The saga of Lily Allen just keeps getting sadder. Not so ago, she announced that she was probably going to quit making music (though her publicist denied it), and deleted her anti-file sharing blog after it was deluged with angry comments and criticism from the sort of people who believe that having to pay for someone else's work is one of the greater and more terrible forms of oppression. This week, she decided to quit, not just her blog, but the entire Internet: she's reportedly left MySpace, Twitter, and even e-mail.
Lily Allen is shutting up. Lily Allen is shutting down. And I don't even know that I blame her.
She's said that the Internet-quitting is because having an active life on the Internet sort of impedes her actual life - you know, the one with people in it. "My boyfriend gets really angry," she apparently told the Mirror. "He's like:
'I want to spend some time with you, do we have to have one and a half
million people in the room with us?'" And, you know, leaving the feminist politics of silencing your expression to assuage your boyfriend aside for the moment, I can sympathize with that. But this doesn't just seem like something that can be explained by a boyfriend's demands. It doesn't seem explainable at all, in fact, without taking into account the angry criticism Lily Allen has always received for seeming out of control/irresponsible/mouthy/bratty/[insert insult here], or the fact that she very recently lost some fans by taking a common-sense stance on an issue (people not paying for her work) that didn't pander to certain people's unreflective narcissism or base-line aversion to ever being called out (but I want free albums), or the general problems of being a lady at all, let alone the sort of (wonderful) lady that Lily Allen is, and making your lady-voice heard in public.
The fundamental appeal of Lily Allen is that she has always seemed so uncensorable. Even basic mechanisms of self-censorship - like that filter one uses to determine whether what one is about to say is appropriate and mature and in line with what the people around you are hoping to hear - don't seem to work for her. She also has the luxury of being smart and witty enough to come up with amazingly entertaining things to say, even without The Filter (or maybe precisely because of her lack of Filter), which is something not all of us can manage. Her songs, which do require thought, and craft, are appealing precisely because she never seems to entirely process away that fundamental rawness and bravado. No matter how long she actually works on them, they still seem to stem from that "first thought, best thought" (or, more appropriately, "first thought, maybe potentially disastrous thought, but who cares, I'm saying it anyway") school of public utterance.
Alright, Still, her first album, is perhaps the moment at which her gift was in fullest flower. At least, I know that "Not Big" is maybe my favorite song she's ever done - a song about a collapsing relationship in which she continually fails to be the least little bit mature about it, and in fact seems to take great joy in her very immaturity, breezily singing her way through verses like, "so you thought this was gonna be easy, well you're outta luck / let's rewind, let's turn back time to when you couldn't get it up." Lily! We are not supposed to say these things! They're not thoughtful things; they're not kind things; they're the sort of things that will inevitably lead to your former dude going around and telling all his friends that you were SO CRAZY, etc. Yet her voice, skipping merrily through the line, "I'm sorry if you feel that I'm being kind of mental," is pure uncompressed joy. She's not sorry. Not remotely sorry. Not for a second. And that's why she's wonderful; we rarely, if ever, get to witness a woman saying exactly what she thinks without worrying about how people are going to react.
It's Not Me, It's You, the second album, was still really good. But it was a somewhat more mature, thoughtful, responsible album. You had your song about Fame, your song about The Bush Administration, etc. But a little bit of the thrill had dissipated; Lily seemed to have grown up a bit. And the funnest song on the record was still "It's Not Fair," a spiritual successor to songs like "Knock 'Em Out" and "Not Big," in which basic feminist points - hey, doesn't it suck when some creepy guy at a bar won't stop hitting on you? Isn't it really depressing when a guy you do want to have sex with doesn't have enough basic respect for you to make sure that you're satisfied? - are presented, not with moralizing or academic jargon or even a great deal of seriousness, but in gut-level-correct zingers like, "I lie here in the wet patch in the middle of the bed / feeling pretty damn hard done by / I spent ages giving head."
Lily Allen's strength, as an artist, is not her ability to reflect soberly and self-consciously on the Serious Events of Our Times; it's the way she just lets herself rip into whatever stands in her way, in ways that a lot of us are too inhibited or (understandably) scared of the consequences to consider. It goes against the basic programming women receive: be nice, be measured, take care not to rub anyone the wrong way, etc. Not everything she says is right, and some of it's fairly objectionable. But it's her ability to keep talking that makes her a feminist figure.
It's also what makes her vulnerable. The Internet made Lily Allen, in a very real sense. I mean, of course it did. The Internet thrives on people like her, people with an innate rawness, people with enormous personalities and very little inclination to trim them down. But here's another thing the Internet thrives on: anger. And Lily Allen, whose gift is that she lets shit fly without checking to see if there's a fan in the vicinity, was due to get splattered with it, not just once, but many times. And, given that she is not just Internet-famous, but famous-famous, the sheer tonnage of crap was bound to get overwhelming. "The Fear," the single from her second album, seemed - at the time of its release - like a more measured Allen, someone doing commentary through the voice of a character rather than speaking in her own voice. But now, in retrospect, that chorus - "I don't know how I'm meant to feel any more / and when do you think it will all become clear?" - seems like a disarmingly personal statement.
"I'm being taken over by the Fear." Yeah, of course you are. Because, if you're a woman, and you operate without fear - fear of people calling you fat or ugly, fear of being deemed unladylike (or "out of control," or "bratty," or whatever), fear of making people angry - people will do their very best to drill it into you. People will scold you, scorn you, call you names, tell you that you ought to feel ashamed of yourself. They'll try to scare you, and keep you scared. And the end goal of fear is silence. It is always silence. Silence doesn't have to mean not talking, either: only saying what you think people want to hear is also silence, maybe the worst kind of silence, because then people can point at you and go, look! She's fine! And she's on our side now! Gee, we really helped her out. No, you didn't help her. And maybe you didn't even bring her over to your side. Maybe you just made her too scared to tell you the truth. That's the end goal of it, all of it: we want each other to get to that point (have you been to this point?) where you are just about to respond, you have something to say that you believe to be true, and then it just dries up in your mouth. And you think, why bother? You think, it doesn't matter whether I'm right. You think, being right won't help me in the long run. You think, silence is easier. It's a permanent fear we're working toward - every time that person dares to disagree with you, you want your voice ringing in her head, stilling her tongue, making her doubt herself too much to try anything. Or, if she speaks, you want your voice to come out of her mouth. Your voice, or a very good imitation.
Given the choice, I can see why opting out of the conversation altogether is a slightly more appealing course of action than spending your life as a ventriloquist dummy for anyone and everyone in the room.
Of course, a large part of my reaction to Lily Allen's leaving the Internet (and possibly music as well - though there is always the fact that she may not be able to quit, and may have obligations that prevent her from leaving the business right away) is just a garden variety fan reaction: noooo! We need you here! Etcetera. And, of course, I don't actually know exactly what the circumstances of her making such very public steps toward silence in such quick succession actually means. None of us knows the entire truth. Maybe it really is just the boyfriend! Which: in that case, she'll probably be back. It's easier to quit the boyfriend than it is to quit the Internet, after all. And I doubt she'll ever retire from public life entirely. She's going to be in a play, apparently. But the fact that none of us actually knows what is going on is a part of the point. We don't know now. She's less transparent than she used to be; she's less available to us. And, for whatever reason - maybe just the fact that I really, really wouldn't want to be in Lily Allen's shoes - that seems entirely understandable. Even if she's silent, now, in ways that she never used to be, she's also a a bit more free.