cooking
You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face
Or you’ll end up on your own.
Those who insinuate that Lily bashes skinny women are missing the point: Lily’s target is not women (size 6 or size 20), but instead she attacks the powerful forces that constantly perpetuate the hierarchy that values a woman who is size 6 over one who is size 20. (Size 6 in the U.K., by the way, is equivalent to size 2 in the States.) She’s not shaming women who receive plastic surgery, but she is blasting a culture that tells women to match a standard or else end up dying alone.
The beginning of the song has garnered quite a bit of attention as well: “I suppose I should tell you what this bitch is thinking/ You’ll find me in the studio, not in the kitchen/ I won’t be bragging about my cars, or talking about my chains/No need to shake my ass for you, ’cause I’ve got a brain.” Some find fault with this part of the song because it does not appear to match the same sarcastic tone that follows in the rest of the song. Then, these fault-finders say, Lily is smearing women who do prefer to spend time in the kitchen, or those who do enjoy twerking. Plus, several argue, having a brain and “shaking one’s ass” are not mutually exclusive. It’s internalized misogyny, they say, elevating your own behavior while condemning the choices of other women.
I’m not convinced that the first verse doesn’t fit the satirical bill. It’s the personal pronoun “I” that seems to detach these lyrics from the song’s parody, which removes a layer of separation from Lily (the narrator) and the text (the song). This is where it gets complicated, and this is what Lily is so brilliantly capable of doing.
Remember Lily’s first single from her last album? “The Fear” was a post-modern take on the encompassing nature of consumerism. At first Lily creates a dynamic of duality: “I wanna be rich, and I want lots of money/I don’t care about clever, I don’t care about funny.” Materialism and money is set up as desirable, whereas having a personality or asserting one’s individuality is undesirable. Upon a first listen to the song, one assumes, “That’s satire. Surely somebody wouldn’t be so callously shallow.” She continues to sing, “And I’ll take my clothes off, and it will be shameless,/ ‘Cause everyone know’s that’s how you get famous,” which, again, seems like a moralistic criticism of a culture that values women as objects, especially because Lily made her own fame back in 2005 by way of talent on Myspace. Fair enough, though here’s a sobering fact: Lily has definitely appeared topless in photo shoots before. Oh. Perhaps the lines that she’s drawing aren’t so clear. Further on, lyrics such as “I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore” or “Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner” further deconstruct the ethical binary built up at the beginning of the song. Her participation in the song’s irony at once creates a moralistic worldview and an ambivalence toward this worldview as she cannot break reality from representation.
In terms of “Hard Out Here,” a similar dynamic is at play. The first verse mimics worn binaries of women, and Lily seems to identify with the woman who goes to work and uses her brain. Of course, this is further complicated by Lily’s past songs (which deal explicitly with sex) and her home life (she took a four year hiatus from work after she gave birth to two girls). It becomes increasingly difficult to define her stance; ultimately the ambiguity breaks down the binaries she mirrors at the song’s start. The moralistic tone is only a part of her mimicry. When her position becomes ambivalent, the moralism is abandoned.
Finally, we approach the most prominent criticism. As one Twitter user put it: “‘i’m not going to shake my ass for you because i have a brain’>has black women twerking next to her and grinding on her.” This refers to the music video, also released today, which features several women of color doing just that. As it happens, the music video is just as much of a parody as the song itself. Moreover, it engages with the political world of pop music and other artists currently in the spotlight; the exaggerated nature of the twerking and Lily’s outrageous treatment of the dancers calls to mind Miley Cyrus’ controversial use of black women as props in her act. The video is mocking Cyrus, not celebrating her actions. Moreover, the video shows the absurdity of an aging white man instructing the dancers on how to twerk for the satisfaction of the camera (the male gaze, if you will). The producer illustrates that this representation of women’s bodies in popular culture is a conscious manipulation created by people in corporations who know that these images will produce a certain kind of impact. If anything, Lily reveals that the problem is intentional and systemic.
Lily not only responds to Miley Cyrus, but she also throws some major shade at Robin Thicke’s sexist summer hit “Blurred Lines.” In his music video, a naked model dances around giant silver balloons that spell out “Robin Thicke had a big dick.” Lily does the same, although her ballons read, “Lily Allen has a baggy pussy.” What a woman. The lyrics also directly respond to T.I.’s violent rap verse “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Lily sings, “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt, who’s gonna tear it in two?” Fair point, fair Lily.
The producer character in the music video also directs Lily to wear chains, dance around a sports car, and stuff money into the bras of her dancers, imitating the very displays of male power that Lily claims she won’t be doing at the beginning of her song. Once again, we see mimicry…and this behavior seems downright ridiculous. Rather, Lily finds her power in her voice within the space she creates with her intentional ambiguity–she is not here to tell women how to act, but to take down the rhetoric (and its material infestations) of misogyny.
Lily’s chorus sums up the complexity of a woman’s place in a society that regularly villainizes women and feminism: “It’s hard out here for a bitch.” The ambivalence that she creates by satire breaks down the binaries established by the dominant culture, but at the same time, she recognizes the danger of dictating or condemning the actions of other women. It’s complicated. Some are convinced that the irony of her song is not spelled out clearly enough, and thus her images are perpetuating the very sexism and racism that Lily attempts to dispel. I, on the other hand, believe that she succeeds in her parody. Either way, Lily is one of today’s best pop musicians, not only because her music dazzles, but also because she incites compelling conversation.
What do you think? Does Lily win or fail in her effort at satire?