The Number Ones

May 5, 2007

The Number Ones: Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” kind of sucks, but it kind of sucks in a way that I like. I realize that this doesn’t necessarily make a ton of sense, and it’s not the kind of praise that I intend to hand out very often, but the blatant shittiness of “Girlfriend,” Avril Lavigne’s only Hot 100 chart-topper, is the right kind of blatant shittiness. It’s the kind of shittiness that I can’t fully hate, no matter how hard I try.

“Girlfriend” is an annoying song. It’s big and brash and loud, and if you get it stuck in your head badly enough, you might consider voluntarily laying your neck down on a guillotine. The song is all booming drums and trebly shouting, and its tiny bursts of melody are almost incidental. Even when Avril Lavigne sings ballads, her voice is a nasal yawp. On “Girlfriend,” she’s just straight-up yelling at you for three and a half minutes. The lyrics are dumb and obnoxious, and you will learn absolutely nothing about the human condition from them.

But “Girlfriend” is also a fundamentally silly song, and if you approach it with the right degree of silliness in mind, you might fuck around and find yourself having a good time. It’s got hooks and sass and energy. Its lyrics are simple enough that you can probably sing along by the second time you hear it — not just with the chorus but with the entire song. “Girlfriend” represents bulldozing, weaponized simplicity, and you could easily argue that pop music is supposed to be all about bulldozing, weaponized simplicity.

“Girlfriend” does its job well. Maybe the song does its job too well. If you encounter “Girlfriend” when you’re in the wrong mood, it can seriously fuck your day up. When you’re in the right mood, though, “Girlfriend” can sound like an anthem. In a lot of ways, that makes the song absolutely perfect for Avril Lavigne, an artist whose bratty howl came to define a very divisive wave of major-label pop-punk. Lavigne has songs that are a whole lot more personal and heartfelt than “Girlfriend.” She also has better songs. But “Girlfriend” still sounds like the most Avril that Avril has ever sounded. Avril Lavigne’s only #1 hit should be an obnoxiously insidious hook-monster. It’s only appropriate.

Before we even get into the whole Avril Lavigne phenomenon, we should address something up front: Avril Lavigne is not a punk. She was never a punk. Avril might’ve hung out with punks. She had punks in her backing band. She was married, for a while, to someone who could nebulously be described as a punk. But Avril was deep in the major-label system before she adapted the aesthetic signifiers of early-’00s mall-punk. For those of us who had identified as punks in the strange ’90s era when punk rock was both enormously popular and enormously anxious about its own popularity, Avril Lavigne’s arrival was a true headfuck.

The Green Day thing was weird enough already. These guy from the Berkeley Gilman Street scene — guys who wrote big hooks and who didn’t want to be broke for their entire lives — made the apostate move of signing to a major label, and they were surprised to discover that they quickly became one of the most popular bands on the planet. I was in eighth grade when Green Day blew up, and that band’s confusion and excitement and frustration about their all-conquering success was on full display when I was getting to know them. (Green Day’s highest-charting single is “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” which peaked at #2, but that didn’t happen until way later, in 2004. It’s a 6.)

As I started to get into the music, I would adopt a new band as my favorite, and then I would watch with giddy bafflement as that band achieved actual popularity a few months later. (That’s how it felt with Rancid, anyway.) Punk bands seemed to stumble into success accidentally. That’s not really how it happened, but that was how it looked.

In the years that followed, that playbook changed. I saw Blink-182 at the second Warped Tour in 1996 and immediately decided that they were shitty NOFX biters. Then, a few years later, I saw Blink achieve Green Day levels of popularity. Blink-182 were making videos specifically for shows like Total Request Live. They were spoofing TRL aesthetics while also indulging those aesthetics. They wanted to be popular, which felt different. And when Blink-182 got popular, I was slightly horrified to learn that I liked them. (Blink’s highest-charting single, 2000’s “All The Small Things,” peaked at #6. It’s a 10.)

Avril Lavigne was something else. She hadn’t come up from any kind of punk underground, the way that Green Day or Rancid or Blink-182 had done. Instead, she was a fully-formed pop star. She sang ballads. Sometimes, she sounded like she was yodeling. But Avril dressed like a Hot Topic kid, and some of her music had a bit of pop-punk pogo to it. The whole thing was very confusing. But Avril Lavigne wasn’t being pitched to anyone old enough to identify as a ’90s punk. She was being sold straight to kids who were maybe five years younger than me, who’d never had the whole Gen-X no-sellout mentality imprinted on them. (Avril herself, not incidentally, is almost exactly five years younger than me.) A pop star was posing like a punk, and nobody thought it was weird. I was 22 when Avril Lavigne blew up, and the whole thing made me feel so old. But that’s not Avril Lavigne’s problem. That’s my problem.

Avril Lavigne happened to come along at a transitional era — right after the teen-pop boom of the late ’90s, right before the MySpace emo boom of the mid ’00s — and she was made for her moment. While I definitely once entertained some vague and paranoid ideas about how Avril Lavigne was an agent sent by the major-label system to co-opt punk discontent, she arrived at that part of her identity a whole lot more organically than I realized. This is always the case when you start making up your own imagined narratives about pop stars.

Avril Ramona Lavigne comes from Belleville, a small Canadian city between Toronto and Ottawa, and she mostly grew up in small-town Ontario. (When Avril was born, the #1 song in America was John Waite’s “Missing You.” In Canada, it was Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”) Avril’s father, who’d moved over from France when he was a kid, worked as a Bell Canada technician, and he played bass in a church band. Young Avril loved to sing, and her parents took her to karaoke contests and bought her instruments.

For much of her childhood, Avril Lavigne was essentially the small-town Canadian version of a talent-show kid. Avril played hockey and baseball, and she did a whole lot of singing. She sang at church and at county fairs, company picnics, hockey games. Mostly, she was singing country songs, though she started writing her own songs around the same time. One day, a manager named Cliff Fabri heard 16-year-old Avril singing country covers in a bookstore in Kingston, Ontario. With Fabri’s help, Avril won a contest and got to sing a duet with Shania Twain at one of her arena shows in 1999. (Shania Twain’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “You’re Still The One,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

Labels started sniffing around the young Avril Lavigne, and she did a 15-minute audition for LA Reid, then the head of Arista. On the strength of that one performance, Reid signed Avril to a gigantic deal. She dropped out of high school and started trying to put together a country record. By that time, though, Avril was getting into skateboarding and hanging out with punk kids, and none of the country songs felt like natural fits. Eventually, Arista put Avril together with the songwriting and production team known as the Matrix, and she worked with them to write all the biggest hits from what would become her 2002 debut album Let Go.

At the beginning of Avril Lavigne’s video for her debut single “Complicated,” she skateboards up to a bunch of her dude friends, and they make a quick decision to “crash a mall.” They spend the video running around and causing approachable goofball havoc, but the music doesn’t fit the visuals. “Complicated” is a big, sticky alt-pop singalong with a whole lot of Alanis Morissette in its bones, and it took off in a huge way, peaking at #2 in the summer that nothing but Nelly songs were going all the way to #1. (It’s an 8.) Avril went harder into cartoonish pseudo-punk territory on her follow-up story-song “Sk8er Boi,” a #10 hit. (It’s a 7.) Suddenly, Avril Lavigne was a very big deal. You’d got to the mall, and a huge percentage of the teenage girls there would be dressed like her.

Let Go became an absolute blockbuster, going platinum seven times over. Another single, the ballad “I’m With You,” got to #4. (It’s another 7.) Lavigne went out on tour with a hired-gun backing band mostly made up of members of the Ontario punk band Closet Monster. There was definitely some anti-teenpop backlash in Avril’s sudden ascent, but Let Go was mostly just a sharp, canny, well-timed pop record. Avril’s voice was distinctive and expressive, and she knew how to communicate her image through her songs and her videos. She struck a chord, and then she stuck around.

For her 2004 sophomore album Under My Skin, Avril Lavigne intentionally set out to make something less pop and more serious. She probably succeeded more than she wanted. On that album, Avril worked with relatively credible rocker types like Butch Walker and Our Lady Peace’s Raine Maida. The album went triple platinum — still a huge success, but less than half of what Let Go had sold. Only one Under My Skin single, the pretty kickass ballad “My Happy Ending,” made the top 10 in the US. (That one got to #9. It’s an 8.) When it came time to make another record, Avril pivoted hard in the other direction. She went way more pop.

After the success of Let Go, a whole brigade of almost-Avrils showed up on the pop scene. R&B still dominated the Hot 100, but you started to see more and more singers dressing vaguely punk and singing big, majestic quasi-rock songs. The most successful of the post-Avril set was Ashlee Simpson, who had a pretty good run before her infamously viral moment trying to lip-sync on Saturday Night Live. That would’ve been nowhere near as big a deal now, but in the teenpop-backlash moment, it made people way too mad. (Ashlee Simpson’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “Pieces Of Me,” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)

At the same time, the inaugural American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, who’s been in this column once and who will eventually be back, pivoted in a more rock-informed direction on her 2004 sophomore album Breakaway. Avril Lavigne actually co-wrote the Breakaway title track; it was originally supposed to appear on Let Go. Clarkson took that song to #6. (It’s an 8.)

But there were even bigger hits on Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway album. The biggest of those songs were co-written by Max Martin, the Swedish pop mastermind who’d already written gigantic hits for teenpop stars like Britney Spears and *NSYNC and who will appear in this column many more times. Martin used Breakaway to reinvent his whole style, and he had help. With the gigantic hit “Since U Been Gone,” Martin and a key collaborator supercharged the indie rock of the moment and turned it into something stadium-sized. (“Since U Been Gone” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

This is where we need to start talking about Dr. Luke, a guy who will appear in this column many times. Lukasz Gottwald — Bond villain-ass name — is a Rhode Island native who mostly grew up in Manhattan. In high school, Gottwald sold weed and got really good at playing a bunch of instruments. After a couple of years at the Manhattan School Of Music, he secured himself a spot in the house band on Saturday Night Live. Gottwald started out on that show in 1997, and he kept that job for a solid decade. By the time he quit, he’d co-written and produced his first #1 hit, which is the song that you’re reading about today. Avril Lavigne sang that #1 hit as a musical guest on the show while Luke was still in the house band. His final SNL episode was a couple of weeks later.

While he was working at SNL, Lukasz Gottwald started producing music. In 1997, under the name Kasz, he released a 12″ single called “Wet Lapse” on the hugely important New York underground rap label Rawkus. “Wet Lapse” is basically an instrumental rap track, but it’s clean and bright. Gottwald wanted to produce music for the rappers on Rawkus, but his sound might’ve been too pop. Gottwald did, however, get something out of that association. He claims that the Rawkus star Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey, convinced him to stop calling himself Kasz and gave him the Dr. Luke nickname instead. (Mos Def’s highest-charting Hot 100 single is “Definition,” from his and Talib Kweli’s Black Star project, which peaked at #60.)

While DJ’ing at a party, Dr. Luke met Max Martin, who’d just arrived in New York. Luke started showing Martin around New York clubs, and he essentially signed on as Martin’s right-hand man. Together, Martin and Luke wrote and produced “Since U Been Gone” and some other Kelly Clarkson hits. They also worked with the Backstreet Boys and the Veronicas and Daughtry, and they made a couple of big hits with Pink, an artist who will be in this column a few times. When Avril Lavigne made her third album The Best Damn Thing, her main collaborator was Dr. Luke — just Luke by himself, without Max Martin. (Avril and Martin would work together later.)

Avril Lavigne once told MTV that she wrote the hook for “Girlfriend,” her opening track from The Best Damn Thing, while she was drunk: “The chorus was written in two minutes. It took nothing.” I’m slightly surprised that it took that long. “Girlfriend” has got to be one of the most bone-simple songs that’s ever appeared in this column. It’s just Avril Lavigne yelling at some dude, telling him that his girlfriend sucks and that he should date Avril Lavigne instead. By this point, Avril was married to Deryck Whibley, leader of the Ontario pop-punk band Sum 41; maybe that’s how she landed him. (Sum 41’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2001 bubble-punk banger “Fat Lip,” peaked at #66.)

Lots and lots of women have said upsetting things about what it’s like to work with Dr. Luke, and this column will get into that whole saga soon enough. But Avril Lavigne apparently had a blast with him. Avril and Luke laid down the “Girlfriend” vocals quickly, and then Luke added the gigantic drum-shuffle that will forever tie the song to Toni Basil’s “Mickey.” In its hammering simplicity, “Girlfriend” probably also owes something to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” which was apparently more influential than I realized at the time.

There’s another possible influence in there, too. After “Girlfriend” blew up, two members of Berkeley power-poppers the Rubinoos sued Avril Lavigne and Dr. Luke, claiming that they’d plagiarized the Rubinoos’ 1979 single “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” Avril and Luke both denied the charges. On MySpace, Avril wrote that she’d been “falsely accused” and that she’d never heard the Rubinoos’ song. But the Rubinoos did a version of they “hey hey you you” thing decades earlier, and Avril and Luke eventually settled out of court.

“Girlfriend” is pretty much a song for kids. There’s no nuance, no give and take. It’s just one big, ridiculous chant: “Hey hey! You you! I don’t like your girlfriend! No way, no way! I think you need a new one!” Nobody could mistake “Girlfriend” for the work of a rock band in a room. Dr. Luke played most of the instruments himself, and there’s an antiseptic assembled-via-Pro-Tools feeling to the track. (Avril gets percussion credit for rhythmically blowing on the mouth of a beer bottle in the booth.) But even with all its lab-created sheen, “Girlfriend” has some energy, and most of that energy comes from Avril Lavigne.

She sounds like she’s having fun. That, years later, is my big takeaway. All the people involved in making “Girlfriend” seem to understand that the song is profoundly silly, and they steer right into it. Where Avril Lavigne might’ve been trying to express some big, heavy feelings on her previous album, “Girlfriend” is music for throwing pies in people’s faces. The song is about convincing someone to break up with his significant other, but it’s not even remotely seductive. Instead, it’s cartoon-badger shit. It’s like Avril knows she’s more fun than this chump’s girlfriend, and she’s more interested in gleefully doing something shitty than she is in the actual boy. On the stomp-clap bridge, you can hear Avril and Dr. Luke maniacally giggling in the studio, and the spirit of those giggles is all over the song. “Girlfriend” is the sound of someone getting away with something.

It’s annoying. Of course it’s annoying. Avril Lavigne has a voice like a knife, and if you aren’t in the mood for that voice, even her most majestic ballads can feel like they’re specifically engineered to make your brain bleed. “Girlfriend” is that voice cranked all the way up and then given a megaphone. She’s just bleating at us the whole time, and the canned guitar riffage and big drum booms can feel forced and oppressive. But the song is also catchy and insidious enough to get stuck in your head from here to eternity.

The “Girlfriend” video was a big deal. The Malloys, the same directors who’d made Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” video, concocted the sort of Looney Tunes scenario that Twisted Sister might’ve made two decades earlier. There’s a boy out playing mini-golf with his girlfriend, and there’s another girl who thinks he should be with her instead. The other girl does all sorts of asshole shit to the first girl, who’s really just minding her own business, but we’re supposed to root for the second girl anyway. It mostly works, since Avril Lavigne plays both girls.

Dark-haired punk Avril does everything in her power to make red-haired preppy Avril’s life hell. She kicks the boyfriend in the butt and yells that she should be his girlfriend right in front of his girlfriend! Then she tears the girlfriend out of a photo booth, steals the girlfriend’s food right before her big Lady And The Tramp moment, and hits a golf ball at the girlfriend’s head. Finally, the girlfriend gets mad and runs at her, but she accidentally dives into a Porta-Potty, which obviously tips over. The boyfriend laughs at all this and then runs off with the other girl. What a dick! Who would want to be this guy’s girlfriend? In the early days of YouTube, the “Girlfriend” video was omnipresent; famously, it was the first video ever to rack up 100 million views.

The remix was big, too. For Dr. Luke’s “Girlfriend” rework, he paired Avril Lavigne up with Lil Mama, a teenage Brooklyn rapper who’d just had a #10 hit with the awesomely fluffy pop-rap anthem “Lip Gloss.” (That one is a 9.) Around this time, I spent an afternoon hanging out with Lil Mama in a record-label conference room for a Village Voice story, and she impressed me. On the “Girlfriend” remix, Lil Mama pretty much takes the song over, rapping fast nonsense and giving an energy boost to a song that was already plenty energetic. The chaotic, random-ass combination works pretty well; I like it better than the original. Avril and Lil Mama made another video for the remix, and it had them doing some supremely daffy choreography.

This remix did not turn Lil Mama into a star. Mama scored one more #10 hit with “Shawty Get Loose,” a 2008 collaboration with Chris Brown and T-Pain, two artists who will appear in this column soon. (It’s a 6.) These days, Lil Mama is way more famous for an ill-advised stage-crash than for any of her songs. At the VMAs, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys were performing a song that’ll eventually appear in this column. Mama ran up onstage, stood next to the two of them, and struck a pose. Jay-Z’s confusion was extremely funny, and Lil Mama’s career never really recovered. (Soon, this column will discuss a different Jay-Z stage-crashing incident that drew a very different reaction.)

Avril Lavigne never had a VMA stage-crash moment, but she hasn’t made another big hit since “Girlfriend.” In some ways, “Girlfriend” might’ve been a bad career move, even though it was a huge hit. Avril had been working to be taken seriously, and then she had her biggest song ever with something that felt extremely bubbly and disposable. (Today, both “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” have more Spotify streams.) When “Girlfriend” was big, my much-younger sister, who isn’t a big music person, asked what I thought of “all these artists from the ’90s trying to make comebacks.” When I asked who she was talking about, she said, “I don’t know, Avril Lavigne?” Avril Lavigne is not from the ’90s, but if that’s how her target audience saw her, then that might’ve been a problem.

The Best Damn Thing went double platinum, which means it didn’t quite sell as well as Under My Skin. None of the follow-up singles charted very high, either. Avril hasn’t been back in the top 10 since, though she came close when “What The Hell,” the lead single from her 2011 album Goodbye Lullaby, peaked at #11. (Lavigne wrote that song with Max Martin and with Shellback, the guy who eventually replaced Dr. Luke as Martin’s main collaborator.)

After “Girlfriend,” Avril Lavigne had a weird run. She went long stretches without releasing albums. She broke up with Deryck Whibley and then spent a few years married to Chad Kroeger, leader of former Number Ones artists Nickelback. Avril is now reportedly dating Tyga; she ain’t got no type. On the career front, Avril dabbled in Christian pop before moving back toward pop-punk. But Avril has never disappeared, and she left a cultural impact that still resonates. In 2011, Rihanna released her single “Cheers (Drink To That),” which was built on a sample of Avril’s “yeah-ee-yeah” howl on “I’m With You.” Avril got a songwriting credit and appeared in the video, and “Cheers (Drink To That)” peaked at #7. (It’s a 10.)

These days, Avril Lavigne is riding a whole new wave of pop-punk nostalgia, and she now stands tall as an influential elder. Willow Smith collaborated with her. Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo, two artists who will eventually appear in this column, invited her onstage at their shows. Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, who played on some tracks from The Best Damn Thing, signed Avril to his label, and she released an album called Love Sux last year. I don’t think we’ll see Avril in this column again, but who knows?

My daughter loves “Girlfriend.” When the song came out, my kid was still two years away from being born. I asked her how she even knows “Girlfriend,” and she said, “I guess it’s just one of those songs that’s always around, that everyone knows.” By that definition, maybe “Girlfriend” is a pop classic — a pop classic that, in its own slightly endearing way, kind of sucks.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: The extremely annoying California band Zebrahead released “Girlfriend” cover in 2009, and they also did a shot-for-shot remake of the video. But get this: The girl in the video? It’s not a girl! It’s the guy from Zebrahead! Behold the wackiness here:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Girlfriend” soundtracking a makeover montage in the 2008 film The House Bunny:

(Emma Stone’s only charting single, the 2017 Ryan Gosling duet “City Of Stars,” peaked at #45. Katharine McPhee’s highest-charting single, her 2006 version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” peaked at #12. As a member of 3LW, Kiely Williams made it to #23 with 2000’s “No More (Baby I’ma Do Right).”)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For whatever reason, I find Rob Riggle’s extremely silly 2016 Lip Sync Battle performance of “Girlfriend” to be way less irritating than that Zebrahead video. Here it is:

(Lip Sync Battle co-host LL Cool J has already appeared in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Halsey and Avril Lavigne singing “Girlfriend” together at a Halloween party in 2019:

(Halsey will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music, is out now via Hachette Books. Hey hey you you, buy it here.

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