I had planned on discussing another book this month but then I happened to start reading ‘My Thoughts Exactly’ by Lily Allen and after finishing it in one sitting I knew I had to write about this blisteringly brilliant biography. In the introduction Lily explains the reasons behind her decision to write her story. I am writing this because writing is what I do, it’s both my living and the way I live, the way I make sense of things, the way I try to learn my lessons. Biography becomes another way to express her art, her truth. Women in music need a voice like Lily’s to be heard, someone who has been through the intense scrutiny of fame and survived.
Lily’s childhood was ridiculously privileged in the cultural sense – she is the daughter of Keith Allen and film producer mother Alison, who were friends with an array of artists, actors, musicians and nightclub owners. Sure she wasn’t rich but she had connections few could dream of. Her first experience of music was actually being taken to TOTP as a child. Yet her father is a shadowy presence in her life, and this book. He got her a record deal as a teenager but in reality he offered her little support in her life – one of the most heartbreaking moments is when Lily tells the story of how he refused to watch her headlining set at Latitude even though he was at the festival. There are some amusing anecdotes about his notorious debauchery but otherwise you get the impression she could say what she liked about him as he is unlikely to care enough to read her book anyway.
In terms of how she actually became successful that was down to her own tenacity and individuality – the name helped but it can only get you so far. Lily capitalised on the mid noughties rise of My Space, where she uploaded the tracks her record label weren’t interested in releasing. Soon she was so popular online that the press came to her – she didn’t even have official photos they could use such was the paltry £25,000 five album deal she had signed. She made things happen for herself, and then the record label started to help promote her, with Smile eventually hitting number one.
Lily’s honest and sometimes refreshingly immature lyrics were what made her special, as she always reflected who she really was in her songs. And she is still as strong as ever when it comes to her songwriting. I am always knocked out by some of the biting truths she sings, like on Apples from her last album. In the book she writes What I love is seeing people connect with the lyrics I’ve written. Writing songs is cathartic, but nothing compares to someone else responding to them. And having seen Lily live at Glastonbury I can say that even when she was struggling in her personal life and career, she still had enough sass and sparkle to connect with the crowd.
This book is illuminating about the troubles a woman faces in the music industry but where it really soars is her unflinching assessment of tabloid fame. Her naivety, openness and honesty was constantly exploited. Her every word and movement was turned into a story that made her look even more wild and crazy than she really was. Plus she had no support network to help her deal with the headlines, explaining If you’re totally strong and stable, you can dismiss all this noise. If you come from a secure, grounded background, and you’ve got a great support system in place, then fame may well be a breeze. I wouldn’t know. She admits her own mistakes, and apologises for things like insulting people she’d never met on her blog. The idea of a celebrity writing nasty blog posts about rivals seems archaic in our world of preprogrammed social media perfection.
In fact it’s hard to imagine a new artist like Lily Allen ever succeeding now. Her and Amy Winehouse were the last of the really rebellious pop stars. Lily writes how she felt it was sexist and unfair that she was always compared to Any Winehouse, especially when their music was different. She argues that the music industry didn’t support her, as it preferred its females compliant and subservient, hungry – and preferably a bit cold and shivery on account of not wearing enough clothes.
Of course you look around the charts now and see exactly those kind of women dominating – times have moved on and Lily too has found her music struggling in the streaming era. What’s different now is that social media presents an illusion of intimacy but actually pop stars are more guarded from exposing themselves to the type of tabloid fame that destroyed Amy and took Lily to the brink. Maybe that’s how you survive the pop world unscathed. Expressing your true self might be artistically vital but personally destructive.
And so yes the book also explores Lily’s personal life in riveting, shocking and harrowing detail. The story of the heartbreaking death of her child will stay with me for a long time. Her rush into marriage and parenthood after this trauma of course only leads her to further chaos. Her marriage breakup and difficulties with motherhood are perhaps inevitable but painful to read. And it’s impossible not to be shocked by the frightening experience she went through with her stalker and outraged by the lack of reaction from the police.
And yet despite the horrors Lily Allen is a survivor. She didn’t turn to heroin or suicide or whatever else killed so many in the spotlight. Lily can still speak out. You can’t hurt someone with the truth when they already admit it themselves. Maybe you get trolled to the end of time but when you don’t hide anything from yourself or the world they don’t have anything left to hurt you with. You endure.
I was just reading this week about how journalists are bemoaning the fact that the celebrity profile is dead. In a way I think it’s an inevitable response to our clickbait culture. Why should the artist expose themselves for someone else’s gain? Look what happens when women speak out about their private life: they are then criticised anyway as exploiting their own suffering just to get attention. Such hypocrisy from the media only makes interviews less likely. If women’s lives are going to be used to make money then at least by writing an autobiography or posting on your own social media it is the person who has lived the life who earns, instead of the magazines and newspapers who have done their best to destroy them.
There’s a line Lily writes in the book which I think it is so so true, When women tell their stories, loudly and clearly and honestly, things begin to change – for the better. The collective art of speaking out and speaking up should never be underestimated. Few of us might think they could ever have the unflinching bravery to write as she does on ‘My Thoughts Exactly’ but maybe after reading this that will change. We need to speak up. Silence is no longer an option. By telling your story you can begin to help others, and yourself, to heal. Lily understands that and isn’t afraid to exposue her wounds and scars.
I feel honoured to have read Lily’s book and am just so glad she’s still making music, expressing herself and telling her story in her own way. As she says modestly about her own voice, It’s not world class, but it’s honest and true.
I started my music book club to promote and discuss writing about music by women. Next month I will discuss Good Booty by Ann Powers, as originally planned for September.