The complicated merits of the new Avril Lavigne

so much for MY happy ending…

Hey Hey You You
I don’t like your girlfriend
No way No way
I think you need a new one
Hey Hey You You
I could be your girlfriend

Hey Hey You You
I know that you like me
No way No way
No, it’s not a secret
Hey Hey You You
I want to be your girlfriend

My favourite literary theorist is Roland Barthes, whose work I was first exposed to while doing my English degree. Among his countless obtuse and long-winded ideas about mythmaking and image creation in literature, he writes of the “death of the author,” asserting that the author’s intentions or mindset when writing are completely irrelevant because each and every individual reader brings to the text an entirely different catalogue of experiences and views that they use to interpret it. His point? “The author” as an entity is pretty much meaningless.

But popular art is another matter entirely, in particular popular music. It’s more than the fact that the artist is usually singing the words they wrote (manufactured pop stars and Fall Out Boy excluded); it’s the culture of celebrity that they surround themselves with, from the magazines to the music videos. Sure, the first time you hear an artist’s first single on the radio you have the pleasure of ignorance, the ability to treat the song on its own merits and ask “Who is this?” But the moment that you have an answer to that question, that ignorance vanishes and is replaced by a whole slew of preconceptions.

All of which leads me to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” a song which devoid of any context might be a wonderfully guilty pop pleasure, but instead is completely and utterly terrible.

No one would mistake “Girlfriend” for high art – this is simplistic punk pop with a cheese-chant chorus and lyrics that are so teenage that it hurts. I mean, Avril even calls herself “damn precious” and “the motherfucking princess” which is the kind of stupid, egotistical thing that only a foul-mouthed 14-year-old girl could pull off in real life. But a consciously teenage song is hardly cause on its own for a thumbs-down – hell, Gwen Stefani made “Hollaback Girl” the biggest hit of 2005 by doing just that. No, the reason why “Girlfriend” is so absolutely awful is because Avril Lavigne is both too old and too young to be doing this song.

Confused? Let me explain. If Avril was actually still a teenager, she would have the authenticity to pull this song off. If she was over 25 and had a few significant adult years behind her, she could totally pass this off as a self-conscious retro teenage throwback, not unlike, say, the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” But Avril’s stuck in this weird sort of middle ground between those two – one the one hand, she’s married and all, but on the other, she’s never really staked out an ‘adult’ public persona. Even when she tried out a more ‘mature’ look during the last months of promoting Under My Skin and her recent movie roles, she was still a slightly-older version of her teenage pop star self. So not only does she lack the teenage authenticity to make “Girlfriend” work, but also the age and experience to turn it into a self-conscious throwback song. Instead, Avril just comes across as completely unwilling to grow up.

In the context of her body of recorded work, the song becomes even more miserable. It’s funny that for all the labeling of her persona as a “brat” or a “punk,” Avril’s music – while still certainly teenage and confessional – has actually been rather mature. Songs like “Complicated” and “Don’t Tell Me” are confident and self-assured but never arrogant and tracks like “My Happy Ending” and heck, even “Sk8er Boi” (shudder at the spelling) are quite reflective. The closest thing that she’s had to a ‘bratty’ single was probably “He Wasn’t” and even that had a charming sense of independence to it. But here, with “Girlfriend” Avril comes across as a cheap, horny teenager who never thinks twice about stealing someone else’s boyfriend. It’s so retrograde that it hurts.

While I’d hardly consider myself a ‘fan,’ I’ve regularly defended Avril against her critics over the past several years. I think she is an interesting and talented vocalist who, given the time to mature and develop as an artist/songwriter, could actually become a genuinely important Canadian artist. So it pains me to hear her release a song that has absolutely no redeemable vocal qualities whatsoever, even going so far as to feature a cheerleader-like chant over the drum breakdown that serves as the bridge. That part of the song is paired in the god-awful video with, yes, a dance sequence. The entire video is an exercise in patience, trying to sit through stereotypically pop-video sequences that I’m unsure as to their intent: is this supposed to be ironic, or has Avril put aside any illusions of authenticity and embraced her inner pop star? What the hell is going on here?

Will “Girlfriend” become a big hit? Most likely – the vast majority of people who hear this song won’t think about it as much as I have. That’s not an attempt to sound all elitist or anything – “blah blah blah I’m so much better than the masses because I actually THINK about things” – but merely a reflection on the fact that most listeners probably aren’t going to sit down and consciously weigh the merits of “Girlfriend” against Avril’s past work and future promise. “Girlfriend” may become the song of the Spring, but it’s so completely and totally wrong for Avril at this stage of her career that, in the long run, it threatens to derail a good deal of her potential.

Watch: Avril Lavigne – “Girlfriend”

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4 responses to “The complicated merits of the new Avril Lavigne

  1. This is what I was exactly thinking when I was watching it on TRL.

    It was extremely corny and chanty, that it gets stuck in your head — its purpose — but the authenticity was absent.

    Does anybody think Avril is hot?

  2. I can’t take Avril seriously anymore ever since I saw her transform with Britney, The Simpson sisters, and Christina Aguilera into a hideous Voltron-esq monster that the last remaining member of N-Synce (the fat one) had to fight on Robot Chicken.

    Yeaaaaah, it doesn’t take a lot for me.

    – Eddie

  3. OMFG McNutt, you dribbled more bullshit. I hate to say but you are NOT an expert on whats good/bad, right/wrong for anyone at any age. “totally wrong for Avril at this stage of his career”? (Did u notice it says ‘his’?)
    Next time you want to put that much thought into something, think about making a shorter version of your opinion.

  4. 1. Funny that no one pointed that typo out to me in the last year. I need better proofreaders.

    2. I’d make a more thought-out response, but who am I to argue with with Gordon Shumway?

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