I’m already getting enough crap for having Avril Lavigne on my Last.FM charts — even from people who feel no compunction about following American Idol with near-religious enthusiasm. Perhaps there’s something about Lavigne that brings out the worst in people. She’s one of the last proponents of pure teen pop still on the stage, and that alone probably accounts for as much of the repulsion as anything. Britney imploded a long time ago; Xtina moved past bubblegum and towards a more adult (which is not necessarily to say mature!) pop sensibility a few albums back; Justin managed to land the impossible triple salchow of keeping his popular appeal while also gaining a near-inconceivable degree of critical esteem; Mandy Moore and Pink have both moved on to more nuanced (if still effervescent) singer-songwriter territory. Avril was a comparative latecomer to the field, but it’s hard not to see here as something of a “last woman standing”.
So here’s Avril, still unapologetic, waving the banner for bubblegum even as the market is being slowly corned by the likes of Disney’s perfectly pre-fab High School Musical types. How to explain such an abrupt about-face, after 2004’s comparatively slow-burning Under My Skin? Interestingly enough, in preparing this review I went back to read my review of Under My Skin:
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.
I will be the first to admit I called that one totally wrong. Here we are, three years later, and while Lavigne has achieved an admirable degree of artistic independence (selling a boatload of records in the context of a drowning musical climate will do that), she’s discovered that what she really wanted to do all along was to totally get her pop on.
So, once more with feeling: gone is the psudeo-Evanescence languor of her sophomore joint, back to the fore with the unstoppable pop-punk onslaught that defined the best moments of her debut album. As Lavigne herself said in her recent Blender interview, the album is “fast and energetic”, the result of “[realizing that] my favorite songs to play live are all the fast ones like ‘Sk8er Boi’. It took a couple records for me to realize what exactly I want to do. This is exactly what I want to do.”
Sure enough, with the exception of a few limpid ballads (tailor-made for slow dancing at a prom, I’m sure, but of little interest in and of themselves), the album is true to this promise, and her enthusiasm cannot help but being contagious. You’ve probably heard the first single “Girlfriend” (“Hey hey you you I don’t like your girlfriend, / No way no way I think you need a new one”). It blatantly rips the hook from Toni Basil’s “MICKEY”, and like that song, it has a rather torturous propensity to get stuck in your head. If that isn’t a measure of great pop, what is? Normally on an album like this you’d have two or three songs in that mold and a whole bunch of filler, but there are at least half a dozen tracks on The Best Damn Thing that could conceivably be culled for the hit parade. “Girlfriend” is followed immediately by “I Can Do Better”, which only sounds so familiar on account of the fact that we’ve heard quite a few similar girl empowerment anthems in the past few years (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). The title track is almost as catchy as “Girlfriend”. “Everything Back But You” is catchy enough while still maintaining a suitable punk crunch that it could have snuck off a Bowling For Soup album. “I Don’t Have To Try” is an early favorite, with a crunk breakdown seemingly more suited to a Peaches album — the refrain of “I’m the one who wears the pants” is destined to become an anthemic rallying cry for girls everywhere.
I could go on but I think I made my point. The album is filled with strong pop-punk turns, offset by a handful of regrettable ballads. None of these ballads (with self-explanatory titles such as “When You’re Gone”, “Innocence”) capture the same appeal as “I’m With You”, even though they try mightily. They’re innocuous. They can’t really subtract from the album’s main strength. Those who have a sweet tooth for bubblegum in the pop-punk variety (think early Sum 41 — big coincidence, considering her marriage to that group’s Dreyck Whibley — crossed with Pink) will find a lot here to love. Those who have no interest will probably keep on guzzling the haterade. But there should be no confusion left after The Best Damn Thing that Avril Lavigne has come into her own, and has made the brave decision to measure artistic maturity with no one’s yardstick but her own. Yay for that.