When Avril Lavigne was 17, she delivered on a skateboard her debut album Let Go, a multiplatinum punk-pop statement with a hit single on the complications of adolescence. She was bratty and earnestly angsty, and the album was made with highly professional songwriting help.
More than a decade later, she has just released her eponymous fifth album. The cover art shows the profoundly eye-lined Lavigne with her hair piled up, apparently all grown-up. To promote the record, she appeared at the famed Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan.
Unfortunately, the notes Lavigne hit there (judging from a YouTube clip) were off-key, and the new album itself is littered with the same old blaring, shouting, upbeat pop made for kids. On the opening track, Rock N Roll, Lavigne sings, "Let's get wasted." Elsewhere she wistfully yearns, "If only I could just go back in time, 17."
And there's actually a song called Here's to Never Growing Up.
What's dissapointing with Lavigne's regression is that on her previous album, 2011's Goodbye Lullabye, there were signs of maturity. While the snotty What the Hell lead single was a distressing signal that Lavigne was stunted creatively, other material was introspective and acoustic-based. I spoke to Lavigne back then about the difficulties related to that album. She said that RCA had pressured her into making rhythmic pop music and that she was relieved that her deal with the label was up. A move to a new label (Epic) and the decision to make a self-titled album at this point in her career seemingly signaled a change in an adult direction
Lavigne is married to Nickelback's Chad Kroeger who, at age 38, doesn't appear to be a maturing influence. Most of the tracks on the new record were co-written with Kroeger and David Hodges, formerly of the emotive American rock band Evanescence. Hodges and husband helped Lavigne with the grimy, squealing Hello Kitty, with lines about playing spin the bottle and truth or dare. (According to recent interviews, Lavigne's new house with her enabling husband has three rooms devoted to Hello Kitty cartoon memorabilia.)
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. The album's overwrought power ballad with Kroeger is called Let Me Go, and one wonders what in the world is holding her back.
On that song, Lavigne sings about "breaking free from these memories," but that is often easier sung than done.
Speaking of living in the past, a few days after Lavigne released her record, Detroit rapper Eminem issued The Marshall Mathers LP 2, a resounding sequel to The Marshall Mathers LP, from 2000. It's an often brilliant record, but, as with Lavigne, the 41-year-old rapper seems unwilling to let the past go.
The harrowing, story-weaving first track is the horror-rapped Bad Guy, itself a sequel to Stan from his epic classic from 13 years ago. "Capture that lightning trapped in a bottle, twice the magic that started it all," raps the real Marshall Mathers, "tragic portrait of an artist tortured, trapped in his own drawings." Eminem, then, is trying (and mostly succeeding) to recapture his youthful edge, drawing on tried-and-true darkly personal inspirations.
It is natural for artists like Lavigne, who began her career as a child herself, to cater to a similarly aged audience, but unlike Lavigne, the frighteningly intense Eminem never made music for the middle-schoolers, even if The Kids (from the original Mathers LP) was rapped from the point of view of a shady substitute teacher.
Still, he seems deeply attached to his teenaged self. On The Marshall Mathers LP 2, pop-culture references are often dated – remember Ren & Stimpy? – and old wounds and themes are dwelled upon. With the raging, rain-dappled and potent Legacy, a still-traumatized adult recalls a bad day in school and wonders about the unique way in which his brain is wired. Eminem's life story, as he tells it, is the victory of a bullied kid.
The forever-young temperament has always been a part of pop music. When Bill Haley rocked around the clock in 1955, a generation of sock-hopping, curfew-breaking teenagers was right beside him. In the 1960s, the Who's generation hoped to die before they got old. Fast forward to Fun's hormonal hit single We Are Young from a year ago.
Lavigne seems trapped in a Peter Pan pop existence, stunted for the sake of marketing. We could see her as a victim of her own early precociousness, but Lorde, the 17-year-old New Zealand sensation whose smash hit Royals has ruled the singles chart for more than a month now, has shown us that a teenage girl is not confined to making girlie music. Lorde's lyrics may comment on the anxiety of approaching adulthood, but she's not shrinking from it.
Eminem is no weak-kneed retreater either. In his attempt to employ his youthful might, the still-formidable artist submerges himself in the past and summons a pimpled, sullen angst. As for Lavigne, in her attempt to sell records, she stays 17. Dying before they get old is not for them. Keeping it young is the muse, and, apparently, the necessity.