“Girlfriend,” the lead single from Avril Lavigne’s new album, is a song that speaks entirely in the imperative, with a lyric sheet full of exclamation points and music to match: shout-along vocals, power chords, hand claps amplified to sound like an army on the march. The song seems custom-built to bully the world’s radio programmers into submission, but Lavigne took no chances, recording the chorus in seven languages. Do a little fancy Googling, and you can hear Lavigne bellow the phrase “Hey! Hey! You! You!/ I don’t like your girlfriend!/ No way! No way!/ I think you need a new one” in Mandarin. The song is a smash, a top-10 hit in 14 countries, including the United States, where it was her first Billboard No. 1. As for the album, The Best Damn Thing, it’s been No. 1 for two consecutive weeks, and, impressively, nearly all of its songs are as big and brash and catchy as “Girlfriend.”
Lavigne’s latest success is a reminder that she’s one of the most influential pop singers of the decade. We first met her in 2002, when she rolled into view atop a battered skateboard in the video for her debut single, “Complicated.” She was the female answer to all those mall-rat punk-pop bands—proof that a 17-year-old girl could whine and snarl just like the boys and look just as silly in a pair of pants five sizes too big. But her main innovation was sonic, forsaking traditional girly teenpop (syrupy ballads, dance beats) for huge choruses that crested over loud guitars. Almost immediately, the style became de rigueur, with everyone from Ashlee Simpson to Hilary Duff to Kelly Clarkson deploying distortion pedals and black mascara. Even Liz Phair fell under Avril’s sway, ditching shaggy indie rock to work with Lavigne’s producers, the Matrix.
Phair got a lot of grief for “going Avril,” but it actually made a kind of sense, for Avril was already meeting Phair halfway. A defining feature of post-Lavigne teenpop is its adult pretensions: The drift from pop into rock signals both attitude and “seriousness,” and the songs, accordingly, are full of psychobabble such as, “You fall and you crawl and you break and you take what you get and you turn it into honesty“—a teenager’s version of mature relationship talk. Lavigne’s second album, Under My Skin (2004), went further, dispensing with the sprightly punk-pop for midtempo songs about romantic disillusionment. While indie rockers are busy fetishizing teenybopper music old and new, today’s real live teenagers are spending most of their time, as kids will, trying to sound like grown-ups.
Which makes The Best Damn Thing something of a shift. The album is gleefully, raucously, broadly bubblegum—a high-school musical delivered with a big wink. The album opens with the thumping pep-rally beat of “Girlfriend,” a sound that recurs throughout. The title track’s refrain finds Avril spelling out her own name cheer-style. (“Give me an A/ Always give me what I want/ Give me a V/ Be very, very good to me.”) Now 22, Lavigne is old enough to play the same game as indie rockers, gazing back at teenpop—and teenagerdom—with affection and amusement, while throwing up the big musical scare quotes of cheerleader chants and breakneck punk-pop tempos.
For the first couple of listens, it’s hard not to get swept up in all the fun and in the album’s lean, lithe sound. (Lavigne’s collaborators include studio savant Dr. Luke, one of the mad scientists behind Kelly Clarkson’s stupendous “Since U Been Gone.”) But if you spend a little extra time with The Best Damn Thing, it begins to take on a more sinister cast. The charm of Lavigne’s early hits was the conviction with which she played the underdog: the tomboyish punkette who was deep enough to see the beauty in the “sk8er boi” spurned by the status-conscious popular girl. But on the new album, Avril appears to have become the thing she loathed, barking slogans of prissy entitlement: “I wear the pants/ I’m the one who tells you what to do”; “Don’t you question me/ You just do what I say”; “Me, I’m a scene, I’m a drama queen/ I’m the best damn thing that your eyes have ever seen”; and, in “Girlfriend,” “I think you know I’m damn precious/ And hell yeah, I’m the motherfuckin’ princess,” a line that suggests there may be more to the whole cheerleader routine than a cheeky nod to Toni Basil. Has Avril, as critic Carl Wilson wondered in a recent blog post, become a “Heather”?
Judging by the “Girlfriend” video, the answer is yes. In the clip, two Avrils—one a bad-ass rocker chick, the other a preppy redhead with librarian’s glasses—square off in a battle for the affections of a dreamy guy. The clothes make it clear whom we’re supposed to root for, but the plot complicates things. Our black-clad heroine is a horrible little tyrant who subjects the preppy to all sorts of torments before driving a golf ball into her head at a mini-golf course and leaping triumphantly into a Port-a-Potty with the boy. I may be too many decades removed from high school to really get this revenge fantasy, but the idea that we’re supposed to cheer a revolution in which the ruling elite is replaced by creeps who enforce their will with golf-ball beanings seems like a perversion of the punk ideal. Avril’s rock ’n’ roll high school seems a lot like every other godawful high school, only its evil alpha girls have jet-black hair and wear Ramones T-shirts.
That golf-ball attack underscores what may be the most troubling aspect of The Best Damn Thing: Lavigne has girl issues. She’s always been full of unkind words for ne’er-do-well guys, but on the new album, she pours scorn on women. “Girlfriend” is mild compared to “One of Those Girls,” a portrait of a gold digger that Snoop Dogg would love. (“She’s one of those girls/ They’re nothing but trouble. … She’ll take you for a ride and you’ll be left with nothing/ You’ll be broke and she’ll be gone/ Off to the next one.”) Then there’s the galloping “Everything Back but You,” a breakup song that climaxes with the cry of “bitch, slut, psychopath.” There’s already plenty of casually misogynist emo-rock boys spouting that kind of rhetoric—why is Avril Lavigne joining in the chorus when she could be kicking their asses? Heather, heal thyself.