How to quit while you're ahead: Lily's the sly, retiring type

She zoomed from obscurity to ubiquity, and now she's off. Or so she says. Lily Allen leaves them wanting more

Fiona Sturges
Sunday 28 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Lily Allen? Can't stand her. Got a right gob on her. Always having a go. Punched a fan, didn't she? Drinks too much, too. And she had a pop at that nice Cheryl Cole. Why doesn't she just shut up and go away?

Well, now we may have got our wish. You see, Lily, who long ago joined the pantheon of singers with whom we are on first-name terms, has declared that she is to retire from music at the positively arthritic age of 24. Well, that's not strictly true as she will briefly retire from retirement in July to perform alongside her friend Jay-Z at the Wireless festival. But aside from that, she has said that there will be no more live shows after next week's performance at the O2, and that she is giving up music in favour of a career in fashion. So that's it. No more Lily. Crikey.

While there will be plenty of people cheering at this prospect, surely it needn't have come to this, a young singer-songwriter in the prime of her career becoming too jaded to continue. Granted, Allen has got a big mouth, she's partial to a drink and, yes, her singing is a bit thin.

But one thing that has got lost amid the feuds, the drunken outbursts, the woe-is-me blogs is that she knows how to write a song. Furthermore, she has personality, which most will agree is an increasingly rare quality in pop. Over the past few years she has made British music a more colourful, interesting and fun place. So perhaps, just this once, we should give Lily a break.

It was four years ago that this streetwise 21 year-old bounced into our lives, all sunshine and daisies and singing about what made her smile, though it seems like centuries ago now. She was the cocky girl with the gold hoop earrings who, rather charmingly, paired polka-dot prom dresses with trainers.

She had pedigree too, even if it was a little dubious. She was, as everyone knew, Keith Allen's daughter, though the tables have turned and Keith is now Lily's dad. Keith had dabbled in music, his major contribution being a series of ghastly football anthems. (Remember "Vindaloo"?) Lily's close friendship with the late Joe Strummer – she called him her godfather, though technically he wasn't – afforded considerably more kudos. He provided her musical education in her early teens, accompanying her to Glastonbury and taking her off to see obscure bands in the Green Fields while her dad went backstage and got wasted.

Allen later became the poster girl for a new breed of pop star, one that was discovered not through home-made demos sent to record companies, or playing gigs to one man and his dog, but who posted their tunes on the internet. The thoroughly modern Lily showed us what was possible for a switched-on young musician in the age of MySpace.

In 2005 she had signed to Regal recordings (she had previously been with London Records but they sat on her songs for ages and then dropped her) who gave her a modest budget to record her first album. They offered little in the way of promotional support at the time as they had bigger fish to fry with Coldplay.

So Allen took matters into her own hands and began to post her demos online. Within a matter of months she had 10,000 fans and became what the music press dubbed an "internet phenomenon". She landed a cover story in a Sunday magazine before she had even played a gig. The record company hype machine may have been slow on the uptake but it mobilised itself sufficiently to ensure that her first reggae-tinged single went to number one in the charts. It was a deserved triumph for Allen – "Smile" was the sound of the summer, a jolly yet quietly subversive slice of old-fashioned pop. In a musical landscape dominated by dour indie bands, her sunny yet expletive-riddled form of self-expression was like a breath of fresh air in a sticky sauna.

Within a year she was playing the main stage at Glastonbury and had started dating the Chemical Brothers' Ed Simons. (they split six months later.) She was talked up as a role model, a soon-to-be icon who was leading the charge of outspoken and independent women in music. She even got her own chat show, Lily Allen and Friends, on BBC3 which was, as the title suggested, a big celebrity love-in in which Allen, by no means a natural presenter, got her mates to come along and talk nonsense.

It was probably at this point that we began to suffer Lily overkill. She was everywhere: at nightclubs, festivals, restaurants, being carried out of awards ceremonies, being cautioned for assault. Following her split with Simons she was linked with James Corden and later Jay Jopling with whom she was photographed canoodling on a yacht. She got into some argy-bargy with Elton John while they presented a prize at the GQ Awards: "Oh fuck off Elton," she drawled hilariously. "I'm 40 years younger than you and I've got my whole life ahead of me."

Allen's every move was snapped, printed, discussed and dissected. Where before we couldn't get enough of her, now we couldn't get away from her. She was no longer the chirpy girl next door, more the irritating drunk who has their friends around at all hours and plays their music too loud.

Meanwhile, her blog became ever more censorious about men, music and her fellow pop stars, and provided an endless stream of quotes which could be turned into showbiz news stories. She was, it seemed, her own worst enemy. She clearly liked attention even though she was troubled by it. She seemed incapable of censoring herself, a trait which started out charming and funny but later became rather sad, particularly when in 2007 she described herself as "fat, ugly and shitter than Winehouse".

She couldn't even keep quiet about politics – a crime perpetrated by many an egomaniacal pop star – offering Boris Johnson advice on how to tackle knife crime and declaring her allegiance to Gordon Brown. Lily clearly had an opinion about everyone, so it was only natural that everyone should have an opinion about Lily.

It's no wonder that her second album wasn't nearly as jaunty as the first. The first single, "The Fear", was a sarcastic self-portrait in which she had squandered her worth ("I am a weapon of mass consumption") and had sold out in the pursuit of glory and money. She left a similarly anxious impression during interviews as she talked about the constant paparazzi presence and bemoaned a life in which her diary was full six months in advance. She seemed lonely and anxious, and admitted to having been in and out of therapy for depression.

Then came the Brits performance a fortnight ago, during which she looked uncomfortable playing the pop princess in corset and fishnets, and being hoisted aloft by her dancers. She even put on a wig before the winner of the Best British Female, for which she was nominated, was announced, so that the cameras couldn't zoom in on her crestfallen face. On collecting the award, her joy at being recognised by the Brits, the establishment that had snubbed her for years, was tempered by a visible unease.

So did we, her adoring and vociferously critical fans, force her retirement, or did Lily, the poor, neurotic pop star, do it to herself? Will she find contentment in a world without music, and will we find good music in a world without Lily? The answer to both of those is, probably, yes. One thing we can be sure of is that we haven't heard the last of her yet.

Another potential retiree writes...

It's always useful when someone in the public eye appears to be going through a similar stage to oneself. What married man, for instance, has not, if he's honest, wondered if now is the time to call a halt to all those furtive assignations with American porn stars and night-club hostesses, check into rehab, and cure himself of the need to spend a small fortune on weekend bacchanals? Then along comes Tiger Woods to provide a template – which is why, I suppose, so many of us follow the soap opera of fame and celebrity.

Even as I write, for instance, hundreds of thousands of Britons are debating the wisdom of early retirement. Do I go now, fresh from the triumphs at last month's sales conference and with powers undimmed, or hang on in the hope that the chubby cheque of redundancy will be mine? And who should pop up to provide guidance but Lily Allen, determined, at the age of 24, to leave the stage she has dominated for so many months. Are there, in the actions of her and her ilk, lie lessons for Bernard in Accounts, Brenda in Sales, and the rest of us?

Not so in politics. Of those who avoided being frogmarched from office by a discontented populace or party, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan did so on medical grounds; and only Harold Wilson and Stanley Baldwin went on their own terms. Some might cite Alan Milburn and James Purnell, but these, we feel, are less cases of quitting at the top, as half-way up (or down).

Sport is even less helpful, because so many of those who leave at their peak subsequently return to drag aging limbs around the rougher edges of the circuit. Bjorn Borg, once the golden boy of Wimbledon, came back to scuffle sadly on the fringes. Boxers, conspicuously Muhammad Ali, seem drawn back by heavy purses or big debts – rare exceptions being Lennox Lewis and George Foreman, the man who abandoned the ring for the compensatory excitements of kitchen utensils. In soccer, one of the few who retired with their skills undamaged was Peter Knowles, once of Wolves, but, since age 25, of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Showbusiness, as so often, sends mixed messages. Ronnie Barker and Sir Terry Wogan retired at the top, but had both long since reached the ages when bus travel is free. Joaquin Phoenix gave up acting (for music), but, for conspicuous early retirement, we must turn to Valerie Hobson, star of Kind Hearts And Coronets, who, at 36, gave it up to be Mrs Jack Profumo. How one envies racehorses – shortish years of labour, then out to make hay at stud. Now that's what one calls an early retirement.

David Randall

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