The Worst Damn Thing

Though every fiber of my being pulses with the desire to tear Avril Lavigne (the image and pop-culture figurine, not the girl herself) a new one, I can't do it. Truly, Avril Lavigne is odious. Even under pop-music rules, her albums (including the best singles) can't stand up. Her public persona is that of a selfish, self-important she-monster. I need her, though, because Avril's failures as a compelling pop rocket are what make her such an awesome illustration of how modern girldom actually plays out.

Avril got her start when she was chosen to sing onstage with Top 40 country belle Shania Twain. Like Shania, Avril doesn't so much sing as emit planes of forceful banality. With the benefit of a professional recording studio, Avril's voice can carry some impressive energy and appealing trills, and is sometimes unexpectedly haunting. But the live Avril experience makes a mockery of tone and tunefulness. The lyrics on her handful of albums are painfully regressive and lack even a basic understanding of meter or, for that matter, pronunciation. The music is beyond rote. In this sense, Avril positions herself as a less relevant and totally disappointing contributor to her genre.

It would be incredibly cool if the angsty post-teen stalwart of commercial radio made music that was really worth hearing. I know what countless young women in punk bands, in hip-hop, in indie rock, have to say about the epoch of no longer a girl, not yet a woman (to throw a bone to the Susanna Kaysen of pop music). I'd love to hear the real goods from a young woman who's encountered fame, backlash, immigration, marriage and incorporation in the same years that I graduated from university and dicked around on my laptop. Who's to say—maybe she's afraid, uninterested or incapable of writing her own songs about her own experiences. The first single from her new record, The Best Damn Thing, is a boy-stealing anthem called “Girlfriend,” which would be a fun track for a new, 15-year-old artist, but is disingenuous coming from a famous young bride who sang the other side of that story five years ago on “Sk8er Boi.”

Despite the changes in her actual life, Avril's new branding (a slightly sexier version of the original Avril) remains awkward and embarrassing. It's easy to get it wrong, the image management of a girl who is by turns beautiful (great hair, teacup face, self-proclaimed hot bod) and average (feral teeth, constant grimace, abused-puppy eyes), and whose public signature style, of repossessed punk-fashion signifiers, is at odds with her ladylike private getups (Vera Wang wedding gown!) and advancing age. This is beside the fact that by-the-numbers sartorial rebellion is played (my two-year-old nephew has outgrown his Skully Vans). Normally, such a badly designed public image would be an instant turnoff: Popular icons must be easy reads, or their totalities crack into conflicting, unappealing, realistic fragments. To the naked, preteen or uncritical eye, Avril's just as pink-haired and bratty and alterna-rad as ever. But her stumble as a punk provocateur doesn't mean the paparazzi-spitter is fully matured—she's just figuring it out.

The confusing and duplicitous nature of the Avril equation embodies the very real and very underdiscussed matter of girly identity politics—having unprescribed early 20s means that we (secular Westerners) get to do whatever the fuck we want. Really. Avril is a glowing example of the kind of young woman who hasn't glommed on to a particular personality yet or given up the freedom of ungendered, youthful jagoffery for the mores of a proper adult woman. Unlike most stars, her dualism is pretty apparent: Avril is a corporation like any other successful young pop star (she's made money on home karaoke CDs, voicing animated characters and singing theme songs for kids' movies), but she stands by a mall-punk image. She belches on camera and models for Ford. She gets tanked at clubs and goes home to her new husband. She's a total brat in interviews, but smiles for the camera. I'm not convinced that Avril is intelligent, but she's certainly self-possessed. The messy character that emerges from underneath the cultivated image is deeply empathetic, especially as I write this having changed out of a Black Flag T-shirt and into a black dress and heels, about to abandon the catastrophe I call an apartment for a luxe sushi dinner. Navigating the process of maturation, especially sorting out how to have fun and do donuts in parking lots and drink 40s in the woods all night when you have to shop for baby shower presents and be taken seriously as a grown-up the next day, is really fucking hard. And I'm glad that someone else, someone public, is going through it too, even if I'm rolling my eyes while I'm watching her.

Exene Cervenka is an amazing babe who fronted the storied LA punk band X. She also married and divorced Viggo Mortensen and eventually dropped out of the scene to read poetry or something.

Wendy O. Williams sang in the Plasmatics and rivaled Alice Cooper for explosive stage antics. She was also basically a porn star, but that's neither here nor there.

Patti Smith was one of the only women who participated in the early NYC punk scene. Intense, strange and wolfish, she remains one of the best living songwriters.

Lydia Lunch was incredibly provocative and productive: She recorded music with several no-wavers and branched out into writing and acting.

Kathleen Hanna is an activist sprite who's largely responsible for Riot Grrrl, Le Tigre and mainstreaming (sort of) a fun electro-feminist paradigm.

Joan Jett was in the Runaways and the Blackhearts and now collaborates with a lot of new-school transgressors, like sex-punk Peaches.

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