So Avril Lavigne has made a new music video, about which there are several dozen completely accurate, utterly withering comments to make. She’s trying to out-Miley Miley; she’s aiming for Gaga but barely achieving Xtina; Kesha wants her dollar sign back; this is literally just “Hollaback Girl.”
There are serious questions about whether it’s offensive (expressionless Asian dancers, Tokyo-as-prop) or offensively obvious (this one’s for you, large Japanese fanbase!). There are even more serious questions about the title, “Hello Kitty,” which is also like half of the lyrics, and which everyone agrees is a double entendre.
Lavigne herself told DigitalSpy that the song is both “flirtatious and somewhat sexual” but that the song is “genuinely about my love for Hello Kitty as well!” This statement strikes me as much more than just an ambient piece of pop star rorschachiana, the media-trained instinct towards vagueness and ambiguity. This strikes me as the very core of Avril Lavigne and everything she still kind of represents.
Watch this video, or just watch the first minute of it, or watch it a hundred times:
Now, the simplest way to understand what’s happening here is that Avril Lavigne had her most iconic moment astride the pop zeitgeist over a decade ago, with “Sk8er Boi” and “Complicated,” maybe the most ’90s songs ever released after the ’90s ended. We like to ascribe context to our musicians, but Lavigne arrived sans context in the midst of whatever pop-punk was.
If you don’t take the phrase “pop-punk” seriously, then A) you’re most people and also B) you probably don’t understand how we’re still talking about Avril Lavigne today. But if you were a high school kid at the monocultural moment when a band like Blink-182 seemed vaguely revolutionary insofar as they weren’t the Backstreet Boys, then Avril Lavigne equals everything: High school, nostalgia, first girlfriend, Baggy-Pants-As-Aesthetic, Skating-As-Counter-Culture, Eyeshadow-As-Individualism. Every period of rock history has its own struggles with authenticity – grunge and selling out; punk and flaming out; classic rock and cultural appropriation. Pop-punk is unique in the sense that it’s utter inauthenticity was the central authentic aspect. By the late ’90s, it was a genre of dudes playing guitars repetitively singing sweet nothings about suburbia.
In this context, Avril Lavigne – Canadian, Converse shoes, ties and a tank top bwwwaaaahhhhh? – was the culmination. Questions of authenticity simply don’t matter here: When she first appeared, Lavigne dressed like a slightly older person’s idea of what hip young people dress like. (In 2002, almost immediately after she emerged on the scene, she told EW that those ties were “a costume.”) And so questions of authenticity don’t matter for “Hello Kitty.” Almost a decade and a half into her career as a famous person, Avril Lavigne endures, faceless yet ageless. The idea of an entire song composed of a nominally vaguely “punk” personality screaming “Hello Kitty” over and over again through what sounds like seventy thousand synthesizers – such a concept would’ve seemed like a vision of a dark but hilarious future back in 2002. The closest and most obvious analogue is “Hollaback Girl,” the closest correlative example of a pop-ish punk-ish rock princess turning towards a radical new genre. “Hello Kitty” even closes with basically the beginning of “Hollaback Girl”: [Insert Pop Star Here] taking a picture of Asian Back-Up Dancers.
But watch “Hollaback Girl” again:
The central fascination of post-No Doubt Gwen Stefani is how voraciously she appropriates every culture possible. So in just a few minutes, you’ve got the Harajuku Girls driving through the hood before taking a detour into All-American milquetoast High School filled with cultural identifiers that would’ve looked regressive in Happy Days, except mixed with too much fashion; also, Pharrell. (It’s basically Glee half a decade early.)
Conversely, “Hello Kitty” feels purposefully anti-culture, constructed to purposefully reflect every possible cultural background in a manner that doesn’t really speak to anything particular. Here is the second stanza of the first verse:
Let’s all slumber party
Like a fat kid on a pack of Smarties
Someone chuck a cupcake at me
The use of “slumber party” as a verb: Questionable. The use of “on” in the context of “a pack of Smarties,” as if it’s drug: More Questionable. The phrase “chuck a cupcake at me” apparently said in all sincerity as if “chuck a cupcake” is something anyone has ever said before: Priceless. Where are we? When are we? It feels like Lavigne reverse-engineered her own mistranslation. And all of this builds to an essentially endless chorus wherein Lavigne is either A) expressing her love for one of the most abstract brands in the world in the most abstract way possible, or B) singing a triumphal ode to her own sexuality in the least sexual way possible.
So we’re left with the possibility that a faceless corporation is Avril Lavigne’s best metaphor for her own sexuality, or that faceless sexuality is Avril Lavigne’s best metaphor for her own corporate persona. “Hello Kitty” feels like staring into the vacuum. Avril plays a guitar, but nothing comes out. She doesn’t really dance, but she doesn’t not dance. This is what pop wants to be, but also where pop came from: Alpha and Omega, retro-futuristic. Avril Lavigne never changed; the world just changed around her.