[24 August 2004]
Can I speak for just a minute on the subject of copy protection? I understand the music industry doesn’t want me to pirate their music. I understand that they want to take measures in order to assure that I don’t do this. But their copy protection measures also made it a screaming pain to listen to Under My Skin.
Make no mistake: it didn’t take me long to circumvent these measures. I wasn’t trying to burn a copy of the disc or to rip any of the songs, I merely wanted to listen to the CD on my computer as I wrote this review. The software that was supposed to prevent me from enacting fiendish criminal plots actually didn’t work at all, and I had to disengage the autorun feature in Windows in order to get it to read the disc as an audio CD. I’m not very computer savvy so it took a minute, but I was still able to do it quite easily.
The only way that the industry has figured out to circumvent piracy is through the use of annoying autorun programs that can easily be bypassed. Hell, the next Windows security patch is going to permanently disable the function for everyone. The jig is up.
Where was I? Oh yeah.
I have never made any secret of the fact that I love pop music. When done well, there are few things in music as viscerally pleasurable as a well-crafted three-and-a-half minute pop song.
This is rarely in dispute. Some of the most popular indie artists (folks like the Magnetic Fields, Belle & Sebastian, and Badly Drawn Boy) have built long and distinguished careers out of crafting jewel-like pop confections, albeit skewed towards an indie perspective. The problems arise when you cross over from talking about pop songs to talking about Pop music with a capital “P”. Most self-respecting music fans of any stripe bristle at the merest suggestion that there is anything worthwhile in the world of contemporary pop music. Usually words such as “vapid”, “commercial”, and “soulless” are bandied about.
Pop music deserves the right to be judged on its own accord, and not by the arbitrary standards of self-appointed music snobs. You can’t compare Cat Power to Britney Spears, because there’s no comparing apples and mangoes. You can’t compare the Spice Girls to Sleater-Kinney just because both groups lack Y-chromosomes.
Of course, by any standard Britney Spears is bad. The fact is that there’s always been something slightly scuzzy about her since the beginning, a low-rent K-Tel atmosphere that has dogged her since Day One. She’s just not very bright. She can’t convincingly “sell” any emotion besides vapidity, and she can’t sing either. My wife and I sat through her recent concert special on the Showtime cable network simply because it was enjoyably horrible. Again, Britney Spears as a product generally imparts the impression of a cut-rate substitution: this is Brand X. This is the best she can do, and that’s kind of depressing.
I can at least acknowledge that some of Britney’s immediate peers, such as the Backstreet Boys, ‘NSync and Christina Aguilera, had some decent songs on occasion. (I’ll probably lose my Indie Cred card for this, but “I Want It That Way” is perhaps the world’s most scientifically perfect pop song, like some nightmare robot on a genocidal kill-spree.) But on the whole, the recently deceased teen-pop explosion was overwhelmingly unpleasant for all involved. The above groups just seemed uninspired on any number of layers—from the realms of high concept on down to the nitty-gritty of performing charisma.
You don’t expect the same things from a pop song that you do from a garden-variety rock track. Pop makes a virtue out of emotional simplicity, lyrical transparency, and sonic virtuosity. Phil Spector understood: the perfect pop song should hit you like a wall of sound, manipulating your emotions and overpowering your senses with beautifully crafted noise. That’s not to say that pop can’t be subtle on (rare) occasions, or that pop can’t (on even rarer occasions) express mature emotion. But whether or not a pop song actually does any of these things is very much beside the point. A pop song can only be judged on the basis of how much pleasure it imparts to the listener. Does the chorus stick in your head? Do you want to listen to the track again? Are you compelled to listen to it again? Can you possibly even contemplate until you hear it again?
The greatest pop group of our time is undoubtedly the Spice Girls. Discounting their tepid third album, they were simply unbeatable during their prime. Without the Spice Girls’ runaway success, it’s extremely doubtful that we would have had to live through the ensuing wasteland of increasingly brainless pop that followed. But all musical movements have a progression. If the Spice Girls represent the moment of genesis, every proceeding group and artist has represented a step downward, further away from the genius of creation and into progressive decadence. (Pop remakes itself with every generation—the young girls who were the Spices’ primary audience didn’t know who the hell the Monkees or Abba were so it’s silly to pretend that they were conceived as part of any ongoing trend or conscious historical movement.)
Of course, the falling fortunes of the increasingly impotent first generation of Spice-wannabes have given way to a new generation of pop tarts, cleverly camouflaged anti-pop pop stars like Pink and Alicia Keys. It is here that our real story begins, with the advent of Ms. Avril Lavigne.
Lavigne burst forth fully-formed from the head of Zeus, a completely defined post-pop punkette steeped in generation Y angst and irony, but unafraid to express legitimate emotion. Of course it goes without saying that her popularity was strenuously calibrated from the beginning, her image and attitude perfectly attuned to create the perfect pop star circa summer 2002. Avril possessed a few advantages that her immediate predecessors did not. Unlike Britney, she could sing, and her non-threatening girlish sexuality was far less intimidating than Britney’s antiseptic sluttiness. And unlike X-Tina, who actually can sing (but rarely has good songs), she was presented to the world as a perfectly solid conceptual entity, not merely a marketing platform. Not that that this conceptual simplicity was any less of a marketing gimmick. But Avril Lavigne presents a pleasingly likeable image, whereas the defining factor behind Christina Aguilera was never really anything more than Not-Britney, and Britney herself has never had enough of a brain to stand for anything more than sublimated sex. In the pop world Avril Lavigne is a brand, and they’ve done a good job of making her an attractive one.
If there’s anything that sets Under My Skin apart from its predecessor, 2002’s Let Go, it’s the decidedly darker tone. Whereas Avril was originally a winsome and carefree ingenue, she has evolved into something of a vengeful virago. The ticklish good humor of “Sk8er Boi” has been subsumed by the sardonic regret of “My Happy Ending”.
The first indication that things have changed can be found on the album’s cover. Whereas the Avril of Let Go was accessibly insouciance, the Avril of Under My Skin is ominously forbidding. It only makes sense. The onset of sudden superstardom creates a natural backlash that sublimates any character eccentricities. Whereas her original appeal lay in a nuanced (if slightly contrived) expression of vulnerability, her new persona has retreated from any overt emotional intimacy. The charmingly cheesy fake-punk fashion sense has been replaced by a steely and unwelcome sensuality, represented by tight corsets and intimidating ice-queen glances.
From the very beginning Avril attracted natural comparisons to Alanis Morissette. Both represent themselves (or rather, Morissette represented herself on her world-crushing debut, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill) as stridently independent women hell-bent on making their way in the world, and woe betide any man unlucky to get in their way. But there’s a very important element to Alanis’s success that Avril misses: Alanis Morissette has never been the slightest bit self-important. She may have had her quirks, but for a pop phenomenon she was never anything less than 100% sincere. Her songwriting was anything but polished and precise, as attested by the fact that her trademark awkward verbosity and overwrought honesty remains easily parodied. But she was always willing to laugh at herself, even when at the height of “angry woman on a warpath” phase.
Perhaps Avril is still too young to appreciate the subtle shades of familiarity that enabled Morissette to become so unbelievably popular. She was a non-threatening friend to girls and a canny and transgressive older sister to the boys. Avril is now merely angry. Under My Skin sounds for the life of me like a kiss-off record, and whether or not there’s any truth to this supposition, she’s not the same happy-go-lucky sk8er girl we all knew and loved. The album’s defining sound is that of crunching punk guitars playing mighty power chords, all mixed with the same flawless elan that has characterized pop-punk ever since Green Day dropped Dookie.
Taken as a whole, the album lacks the eclectic character of Lavigne’s early singles. The first single, “Don’t Tell Me”, is probably the best song on the album, with the kind of wonderfully effusive movement that makes the best pop so damn irresistible. It starts slow and quiet, building to the first chorus, ebbs back, builds to another chorus, drops down into a bridge before coming back with a skull-crunching third chorus that leaves the riff firmly implanted in your skull. One or two reprises and we’re out like a light, end of song. At that point you’re either convinced or not.
The second single, “My Happy Ending”, suffers from a marked similarity to a few recent hits, notably Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere” and Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”. I predict that the third single will probably be “Take Me Away”. It’s a little bit crunchier than any of her previous singles but it’s got almost as infectious a chorus as “Don’t Tell Me”.
The songwriting duties are handled by Lavigne in collaboration with a number of people, notable Chantal Kreviazuk and Evan Taubenfeld, but the overwhelming impression is that of depersonalized formalism. A simple examination of the song titles—“Don’t Tell Me”, “Nobody’s Home”, “Forgotten”, “Fall To Pieces”, “Freak Out”—should tell you that the dominate mood is one of anger and defensiveness. The unfortunate comparison here is Pink’s M!ssundaztood! album. On that album Pink was able to pinpoint a personal songwriting voice through the use of clever collaboration. Her vocabulary was not necessarily elaborate or nuanced, but it was genuine, whereas Lavigne’s songwriting on the bulk of Under My Skin just seems rote.
A bright spot, from a songwriting point of view, is the album’s last track, the vulnerable “Slipped Away”. It’s hardly the most interesting or unique track, lyrically speaking, but it is probably the most honest piece of music here. “I miss you / I miss you so bad / I don’t forget you / Oh it’s so sad” may not be the most startlingly original words, but the sentiment (aimed at her dead grandma) is a start. If she wants the acclaim and cred that artists like Pink and Alicia Keys have claimed, she could do worse than to dig in and figure out what her own voice sounds like.
Under My Skin is a good, if slightly disappointing, follow-up that will undoubtedly sell a gazillion copies regardless of anything I may say. But it’s worth noting that even if she hasn’t totally succeeded in reinventing herself as Pink did in the space between her freshman and sophomore efforts, she has still managed to separate herself ever so slightly from the disingenuous pop of her debut. She has gained a modicum of independence at the expense of the bulk of her musical appeal. There’s Pop and there’s Rock, and trying to walk the lonely road between the two is an endeavor fraught with peril. Perhaps she will succeed, and perhaps we shall find Let Go in the used CD clearance racks next to Spiceworld. Time will tell.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lavigneavril-under/