The Week In Pop

Avril Lavigne’s Disappointing Return

Avril Lavigne is back, and as usual, it’s complicated.

When Lavigne hit big with 2002 debut Let Go, the world knew her as the teen pop star with a mall-punk ethos. Here was a TRL staple who unleashed her air-raid siren soprano over crunchy electric guitars, rocked a necktie over a tank top, and shredded at least as well as the “Sk8er Boi” in her monster hit. Her persona was undoubtedly smart marketing — counter-programming for kids who recoiled at the Britney-style archetype but couldn’t resist a bop, or perhaps a chance for the Britney fans to play dress-up with an “alternative” persona — but it also made for some legitimately great pop music. Soaring breakthrough hit “Complicated” flew all the way to #2 in the US, a frustrated plea for authenticity that trojan-horsed Platinum-grade pop craftsmanship into Hot Topic attire. Two more top 10 hits, the punchy “Sk8er Boi” and the power ballad “I’m With You,” cemented her stature as a both a hitmaker and a trendsetter.

In the years to follow, a range of other women such as Kelly Clarkson, Hilary Duff, and Ashlee Simpson began releasing guitar-powered pop hits in Avril’s wake. Lavigne herself kept racking up radio hits from her three subsequent albums: “My Happy Ending,” “Don’t Tell Me,” “When You’re Gone,” “What The Hell.” In 2007, she hit #1 with “Girlfriend,” a gleefully bratty cheerleader chant that could be the missing link between Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Against her usual onslaught of guitars and drums, Lavigne declared herself “the motherfucking princess” and sneered, “Hey you! I don’t like your girlfriend! I think you need a new one.”

Lavigne has built herself quite a greatest hits collection. Globally, she’s outsold all other Canadian women besides Céline Dion and Shania Twain. And if her status as a surefire radio staple was starting to wane by the time of 2013’s self-titled LP, the typically boisterous “Here’s To Never Growing Up” still made it to #20. (I like to imagine its opening lyric about “singing Radiohead at the top of our lungs” as an analog to the Britney and Jay-Z references in “Party In The U.S.A.,” as if her music still existed in conversation with more straightforwardly poppy fare.) Who knows what might have happened had health problems not derailed Lavigne’s career, but here’s what did happen: She retreated from the spotlight for half a decade and saw her reputation bolstered in absentia.

She returned last week with Head Above Water, her first album in six years. But in a sense Lavigne has been staging a comeback for quite a while now. Over the course of this decade, multiple generations of women in the indie and alternative spheres have been heralding Avril as an icon. As early as 2013, around the time Lavigne last released an album, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Paramore’s Hayley Williams were publicly anointing Let Go as a modern classic. (Cosentino recently went as Let Go-era Lavigne for Halloween.) And last year, with Let Go nearing its inevitable 20-year nostalgia cycle, a rising wave of underground artists began pegging Lavigne as a seminal influence.

Pointedly extra indie-pop upstart Sir Babygirl, a recent Album Of The Week honoree at this very website, told us she wrote debut LP Crush On Me under the influence of “Avril and Ashlee.” Alex Lahey, whose punchy guitar-pop constructions earned her Artist To Watch honors here, recently covered “Complicated” in concert. Two of 2018’s indie breakout stars, Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan and Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison, both sang Lavigne’s praises in a Billboard feature. Allison often dresses like she’s appearing in an early Lavigne video, while Jordan bluntly stated, “I just wanted to be her so badly.”

The stage is set for Lavigne to come riding back to prominence, and right on cue, she has reemerged. It’s not merely a matter of opportunistic timing. Lavigne spent the interim between albums battling Lyme disease, which she says kept her basically bedridden for two years. She also separated from Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger in 2015 after two years of marriage, but she eagerly insisted to Billboard last fall that her health struggles were what sidelined her — not her crumbling marriage, the changing sound of modern pop, or any other factor. The disease so wrecked her that when she first sang Head Above Water’s title track after years of not singing at all, she was shocked to learn that her vocal cords were still the same powerful instrument that had gotten her onstage with Shania Twain as a precocious Canadian teenager and earned her a contract with Arista before she was old enough to vote.

Lavigne’s been silent for a while now, which renders her a musical question mark. Much of the context she built her career on has faded away. Traditional pop and rock, the core ingredients of her sound, have become largely ancillary to hip-hop in the mainstream. The youthful exuberance that marked her biggest hits might not be such a good fit at age 34. It’s intriguing to ponder what kind of artist Lavigne might be at this phase of her career. The trouble is, despite its unhurried creation process, her new album suggests even she hasn’t yet figured that out.

There are many traces of the old Avril on Head Above Water, not least of all that virtuosic voice, equally capable of Dion’s grandly billowing glory notes and Twain’s conversational sass. She still sounds self-possessed every time she opens her mouth. “Souvenir,” with its melodically howled “Yeah yeah!” hook and twilit guitar vibes, could even pass for a grownup version of an Avril classic, with rosé and sweaters subbed in for the old pop-punk signifiers. Press play and close your eyes and you can almost picture a closing montage from Laguna Beach — and I mean that in a nice way. Yet she doesn’t hit upon that winning formula too often here. Instead, the album tweaks many of the building blocks of her sound in distasteful ways.

For instance, Lavigne has never shied away from huge, emotive ballads. Choruses like the ones in “I’m With You” (“It’s a damn cold night!”) and “Don’t Tell Me” (“Did you think that I was gonna give it up to you?”) have always been a mainstay for her, and they continue to be here. The ballads on Head Above Water, though, flop like gelatin where their predecessors hit like a hammer. “It Was In Me” and “Warrior” are more inspirational Hallmark movies than songs. Soccer Mommy’s Allison once said Lavigne finds the middle ground between Elliott Smith and Evanescence, but I’m only hearing the Evanescence part in the grandiose “Birdie” and “I Fell In Love With The Devil.” And the title track — with its plaintive piano, dramatic swells, and imagery about bowing down at the altar — sounds so much like a maudlin Christian worship song that it’s actually charting on Christian radio right now.

Even worse is “Dumb Blonde,” the one time Lavigne tries to tap back into the attitude that took “Girlfriend” to the top. The song is loud and spacious, with thundering drums, horn blasts, and intense staccato guitar competing for space with shouted lyrics like “I ain’t no dumb blonde/ I ain’t no stupid Barbie doll/ I got my game on/ Watch me, watch me, watch me prove you wrong!” Self-appointed Barbie Nicki Minaj is there too, still proudly calling herself a Barbie as if she’s unaware of what Lavigne has been yelling about Barbie dolls on the chorus. Like Meghan Trainor attempting a Sleigh Bells song, it’s confusing and painful to behold.

Speaking of Trainor, Head Above Water also contains a number of modern updates on retro soul music. The breakup lament “Tell Me It’s Over,” a ’60s prom slow dance with trap drums, works well enough, as do the string-laden “Crush” and the gracefully computerized “Love Me Insane.” None of them compare to the showstoppers in Lavigne’s back catalog, but they’re more enjoyable than her ill-conceived attempts to adapt her old sound. Also acceptable but unexceptional is “Bigger Wow,” a boilerplate guitar-powered pop song that could have just as easily been by Kesha, Bebe Rexha, or any other singer plugged into the mainstream machine.

Perhaps no song exemplifies the album better than “Goddess,” an acoustic ditty about how well Lavigne’s man treats her. It’s another new sound for Lavigne, sort of — she’s been showing off her piercing voice against these sorts of wistful strums her whole career, but this time no big drums or power chords come charging in. It might have worked, too, if not for lyrics like that make me wince on the page: “He treats me like a goddess/ He thinks I’m sexy in my pajamas/ The more I am a hot mess/ The more he goes bananas.” Weirder still is the way Lavigne pronounces some of the words in order to make “pajamas,” “hot mess,” and “bananas” all rhyme. She ends up sounding like a caricature of a glamorous old woman who refers to everyone as “dahling.”

“Goddess” says a lot about Lavigne’s search for new direction — sometimes plainly, as in the opening lyrics: “Dark times, hard times/ I didn’t know who I was for a minute.” The song’s implication is that affection from a new love interest helped Lavigne figure herself out. I don’t know whether “Goddess” is based on real-life events, but listening to Head Above Water, the part about her personal vision snapping into focus again feels like fiction. Like so many veteran pop stars before her, she sounds like an artist at a crossroads, unsure about how to move into the future. So much for her happy ending.

CREDIT: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

I was out on vacation last week, which proved to be fortuitous timing by chart standards. In a sleepy week on the Billboard 200, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s Hoodie SZN returned to #1 for a third nonconsecutive week. It did so with a relatively putrid 47,000 album equivalent units, 45,000 of them via streaming, and no albums debuted in the top 10. Meanwhile Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” held onto #1 on the Hot 100 for a third straight week, and the only significant movement near the top was Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier” climbing to a new #2 peak.

This week, however, is much more noteworthy thanks to the arrival of Grande’s thank u, next album. Not only did the album itself debut at #1 as expected — more on that in a moment — it also resulted in Grande becoming the first artist since the Beatles in 1964 to occupy the top three spots on the Hot 100. Given the historic achievement, let’s focus on the singles chart first.

Up top for a fourth straight week is “7 Rings.” Close behind it with a #2 debut is “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which, per Billboard, becomes Grande’s 13th top 10 hit. Leaping back up to #3 is the former chart-topper “thank u, next.” The other nine songs on Grande’s album also cracked the Hot 100. With 11 of those 12 songs in the top 40, Grande surpasses Cardi B’s record for most songs by a woman simultaneously in the top 40.

Back to the top 10: Halsey’s former #1 “Without Me” falls to #4. Another former #1, Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” is at #5. Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier” falls to #6, with yet another former #1, Travis Scott (and Drake)’s “Sicko Mode” at #7. Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” is at #8. Rounding out the top 10 are more songs by Post Malone and Halsey; Posty’s “Wow.” is at #9, while Benny Blanco, Khalid, and Halsey’s “Eastside” is at #10. So: Three Ariana songs, two Post songs, and two Halsey songs in the top 10. This is America!

As for the albums chart, thank u, next enters at #1 with 360,000 units and 116,000 in pure sales. According to Billboard, it put up the best streaming week ever by a pop album and the biggest streaming week ever by a woman, with 307 million on-demand track streams equating to 228,000 album units. It’s also Grande’s fourth #1 album and second in under six months following Sweetener’s big bow last year.

Back up to #2 and #3 thanks to awards season are the A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody soundtracks. Here comes the glut of familiar rap titles: A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie at #4, Post Malone at #5, Travis Scott at #6, 21 Savage at #7, Drake at #8. Back in the top 10 at #9 thanks to her Grammy triumph is Kacey Musgraves, with 35,000 units and 20,000 in sales for Golden Hour. And at #10 is another of the familiar rap names, Meek Mill.

POP FIVE

Zedd & Katy Perry – “365”
Most of Katy Perry’s Witness was so forced, but this Zedd collab feels easy and natural. So did “Feels,” her 2017 song with Calvin Harris. Hopefully she can bring that looseness to some of her solo material next album cycle.

Maren Morris – “Common” (Feat. Brandi Carlile)
Morris and Carlile aren’t kidding when they sing, “We’ve got way too much in common.” Both were up for Record Of The Year at the Grammys, and both have carved out their own distinct versions of Americana. They’re also both genuine talents who can thrive outside their usual lanes — or, in this case, by merging into a kindred spirit’s lane. It’s a true pleasure to hear Morris’ punchy pop-country and Carlile’s earthy, melancholy roots-rock cohere so successfully.

Khalid – “Talk”
It’s kind of poetic that Khalid, an undeniable talent whose voice has become shorthand for melancholy in a bunch of maudlin pop tracks, is turning to Disclosure, the project that launched Sam Smith, for some creative invigoration. “Talk” may not be a mind-blower, but it’s a welcome sign that Khalid is open to trying new things on LP2.

P!nk – “Walk Me Home”
P!nk’s new album is called Hurts 2B Human, and its lead single starts out with some Bon Iver-style low-slung Auto-Tune mumbles. By the time the chorus hits, it’s gone full Mumford. Kind of wild to think the artist who once recorded “Get The Party Started” is now doing inspirational cyborg folk-pop.

Bebe Rexha – “Last Hurrah”
I love that Rexha went on her Instagram story to explain to her followers what a “last hurrah” is. I do not, however, love “Last Hurrah.” Why is everybody except Lady Gaga trying to release classic Lady Gaga tracks right now?

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom got engaged. [Hollywood Life]
  • Lady Gaga split with her fiancé Christian Carino. [TMZ]
  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s new song “Now That I Found You” is coming next week. [Twitter]
  • The Jonas Brothers are reportedly reuniting. [Us]
  • Kelly Clarkson covered Lady Gaga’s “Shallow.” [YouTube]
  • DJ Khaled teased a new collab with Cardi B. [Instagram]
  • Juice WRLD announced a new album, A Deathrace For Love, out 3/8. [Twitter]
  • Last week Miranda Lambert dumped salad on a lady at a Nashville restaurant, then revealed she’d secretly gotten married. [Pop Culture]
  • Shawn Mendes is featured in a new Calvin Klein underwear campaign. [Extra]
  • Selena Gomez appeared to tease a collaboration with Benny Blanco, J Balvin, and Tainy. [MTV]
  • Tinashe parted ways with RCA Records. [Rolling Stone]
  • Normani and 6LACK shared a video for “Waves.” [YouTube]
  • Meghan Trainor released a video for “After You.” [YouTube]
  • The Chainsmokers announced their World War Joy North American tour with 5 Seconds Of Summer and Lennon Stella. [Twitter]
  • Eric Church covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in Detroit. [YouTube]
  • John Legend did his new single “Preach” on Ellen. [YouTube]
  • Miley Cyrus and Troye Sivan will be judges on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11. [YouTube]
  • Maggie Rogers brought Florence Welch onstage for “Light On” in London. [Twitter]
  • Khalid will play SNL with host Idris Elba on 3/9. [Twitter]
  • Taylor Swift countersued a NY computer store owner over use of the name Swiftlife. [The Blast]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME

OK, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME