‘Smile’ was the first song Lily Allen ever wrote. And there’s something quite perfect about that.
Back in 2006, the track’s success was twofold. It worked as a breezy, seemingly effortless pop song (she describes the songwriting process – with London production duo Futurecut- as “not terribly clever”). It also provided the public with a perfect introduction to someone who would become an era-defining pop voice.
With its bright brass line, faux-authentic beats, “old Johanna” sounding piano and Hammond organ (sampled from The Soul Brothers’ ‘Free Soul’), it echoes the school-yard breeziness of Althea & Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. The opening couplet “When you first left me / I was wanting more / But you were fucking that girl next door,” paints her into her own Shameless style melodrama with Allen as the girl done wrong.
The truth was that the lyrics weren’t really a fictional pose at all, but were in fact all too true and dealt with her ex boyfriend DJ Lester Lloyd. She later told The Sun: “I always thought you should write about what you know, what’s going on in your life, and this guy had taken up so much of my time and my emotions that the words just came pouring out.
It was never going to be a sugar-sweet love song because by that time I was over him and felt a slight desire to get revenge through a song
Throughout the song her persona sits centre stage, a little bit mean, quite funny, streetwise but never a victim. Sure there were elements of being a rude girl, a “ladette” but the style and persona was uniquely hers. The softness of her vocals belied a brassy front, a world in which the pairing of pouffy ball gowns and Adidas trainers seemed like a perfect idea.
The expectations on ‘Smile’ are not to be underestimated. There was a pressure on the song to deliver – a campaign was brewing and Keith Allen’s daughter had been framed as the first popstar to use Myspace for fame. But there was a question mark over whether she could translate that to somewhere other than cyberspace. Of course, the largess of ‘Smile’ (and the force of Allen’s personality) translated. It hit Number One for two weeks and began Allen’s distinctive and complicated musical career.
Interestingly, it would be the b-side ‘Cheryl Tweedy’ (with its refrain: “Wish I looked just like Cheryl Tweedy”) which also signaled her innate understanding of modern celebrity culture and what it meant to live a life in public. It also provided an early indicator of her self-analytical lyrics.
As a very Allen-esque postscript, the story goes that after Lester Lloyd sold his version to the tabloids, Allen spoke of how he was forced to listen to her perform the song at the Secret Garden Party festival because his tent was directly opposite the main stage. “It’s the little things,eh?” she said.
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