The rock princesses of the blogosphere

Lily Allen has just blown her top in an online rant - and she's not the only pop star taking to cyberspace.
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The Independent Culture

While major record labels complain about the public illegally copying music online, female artists are proving better than their male peers at using it to communicate directly with their fans. And at the vanguard of this phenomenon is Lily Allen, the solo artist whose big mouth repeatedly gets her in the news.

Last week, the NME published its Cool List, the weekly mag's annual rundown of who has stood out in the music scene. This year, women bucked the trend of a male-dominated industry with high placings for Allen, Beth Ditto (the larger-than-life frontwoman of US dance rockers The Gossip) and Long Blondes' vocalist Kate Jackson.

Allen was invited to join what she thought was a shared cover shoot to celebrate the rise of credible female stars, so was understandably miffed to see all-male trio Muse on the NME's front page in their stead. Rather than summon her label to put out a press release by way of complaint, or phone up a friendly radio jock, Keith Allen's feisty daughter instead went straight to the nearest computer and put out her own missive online.

She began by explaining she had reneged on a vow never to work with the NME again, after they quoted her as saying she would celebrate a number one record with doses of cocaine. The singer continued, "You thought that your readers might not buy a magazine with an overweight lesbian [Ditto] and a not particularly attractive looking me, on the front. Wankers. You should take your heads out of you [sic] New Rave arses, and actually think about your responsibilities to youth culture, and to women in general."

NME has declined to comment on Allen's specific allegation, though if true it would fit the suspicion that music is a man's game. James Blunt may have entered rhyming slang for the wrong reasons, but few people talk about the variety of songwriters that have helped him. Meanwhile, Katie Melua is derided as the plaything of former Womble Mike Batt.

The balance does seem to be shifting, though, as a new wave of female performers have used the internet to launch themselves, build up a fan base and gain record deals. A spokesman for Allen's label points out Parlophone signed her before she became the queen of MySpace, though the artist herself has admitted it has shaped her direction. As well as posting her own outspoken views online about anyone from Pete Doherty to Victoria Beckham, she has been keen to gain feedback from listeners to her demos. The singer looked at the number of plays for various tracks on her site before she chose "LDN" for a debut single, released as a limited 7in in April before its full release later in the year.

One fan of Allen's online diary, or blog, is Nerina Pallot, another solo artist who herself hit the charts earlier this year with "Everybody's Gone To War".

"It's really fun and irreverent," she says with delight, though the singer-songwriter disagrees with Allen's assessment of girl group The Like as "bitches". "They're really very sweet, but they happen to come from LA so are obsessed with anything cool."

Pallot herself once enjoyed a major label deal, but was dropped when her 2001 debut album Dear Frustrated Superstar failed to meet expectations. She recounts the tale on her website (www.nerinapallot. com), a key factor in her tortuous comeback. The artist set out on her own, using the site and MySpace to disseminate her music and opinions. Pallot retained the support of her publishing company during this time, though to complete the recording of her second album she still needed to remortgage her house. Such was the success of the self-released Fires that it has been picked up and reissued by 14th Floor Records, part of international giant Warner.

Speaking from a noisy square in central London between appointments, Pallot is now on an arduous round of radio stations and press interviews, though after years in the wilderness, the Jersey-raised performer welcomes the attention. She sets great store by constant gigging to tout her wares and also praises the support of her publishers, but credits the internet with helping re-establish herself. "At one point I did think about packing it all in to become an English teacher, but when the publishing company heard my songs they said it was worth putting them out there. They warned me it would be hard work, but the internet has been a really good shop window, because you can post so much information and it's so cheap."

She does caution against using the internet simply as a barometer of popularity, though. "I've seen bands on there with many friends [other MySpace users linked to their site], but very few plays, so it looks like it is set up by their label and no one is really that interested in them. Now I don't accept friends unless people actually ask me."

Until recently, Pallot herself looked after her online presence, whether on her official site or others where she could promote her music and videos. She was responsible for putting tracks online, but also used the internet as a platform for communicating with fans. It is here that women seem to have the edge over male artists, as they tend to be more comfortable about being open about themselves through message boards or blogs.

Pallot herself publishes short stories online and has long run her own blog. She agrees female musicians are better placed to use this kind of technology. "It's like the way women communicate. I love any excuse to be mouthy and not have anyone stop me, but like music, it's quite a discipline. I like reading what other people say, randomly following links, and ending up finding out about a guy from Missouri's trip to a Lakers game."

Both Allen and Pallot arrived in the wake of Sandi Thom, who came to fame via gigs broadcast from the basement of her home in Tooting, south London. The prevailing mood among record labels is that if these performers can attract thousands of fans by such guerrilla tactics, imagine what they could do with proper backing. It certainly worked for Thom's number one single "I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker". And while the internet videos may have now dropped off, Thom still has the energy to update her online journal.

The novelty of blogging gives such emotional transparency a modern sheen, but the phenomenon has been around much longer. Mariah Carey is the most renowned star to leave cries for help on her site. In 2000, the R&B diva was named the best-selling female artist of all time at the World Music Awards, though soon after her career was to hit the buffers. Having separated from her husband and label, Carey was under pressure to perform at Virgin.

The first her fans knew that this was taking its toll was in a message on her site. Carey complained, "I don't know what's going on with life... I just want you to know that I'm trying to understand things in life right now... I just can't trust anybody anymore right now because I don't understand what's going on." Not long after she was in hospital and refusing to make public appearances.

A year earlier, before wireless laptops became widespread, American singer Fiona Apple scrawled notes to fans while on tour, which hardcore followers scanned and disseminated via fan site www.neverisapromise. com. A 2000 entry that begins, "I write this particular entry as the most humiliated form of myself..." sets a tone not unlike today's online diaries. This was around the time she was promoting second album When The Pawn..., which failed to match the success of its predecessor, the mammoth post-Tori Amos smash Tidal.

So when her next album failed to materialise soon after, supporters were understandably concerned she had run into trouble with her label. It was not until the beginning of 2005 that early versions of tracks were leaked and impatient fans campaigned for the album's release, with rumours that Sony were unhappy with Apple's new sound. It transpired that the label had in fact turned down the original recordings, with Apple persuaded to start over after a period of stonewalling. In the end, last year's Extraordinary Machine was to become her highest charting release.

So the campaign to release the record seems to have had no bearing on its final complexion, though Apple's raw honesty should not be discounted; it helped forge a bond with fans that lasted the six years between albums. Not that her and Carey's victimhood has become the norm. Instead, artists are using the internet to maintain their identities separate from record company machinations or even to run their own careers.

In such a deluge of personal information, it would be easy to hark back to a golden age of rock-star mystique. Kraftwerk thrived despite only allowing one interview every 10 years, maybe even every other decade. Until recently, Morrissey was teasingly coy about his sex life, or lack of, but that only served to make his dedicated fan base even more obsessive. Though if transparency gives female artists more independence, maybe it is a price worth paying.

www.lilyallenmusic.com; Fiona Apple: www.neverisapromise.com; www.nerinapallot.com; www.sandithom.com

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