Do you have three minutes and 18 seconds to spare? Most of the Internet would likely advise against spending that precious procrastination time on Avril Lavigne’s latest music video. I say you should anyway: While critics are taking the opportunity to pummel the pop princess’s persona, they’re missing the more fascinating question: Why is everyone so damned hard on Avril Lavigne? Amid all the genre leaps and costume changes since her debut in 2002, this song and music video might be the most authentic Avril we’ve seen yet.
Taken from her self-titled 2013 album, the video for Hello Kitty, which was removed from YouTube and is now only available at avrillavigne.com, looks exactly as you’d expect. Lavigne has planted herself in a Japanese wonderland of cuteness, colours, cupcakes and clichéd schoolgirls. (No, you have to watch to the end – it’s important.) The easiest hollaback here is Gwen Stefani’s similarly themed video from almost a decade ago. And yes, the No Doubt singer executed the Harajuku aesthetic better than Lavigne; the new video views more like parody after all these years, since Stefani reached fashion-icon status on the back of that performance.
(Some pundits have also tried to spin Lavigne’s video as racist. No, it’s not. This is. Observers have even wondered if the video is targeted to the Japanese market. Given her association with producer and husband Chad Kroeger, this is likely.)
The more telling homage in Hello Kitty, though, is Lavigne’s haircut. Her asymmetrical shaved undercut has a straight-line relationship to Skrillex, that purveyor of brash electronic music that kids were reportedly into last year. So too does the song. Pay attention to the hyper-processed vocals and the neutered drum-and-bass drop, and what you should hear is an inoffensive song that is typical Lavigne.
Remember her 2007 single Girlfriend? It was met with more critical acclaim than Hello Kitty, but followed much the same formula: Take a genre that’s past its peak appeal (in that case the sounds of Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance), strip it of character, pen vaguely suggestive lyrics about young love, release a No. 1 hit (don’t say I didn’t tell you so when Hello Kitty reaches that lofty position). Watch for Lavigne to ape Miley Cyrus in 2016.
The mistaken narrative is that Lavigne was a punk princess who eased into pop and sold out. Like any good idol, she was constructed from the get go. Before releasing her first album Let Go in 2002, Avril was the small-town country singer from Napanee, Ont., who looked up to Shania Twain. She admits that the “skater-girl” persona associated with that period of her career, with the trademark ties, was just a “costume.”
And so her career has gone, from one image to another. Lavigne started out punk. Sometimes she is more emo, sometimes more goth. She has even been bubblegum-flavoured. With Hello Kitty, we see her current definition of youth as some laughable mashup of drum-and-bass and vintage Stefani styling. This is Lavigne’s usual song and dance, so why all the vitriol now?
The Globe’s music critic Brad Wheeler, while considering her latest release, clearly elucidated what bugs us about Avril Lavigne: "From as far back as her debut album, it seemed like the singer-songwriter in Lavigne was something that would emerge eventually. However, now more than ever, she seems devoted to fashionable pop styles and juvenile lyrical themes.” She’s never grown up musically, and that’s one of the few things we expect of our pop stars: Age gracefully, please.
For better or worse, what we have in Hello Kitty is probably Lavigne’s truest self. As Wheeler noted, she has mentioned her home has three rooms devoted to Hello Kitty memorabilia. She also told Digital Spy that the song is “genuinely about my love for Hello Kitty!” She’s played young her whole life; maybe the problem is that she is actually young in real life.
Blink and you’ll miss the key moment of Hello Kitty (you did watch the whole thing, right?): After horrifying the masses for 197 seconds, she takes the last second to flash a knowing, toothy grin before ducking off-camera, then popping back up with her more-familiar pout. Lavigne just had the time of her life, filming a video that combines her loves of Hello Kitty and adolescent musical genres. You may not like it, but this is as raw as Avril gets.
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