Narcissism Can Still Lead to Resonant Writing: Lily Allen’s My Thoughts Exactly

It’s been too long since a female musician put out an autobiography, really. Maybe not since Kim Gordon’s 2015 memoir, Girl In A Band, has such fanfare been made over a literary release of the music world. But, as Lily Allen points out time and time again throughout My Thoughts Exactly, her music has rarely been about the music, so much as exorcizing the long-standing demons within herself. Writing a novel (or what the lads would chalk up as putting out a diary), one supposes, was the natural progression from the already deeply personal lyrics Allen has released over the years, making her psyche accessible to any masses willing to listen (and sometimes attracting a deranged stalker that would plague her for a seven-year period).

Considering living in the small bubble of Britain, where tabloid headlines can make the island feel even smaller, Allen’s feelings of claustrophobia set in quite nicely after finding fame in her own right via “Smile,” the first single from her 2006 debut, Alright, Still, released at the height of getting discovered on MySpace viability. Addressing her family background throughout My Thoughts Exactly, however, Lily makes it known that she grew up in the orbit of fame, her father, Keith Allen, being of some “renown” as a comedian/actor/TV presenter (the sort of fellow who would make a cameo in Trainspotting, in short). Pointing to her patriarch’s own narcissism and lack of involvement in her life, Lily explains that not only did this mode of parenting make her feel invisible, but also led her to attempt using the fame bubble to her utmost advantage to get away with things. Living within that realm, it gives Lily the license to almost parodically make statements like, “…my dad and his friends, Alex James and Damien Hirst, had formed a band called the Fat Les… Dad and Alex James were spending lots of time together–plenty of their mates came and went with Fat Les, but they were the ones behind it all. I used to go and see them sometimes, because going to the studio with Dad was a way for me to try and establish more of a relationship with him.”

So it is that singing became of increasing interest to Lily as a result of the Daddy issues that would haunt her up to now. In fact, it was Keith who got Lily her first record deal–a shit record deal that wouldn’t be much better than her next one, but a record deal nonetheless. One that gave her a very large taste of just how bitter the recording industry could be when London Records tried to sue her for 3.6 million pounds for not delivering on her contract. Lily rather wanted to hang up the whole idea of being a singer after that, until an old friend, George Lamb, called her just when she needed her directional path realigned. Again describing her above average childhood existence very casually with, “I liked Ibiza, and I knew it a bit because I’d been there with my mum two years before when she was working on a TV film,” Lily explains that she met George in the orbit of her summer vacations to Mallorca and Ibiza. It was he who saved her from a premature sexual assault during her days of working at a record shop called Plastik Fantastik in San Antonio and selling tickets to clubs like Amnesia (and drugs to go with–a natural pairing, after all).

Drifting along in her unformed existence, not channeling her festering anger and resentment toward something creative, it took Lamb to get her in touch with another instrumental (no pun intended) man in her life: producer/A&R guy Seb Chew. At first attaching herself to him in her unavoidable role as a self-admitted co-dependent, Allen would, as with so many other of her exes, make him one of her closest friends and confidantes. Lamb, meanwhile, still had greater influence over Lily as a result of not trying to have sex with her (this whole business about Lily both hating it when men wanted to fuck her but also hating it equally when they didn’t desire her is all part of the narcissist mind), shifting her back toward the notion of songwriting. As Lily states, “George didn’t want me to be a party girl, or even just a singer. He told me I should write. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I hate to break it to you, but this business is not really worth it if you don’t write your own stuff, especially as a female artist.’ He was right.”

That Lily had always managed to write down her jumble of emotions onto some form of paper (“I’d always kept notebooks, after all, and written down my thoughts and yearnings”) was useful to her in letting spill out the lyrical contents of what would become her first record. And though school–least of all boarding school–wasn’t exactly Lily’s forte, she mercifully had one of those life-changing teachers, Mr. Langlands, who would take the students “outside and into the landscape to read passages from [John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids], so we listened to the words while sitting in the very vegetation that had inspired Wyndham. That helped teach me that storytelling could be painterly and visual, and it’s a lesson I use in my songwriting still.” And it’s true, there’s no denying that Lily’s songs each have a decidedly narrative quality to them, enriched by the nuances of “layers of details–it’s Tesco bags that the little old lady in ‘LDN’ is struggling to carry; it’s his parents’ basement where my URL Badman sits at his computer–to deliver a whole picture and tell a contained story.”

Where other pop stars–because, yes, Lily Allen remains branded as such despite coming up with the likes of “true artist” Amy Winehouse–focus on the banalities and cliches that describe love, Lily decided early on, “I don’t want to write about a particular single feeling, or settle on one refrain in songs.” No, she wants to use her narcissism for good, getting deeply intricate in her descriptions about personal traumas that can really only be worked out in song. For example, the track “Everything to Feel Something,” from her fourth record, No Shame (which she admits she wanted to call The Fourth Wall before saying fuck it to irony and just being herself without the barrier of humor), lays bare her struggles with seeking male affection through sex. That missing piece in her life–paternal love–driving her to say, “I’m gonna let you fuck me/I know I’m being used/I’m just another thing to do/I don’t know why I do it to myself/Giving all my worth to someone else/I don’t know why I do it to myself.” Of course, by the end of My Thoughts Exactly, it’s very evident she knows precisely why she does it to herself. Simply put, and as the song says, “to feel something.” After spending the bulk of her formative years either being abandoned and not properly looked after or in the spotlight (where the tabloids turned her into what she refers to as “Cartoon Lily”–not a real person, but someone else who all of this is happening to), Lily endured a Britney-level breakdown (detailed in the chapter appropriately titled “Breakdown”) in order to shatter the glass ceiling of her own escalating madness. In “Popstarland,” it’s essentially a “we’re all mad here” mentality, one that Lily could no longer withstand merely by pumping herself full of drugs and alcohol to numb out the numbness.

Initially thinking that her catapult to fame meant, “I’ve just found my voice,” Lily quickly realized that her voice was being more stifled than ever between record executives’ and stylists’ “input” (which became the most stifling on 2014’s Sheezus) and tabloids and magazines and the internet picking the most out of context quotes to make her their little clickbait puppet. To sum it up, “I’ve just found my voice but that isn’t my voice.” This fame fish tank phenomenon led to writing “The Fear,” one of her most successful singles to date from her sophomore record, It’s Not Me, It’s You (and what would ultimately make her stalker, Alex Gray, the most irate, claiming that he was the one who wrote the track–ah, how very literary indeed in terms of scandal).

And as all the “incidents” of Lily’s life mounted into one avalanche of emotional turmoil (losing her first child, George, after a fraught pregnancy, getting divorced, relying on female escorts to help satisfy her co-dependency needs while on tour for Sheezus in the U.S., having a murderous stalker, still never seeming to get it right with her family of origin, finding out her ex-husband was dating someone in their social circle, etc.), the only way to exorcize it all–even if it was deemed being from a self-involved slant–remained to write it down. This resulting in the one-two punch of No Shame and My Thoughts Exactly. Because it shouldn’t be considered narcissistic anymore for women to share what’s happened to them. As iterated on the back cover of the book, “When women share their stories, loudly and clearly and honestly, things begin to change–for the better.” And though it may have taken nearly over a decade, Lily has found her voice–her own voice–again in this book, and will, perhaps in turn, give voice to others.

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