Lily Allen’s “Sheezus”: Feminist Anthem or Controversy-Courting Gimmick?

Lily Allen has proven herself to be a complicated artist in recent months. First there was her comeback single, “Hard Out Here,” which she dropped, along with a video, to much surprise. I immediately applauded the song itself, even enjoying aspects of the cheeky video, which seemed to reinforce what I loved about Allen when she released her debut in 2006. But the video caused controversy; was it making a statement about the current state of pop music, particularly the treatment of women within the genre, without recognizing the racist undertone in the way it depicted women of color twerking behind Allen? Months after the “Hard Out Here” controversy has died down, Allen has released the video for “Sheezus,” the title track of her new album, and it’s likely to cause a similar sort of debate. 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kPQiAJv4fo]

The song immediately sets up Lily Allen as a contender in a boxing match, with the singer slurring lines like, “Lace up my gloves, I’m going in/ Don’t let me kids watch me when I get in the ring.” After three verses of a boxing motif, she finally gets to the core of the song with the chorus, in which she calls out her contemporaries (or, at least, those she views as her peers):

Ri-Ri isn’t scared of Katy Perry’s roaring
Queen B’s going back to the drawing
Lorde smells blood, yeah, she’s about to slay you
Kid ain’t one to fuck with when she’s only on her debut

We’re all watching Gaga, L-O-L-O, haha
Dying for the art, so really she’s a martyr
The second best will never cut it for the divas
Give me that crown, bitch, I wanna be Sheezus

Hearing these words combined with the “ratchet” look Allen is rocking in the video put me off. It feels a bit unnecessary to go after Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Lorde, and Lady Gaga, especially given that all five are, at this point in their careers, drastically different from each other and Lily Allen. Yet she’s bashing them, picking a fight and coming for their crowns, and it seems a little unjustified. It immediately made me think of something Kathleen Hanna complains about in The Punk Singer, the documentary about her life and career, in which she says (and I paraphrase) that it’s an easy journalistic trick to ask one female musician about another in order to print that she’s bashing another woman. Yet Lily Allen does that her of her own volition, and it seems a bit sophomoric, to be honest.

Of course, immediately after the first chorus, Allen switches gears. “I’m ready for all the comparisons,” she sings. “I think it’s dumb and it’s embarrassing.” There’s a certain level of self-awareness here, until she starts making a two-verse joke about menstruation. So, is that the point? That she’s only calling out her pop-star peers because we expect her to? Is it just satire — just one big yawn about a music industry that pits women against each other when all they really have in common is their periods?

I’m not quite sure, and I don’t quite buy it. This is the problem that has followed Lily Allen throughout her entire career — the self-awareness isn’t fully articulated, and her message gets muddled by the rest of her act: the cultural appropriation, her dismissal of those who thoughtfully critique what she is presenting, the ephemera of her lyrics. The latter is the part that is the most frustrating here, and why I think, ultimately, “Sheezus” doesn’t work: it’s likely to have a short life, if only because a critique of the music industry and its long-standing problems is a bit undercut by name-dropping current artists and spoofing a Kanye West album title. It’s parody, sure, but it’s also super gimmicky; in ten years, will anyone care about “Sheezus”? Probably not.

On the one hand, good for Lily Allen for feeling comfortable enough not to play the nice girl. But at the same time, is it necessary to bash those who by all accounts are more successful than she is, either for the sake of making a point or, more likely, causing controversy to sell some records? Lily Allen is trying to have it both ways, but the latter motive is utterly transparent here, and that’s what bums me out about her latest. By all means, be a commercial artist, but don’t shit on your peers and claim they’re your competitors in verse while bemoaning, on and off the mic, how terrible the system is.