Posted Thursday, Feb. 22, 2:26 p.m.
Lily Allen doesn’t take requests. “I can’t fucking hear you, and anyway this is my gig,” she shouted at fans at the 9:30 Club Saturday night. When a group of guys found it necessary to inform her that they were from Atlanta, she cheerfully screamed back, “We’re in D.C., motherfuckers!” The crowd just cheered louder. The British import’s potty-mouth, baby-faced act is what they were there to see.
Like her banter, Allen’s best songs are tongue-in-cheek revenge stories, like “Not Big” (“I’m gonna tell the world you’re rubbish in bed now / and that you’re small in the game”) and her single “Smile (“At first, when I see you cry / it makes me smile”). Her clever rambles are sung in a sweet, girly voice backed by catchy, sample-heavy beats.
Allen is an unlikely poster child for pop music populism – her father is musician/actor/comedian Keith Allen. At 18, she had a contract with Warner Music. It’s also been reported that she had a nervous breakdown, which is why, three years later she was peddling her songs on MySpace.
But it doesn’t matter why Allen turned to the Internet: she did, and it got her sly, street-smart songs onto the radio and the top of the charts. Now she has an album (“Alright, Still”) on EMI’s Parlophone and an international tour, the first in MTV’s “Discover and Download” series.
It’s not clear what MTV is trying to accomplish with “Discover and Download” – success stories like Allen’s only reinforce the complete irrelevance of MTV in the world of popular music. Sure, on MTV.com you can “discover” Allen’s opinions on food (good) and fashion (also good), but it’s safe to say that Allen was discovered and downloaded long before the reality-show network got involved.
Of course, MySpace can’t bankroll a tour. So while MTV might be jumping on a bandwagon and pretending they built it, they’re also bringing Allen to the U.S., and for that we should all be grateful.
Allen went on stage with a full seven-piece band (wearing, for some reason, matching blue polo shirts that made them look like the evening entertainment at a tacky tropical resort). A trio of horns brought life to ska and reggae-inflected songs like “LDN” and “Friday Night.” A guitarist, bassist and keyboardist rounded out the group.
Allen pranced around in front of the band, usually with a drink or a cigarette in hand (apparently smoking bans don’t apply to performers). Her only instrument was a sound effects machine that she used to recreate the album’s busy atmosphere. She went acoustic for a few covers (“I’ve got a very short album, I’ve got to stretch it out so you get your money’s worth,” she explained) – Keane’s “Everybody’s Changing,” The Kooks’ “Na’ve” and the Specials’ “Blank Expression.” The downbeat tunes weren’t as stirring as her own tracks, but they proved that behind all the noise, and all the hype, is a strong, jazzy voice.
Is her loudmouth attitude as real as her vocal talent, or is it just part of her act? It’s hard to say – but when it’s this much fun to watch, who cares?