Thursday, April 19, 2007
Hey Hey You You! I Don't Like Your Sound! Think You Need a New One!
I was taken aback this week when I was browsing through new releases, one of them being self-proclaimed "brat" Avril Lavigne's latest album, The Best Damn Thing and saw a GLOWING review of 4 1/2 stars from Allmusic.com critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine. STE (that is how I will refer to him from now on) has been a critic I have always been fond of and respect. There is no question that the man has a soft side for pop and as of late a reaaaaaal soft spot. Just a year ago he was validating Paris Hilton's seriously misguided foray into music by giving her album 4 1/2 stars as well. Turns out that STE is way more postmodern than usual suspects Pitchfork Media. In the realm of popular music, STE believes in no absolute truths, only local ones. The local truth here is specifically shiny, glossy, teeny boppy pop music. Within that context, Avril, as well as Paris, work incredibly well. Or so he says.
I've been accused of being overly critical and cynical concerning matters of taste but that's simply not true...at least all of the time. I like plenty of garbage. It's my right as a consumer of popular music to have my fair share of guilty pleasures. The difference is, I recognize them for what they are. That's not saying fluff can't have some cultural significance either. And, I do believe that context is everything. Just ask STE:
"The Best Damn Thing: it's as exuberant, irreverent, and exciting as any other bubblegum pop, defiantly silly and shallow, but also deliriously hooky. If Lavigne didn't have the hooks -- if neither "Girlfriend" nor the title track weren't driven by cheerleader chants, if "Everything Back But You" didn't snarl like prime Green Day, if "I Can Do Better" didn't soar on its chorus -- her snotty attitude would be unbearable, but these are terrific, addictive pop songs that are harder and tougher yet feel fresher and lighter than her big hits from Let Go
Sure. Except I think she lacks these hooks and songwriting skills. When watching Avril perform this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, I attempted to go with the flow and just accept her for what she was. "Girlfriend", the supposed saving grace of her "punky" & "bratty" reputation from the cheap sentiments of her last album and major hit "I'm With You," did the exact opposite that I've hearing it should do for me. It's probably one of the most annoying songs I've heard in a long time and I can anticipate it being played at every school dance, wedding, car, and American bar over the next few months until it is exhausted by big radio. Certainly an early candidate overplayed song of the year, last year's being the overrated and grating "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. I'm not going there tonight, but, I really hate that song. I don't know if I necessarily hate "Girlfriend" as much as "Crazy," only time will tell.
Judging pop music is all a matter of opinion, many different opinions released every week in the form of singles and all of them vying for the top position on the charts with the hopes of making some cultural impact, shallow or deep. I hear a lot about how Avril is, in fact, subverting the pop genre and turning it upside down on its head by playing the game only by her rules. This, of course, reinforces her controversial punk image, one that she now wisely denies. By no means am I a member of the ultra-orthodox punk clique that dictates what punk is and should only be. In some ways, that goes against the very essence of what the entire movement was about. But, as I was watching Avril perform her second song (I couldn't tell you the name of it) I could not help but be a little skeptical watching her and her "punk" backing band that the record label most likely helped pull together with all the proper punk trimmings. We have the obligatory mohawked drummer, leather jacket and safety pin wearing guitarist and vintage t-shirt female back up singers. It's all in good fun I'm sure but there is no doubt the intention was to project that they weren't the same "teeny bopper" crap that Avril claims to despise. That is exactly what irks me about her. She is a teen queen in denial. Avril loves to rip on Britney and Christina and state that she is not them and that her music even with its pop conventions her music should mean more than their music. Not buying it. She is just like Britney Spears, which again doesn't have to be a bad thing if you're judging within the realm of teen pop. Expecting high art from Avril Lavigne would be foolish and I wouldn't want her to get serious but, Avril's claim to not care about what people think is contradicted with her desperate desire for credibility. This only makes her and her music appear vapid and hollow.
Record execs have been feeding off the carcass of punk for over thirty years now. The commercialization of punk first came in the form of new wave, then with grunge, and now with the emergence of emo/pop punk. True, on first glance some of punk's first superstars were far from high art themselves. The Ramones had an unabashed love affair for Phil Spector produced girl groups, the Sex Pistols were essentially a fabricated band, and the Damned might have well been cartoon characters. Yet, there was something very genuine about these bands and their approach. The Ramones combined catchy 60s garage rock and girl pop with chainsaw guitars never going past a minute, the Sex Pistols manipulated their manipulator, Malcom McLaren, a lot more than he would like to admit, and the Damned, even with their transformation from explosive punks to ghoulish goths, never lost their sense of humor. They wanted people to enjoy their music, and hell, they wanted hit singles! But, it was on their own terms. Those attributes are what made those bands great and what make Avril's poser antics lame. There is no way I can state that Avril Lavigne is not 100% genuine in what she does, but, when I see the choreographed dance numbers in the above music video for "Girlfriend," well, you be the judge. Criticizing Avril Lavigne is probably futile. Still, I can't resist the urge to do so. That's my guilty pleasure.