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She Was Just Seventeen: Avril Levigne Plays Pixie Pop

music critique by Matthew Webber

Avril Levigne, Let Go (Arista)

When you watch MTV, you see them. They're young, female, and pouty. They're the underage starlets whom the girls want to be and the guys want to date.

In 2002, some of them actually write and perform their own songs.

Much has been written in the mainstream music press about the current, slow-but-steady shift in the buying habits of teenagers. The stars of the pop life are beginning to fade and die out. Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean went to rehab. Britney and 'N Sync, while still shipping multi-platinum, are shifting fewer units. P. Diddy's junior varsity cheerleading squad, Dream; the made-for-television O-Town; and numerous other wanna-be American idols are quietly falling to earth (and off the charts) after never really reaching the stratosphere.

The boys and the not-girls-not-yet-women are growing up - and out of their TRL tastes. Most would rather emote than teenybop, although many aren't yet ready for Linkin Park and Nelly. Girls next door are cool; girls gone wild are inconceivable. What they need is something in-between. Something on which to spend their disposable income. An identity they can choose, rather than one thrust upon them.

What the record labels think teenagers need is to buy CDs by their peers.

As tortoise-like as the decline of the boy bands has been the ascent of the adolescent singer/songwriters. Major labels have been developing fresh-faced girls who play instruments and lead bands and thrusting them into the pop consciousness one semester at a time, probably with the nefarious dream of conquering Sam Goody within the school year.

Songbird Michelle Branch was "discovered" first, and her hit songs "Everywhere" and "All You Wanted" have soft-rocked both top forty and adult contemporary stations. The classically trained pianist Vanessa Carlton broke second, but her hit song "1,000 Miles" was a bigger VH1 smash than was probably intended. Their debut albums have sold briskly- aided by $6.99 and $7.99 "new artist" price schemes - but their weekly sales totals will never be confused with Eminem's.

The third pixie pop star might turn out to be the scene's Britney. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 17-year-old Avril Levignehas everything her target demographic worships: gorgeous looks, a positive message, down-to-earth appeal, and one great song. Her lucky timing can't hurt. Of all the sprites, she's arguably the most tuneful, she's unquestionably the cutest, and she's poised to kick down the Christina-Aguilera-poster-covered door that the other two only scratched.

If a second (third, fourth, fifth?) single catches, and if she's managed well, Let Go could come closest to becoming a phenomenon. Jagged Little Pill-like longevity isn't out of the question, nor are that album's sales totals. With Antonio "LA" Reid executive producing this album, her becoming the fresh new face of this kind of pop music seems inevitable.

However, the "if" is huge. Capitalize it. Print it in boldface. Jessica Simpson was beautiful, too. And Natalie Imbruglia co-wrote many of her post-"Torn" singles.

As the Beatles once sang: "She was just seventeen, and you know what I mean." Well, Avril (she seems to have dropped her last name) is 17, and you know what that means: lyrics about boys (only she spells it "bois"), a desire to find herself, and conversations peppered with giggles and vocal pauses. While Britney's videos and lyrics purposely obfuscate her age (how innocent can those abs really be?),there is never any doubt that Avril is a teenager. (I submit her "Complicated" video as evidence.) Therefore, her charm (or lack thereof) depends on your stomach for high school. If you found any enjoyment (no matter how superficial) in films such as Bring It On or Can't Hardly Wait, Avril's lyrics might remind you of your own secret poetry. If the best years of your life are those preceding and following high school, you'll probably think her quaint, or even worse, na´ve.

"Losing Grip," "I'm With You," "Mobile," and "Sk8ter Boi" all sound like future singles. In all, she sings of longing: for boys or for identity, your standard high school dramas. She does use words like "like," "sucks," and "friggin," but sometimes she finds a more thoughtful voice. Her metaphor of being a mobile, "changing when I turn around," will no doubt be revelatory for some.

The chorus to "Complicated" is an instant sugar rush, with better alliteration, assonance, meter, and rhyme than the other songs I've heard in this genre, most mainstream rap songs, and almost anything written by someone so young. Listen: "Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?/ See the way you're/ Acting like you're somebody else gets me frustrated/ Life's like this you/ You fall and you crawl and you break and you take what you get and you turn it into/ Honesty, promise me I'm never gonna find you fake it." Choruses like this are ubiquitous for a reason.

Avril needs maturation. Only a few years older than she when they debuted, Fiona Apple and Alicia Keys were writing deeper lyrics on more complex themes and singing them in genre-breaking voices. Avril's songs sound like all ofthe other top forty/adult contemporary crossovers of the past few years, including those of her pixie pop pals, Jewel's "Standing Still" and Alanis Morissette's "Hands Clean." The production, it goes without saying, is impeccable. Every song was made to be liked immediately, as Avril and her producers don't waste time on subtleties.

Pop songs written by and for teenagers may not take up any space in your music collection. Even if you typically don't like today's Totally Hits, you might find it hard to begrudge Avril's luck (and, yes, her good looks, which is surely the reason she inked a record deal). She, along with Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, and the numerous tinkerbells to come, are helping to popularize original music for a generation weaned on phonies. Hell, you might want to thank Avril when her fans are in college and have since moved away from B2K and Ashanti and on to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and the other singer/songwriters who speak to and for you.

You might think she looks and sounds the same as every girl in the food court (you'd be right), and you probably won't believe her when she tells you how real or how different she's trying to be. But I'll let her lyrics speak for her. As she sings in "Anything But Ordinary": "Somebody save my life/ I'd rather be anything but ordinary please." Scoff if you like, but wouldn't you rather have your little girls consuming this message than the one about being a slave 4 U?

{Email me your comments, thoughts, questions, etc. at popculturejunkie@hotmail.com}

Issue 10, July 2002 | next article


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