The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Culturally Clueless: Race, Feminism & Lily Allen's Hard Out Here Video
Alex Macpherson , November 15th, 2013 10:10

Alex Macpherson is less than impressed with the exploitative and racially dubious aspects of Lily Allen's supposedly empowering 'Hard Out Here' video

From Macklemore to Miley to Lorde, 2013 has truly been the year in which white pop stars have been allowed to shine for letting their dubious relationships to black culture show. So the return of Lily Allen, an artist whose career encapsulates the concept of white privilege, with a video that encapsulates the year's clumsy fascination with and liberal disdain for black music, feels apt.

Indeed, it may be the worst example yet. Make no mistake: despite - or perhaps because of - its cloak of weak satire and fig-leaf of flimsy "feminism", the video to 'Hard Out Here' is a thoroughly racially dubious piece of work. In its opening scene, Allen catches sight of a group of women of colour dancing in a music video from her surgical table. Most are black; Allen rolls her eyes. But when she frees herself from her hospital shackles and joins them on set, it is no expression of solidarity with women who make their living in this fashion, whether by choice or necessity - à la Rihanna in her 'Pour It Up' video.

The camera's gaze is lascivious but disapproving: it lingers disgustedly on a black woman's hand over her crotch, a black woman's jiggling arse, a black women's legs opening and closing, a black woman's champagne-soaked breasts for just a few seconds more than it should. Presumably these exaggerated shots are to differentiate Allen's satire from the quick, polished cuts of the "generic R&B video" stereotype she aims to send up (for there is little else to demonstrate this; Allen's idea of "satire" seems mostly to be "imitation"). But it doesn't challenge the male gaze, let alone the very real patriarchal conditions that exist for women in the music industry. Instead of leering over scantily clad dancers, Allen invites us to mock them. Black bodies and the dance moves they perform are made into sources of comedy. There's a tossed-off disdainful reference to "chains", for good measure. It's curious that, as with Lorde, many of Allen's reference points are hip-hop video tropes of the early 00s rather than the actual pop that dominates the charts in 2013 - which, particularly in the absences of Rihanna and Beyoncé, has been whitened to a degree unimaginable a decade ago. (This, too, is structural: around a year ago, Billboard altered its chart rules with the effect of marginalising black performers from the mainstream.)

'Hard Out Here' is less trenchant commentary on objectification and more ugly race/class caricaturing in the lineage of Bo! Selecta - a programme that, a decade on, seems astonishingly and crudely racist - combined with the exact culturally clueless thought processes that led to Alanis Morissette's 'My Humps' spoof video six years ago, filtered through 2013 clickbait culture: so much for saying anything brave or new. Exacerbating this is Allen demonstrating her own superiority by being a clothed white woman parading amongst semi-naked women of colour. To declare that "it has nothing to do with race, at all", as Allen did yesterday in a weak, sorry-not-sorry explanation, is the height of disingenuousness: is she actually blind? Even if you grant that neither casting nor costumery were intentionally racialised, the final edit makes it impossible to ignore.

When Miley Cyrus used black women dancers as anonymous props during her infamous VMAs performance, she was rightly criticised. But where Cyrus at least hired those dancers in a clumsy, crass attempt to demonstrate her desire to celebrate and be part of hip-hop culture, Allen does the same thing only to illustrate her contempt for it: by some distance more reprehensible. She even makes this explicit in her lyrics: "Don’t need to shake my ass for you ‘cuz I got a brain… There’s a glass ceiling to break, uh huh there’s money to make", she sneers. You hear that, dancers of the world? You're oppressed because you're stupid. Far from giving a shit about you, Allen is openly contemptuous of you for it, and her priority is to get herself a new kitchen by exploiting your bodies. Such noble feminist sentiments are a textbook case of "I Am Not Like Other Girls": a tactic of claiming the moral high ground by defining oneself against the struggles faced by other women. Even by that metric, though, 'Hard Out Here' fails, with director Chris Sweeney shrugging, "I think we’re all complicit, you have to be, that's what's required these days" of the acres of flesh displayed.

Buried somewhere in Allen's grim execution is the valid point that, like almost every other industry in the west, the music business is dominated by men and shaped by patriarchal values. But at no point does Allen attempt to genuinely attack the industry in any meaningful way (or bite the hand that feeds her), bar a cardboard cliché of a hapless A&R man who tries to teach her how to twerk and the easiest target of all, Robin Thicke. Indeed, it's notable, too, that Allen's pushback against the degradation of pop music doesn't extend to the product placement that's the most visible expression of capitalist patriarchy in music, with two corporate brands prominently displayed. But then, she's always said that she's in it for the money. It's ironic that she can't see that this might be true of other women in the music industry.

None of this exactly a surprise coming from the Bedales-educated Allen, a woman whose second top 10 hit, 2006's 'LDN', found her not merely dabbling but going for a deep-sea dive in poverty tourism. Nor is it the first time she's trodden uncomfortable racial ground - though it was curious that when she tweeted a picture of a penis in actual blackface during a beef with Azealia Banks four months ago, not a word of criticism was heard from the assorted ranks of the British music press. Perhaps this has something to do with her apparent mateyness with the British media Twitter circle; perhaps calling her out would make a few journalists' lives a little too awkward.

Allen's return to the music scene was trailed by a rather different video to 'Hard Out Here' - though no less cynical. It is to this country's immense shame that the John Lewis Christmas advert has been elevated to the status of a cultural event - if you get the tiniest bit excited about the prospect of being shilled shit, please have several words with yourself - but Allen's autopilot sentimentality was an effective means of ingratiating herself with Middle England. She appears to have been placed on the fast track to national treasure status. It's appropriate, then, that her rapturously received comeback has encapsulated the very worst aspects of Britain in 2013.