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‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’: How Lily Allen Defied Her Stereotype
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In Depth

‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’: How Lily Allen Defied Her Stereotype

A direct challenge to her critics, Lily Allen’s second album, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’, proved she was far more than met the eye.

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If there is a theme on Lily Allen’s incisive second album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, it’s of an artist fighting for her identity. Caught between expectations and authenticity, the album explores Allen’s own (often contradictory) feelings on fame, honesty and stereotypes to create a modern classic of British pop music at the end of the 2000s.

Listen to ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ here.

The backstory: “It’s difficult to backtrack out of that typecast”

The start of Lily Allen’s career had been at the very vanguard of a new way of doing things in the music industry; her success catalysed the use of social media in developing and promoting artists. While Allen had signed a more-or-less traditional record deal, she did not wait for established paths to open out. Instead, she started putting demos up on MySpace. The interest in Allen quickly mushroomed, and the demos turned into Alright, Still – the best debut album of 2006.

It wasn’t only the songs that appealed. Allen was as candid in her blogs as she was in her lyrics. Her portrait of chaotic, vulnerable young womanhood was disarming, and many people her age found wisdom in her words. As Allen’s fame grew, however, her blog entries attracted intense press interest. “It definitely became annoying when I would write something and it would end up in the tabloids the next day, completely twisted around,” she told Pitchfork in 2006. “It’s like, fuck off!”

Quickly, Allen felt herself being pigeonholed. “In England, when you become a celebrity, your name is automatically followed by the way in which you’re typecast,” she said. “I’m always, ‘Lily Allen, potty-mouthed, pint-sized pop diva, daughter of Keith.’ It’s difficult to backtrack out of that typecast – and it’s wrong.”

The album title: “I’m not writing all of these songs as if they were from my perspective”

Because this crude caricature of Allen was so often in the press, it was assumed that her lyrics formed a running commentary on her own life. They did not. Many of Allen’s songs used themes that affected her, but often the incidents or feelings she explored weren’t directly autobiographical. As she has clearly said: “I’m not writing all of these songs as if they were from my perspective.”

Frustration with misconceptions was one influence on the title of It’s Not Me, It’s You. “There’s many many many meanings behind it,” Lily Allen said of the album’s name. While she acknowledged that it was a play on the classic breakup excuse, she also said it related to viewpoint and projection. “I think sometimes people think of me as someone I’m not,” she said, “and it’s me saying, that’s a character. That’s not me. In fact, it’s you.”

The early songs: “I’ve grown up a bit as a person and I hope it reflects that”

Second albums, particularly those created in the afterglow of a successful debut, often have a difficult gestation. Added to this, Lily Allen had experienced numerous personal and professional challenges in the latter half of the 2000s that knocked out some of the carefree confidence of Alright, Still. “I think I’ve grown up a bit as a person and I hope it reflects that,” she said of her second album, in a statement ahead of its release.

This transition was apparent in a song that appeared on Allen’s MySpace in 2008, I Don’t Know. In it, Allen not only recites her own personal experiences of the media and celebrity, but transforms them into a parable of fame-obsessed cultural damage. This song would become The Fear, the first single released from It’s Not Me, It’s You.

As Allen explained, the inspiration for The Fear came when she saw a little girl wearing “high-waisted hot pants and a little crop top. And I just thought, That’s not really right. And I could tell she was the kind of girl that would be trying out for Pop Idol in five years’ time, and wants to be famous when she grows up.” Yet Allen also knew that she herself might be one of the people that the little girl was inspired by. “I’m very aware that I am a part of that culture – but it’s not something that I feel particularly comfortable with,” she said.

Alongside I Don’t Know, Allen debuted I Could Say and Guess Who Batman on MySpace, both of which would be reworked for It’s Not Me, It’s You (Guess Who Batman gained a new title: Fuck You). The latter, in particular, featured one of Allen’s more pointed lyrics, initially written specifically about George W Bush and the British National Party; however, Allen said later that the song’s sentiment, against racism and prejudice from those in power, was depressingly relevant in so many more contexts.

The sound: “The record is quite fun”

Allen did not wish to repeat the sound of Alright, Still on It’s Not Me, It’s You, but neither she did seek out change for its own sake. She had been encouraged by her record company to experiment with different writers and producers, but she ultimately decided to rekindle her working relationship with Greg Kurstin, with whom she’d collaborated on her debut. “Greg builds the chords up and I just sing along and make up the words,” she said in 2008. “And then once you’ve got the bare song, we decide which way we’re gonna go with the production.”

Musically, It’s Not Me, It’s You is eclectic. “The record is quite fun,” Allen said, “with loads of different types of music – country, jazz, and electronic.” It was the country influence that drew most comment, particularly on the track Not Fair. Dealing with the narrator’s sexual frustration, Not Fair draws from the tradition of straight-talking country women, such as Jeannie C Riley and Dolly Parton, and was accompanied by a vintage-styled video reimagining Allen as a guest on a 60s Nashville TV show.

The release: “I need to believe what I’m singing”

While pinpoint observation and satire suffuse It’s Not Me, It’s You, there is also balance, with emotional heft in a song such as Chinese (written about Allen’s mother). Together, it all makes It’s Not Me, It’s You a beautifully rounded work. “We decided to try and make bigger sounding, more ethereal songs, real songs,” she said in a statement accompanying the album’s release, on 4 February 2009.

When she reflects on the relationship between her life and her art, Allen knows that the authenticity of feeling – whether calling out rogues or expressing her own insecurities – is important in her songwriting. “I wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t my songs,” Allen said of the tracks on It’s Not Me, It’s You. “I wouldn’t have any interest in it. When I’m onstage, I need to believe what I’m singing. And if somebody else has written the song, I wouldn’t be able to carry it off with any conviction.”

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