For girls who roamed the mall wildly, and mildly, in the early aughts, Avril Lavigne helped ask the pressing questions of the era. Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated? Are sk8er bois worth the hassle, or should you simply say “see you l8r boi?” And, most evocatively, isn't anyone tryin' to find me? In a world of Britneys and Xtinas, Lavigne was the wholesome tomboy who didn’t quite fit in. She was more straight-edge than her fellow pop stars, not singing about sexuality or wrestling a python on stage. For critics, she was too pop to be punk, and therefore lacking in cred.
On her sixth studio album, Lavigne is making music as if no time or stylistic shift in pop has occurred at all. You can hear it, when she goes for broke on the self-penned song “I Fell in Love with the Devil” (ostensibly not about her Nickelback ex Chad Kroeger, who co-writes on the album) and “It Was in Me.” The subject matter runs a very short gamut, from self-actualization to romantic idealization, with one common thread: A lot of navel-gazing and hand-wringing that leave the listener unsure if Lavigne is the victim or heroine in her own story.
There are incongruencies all over that set the listener off balance. The album’s second single, “Dumb Blonde,” is perhaps the most befuddling among them. It feels forced to feature Nicki Minaj in a song with the chorus “I ain't no dumb blonde / I ain't no stupid Barbie doll” when Minaj cites Barbie as an inspiration repeatedly. It’s a feature that worked well for Ariana Grande and is grossly mishandled by Lavigne. Then there’s the beat that's marching band influences invoke Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” — is this a poke at a particular dumb blonde or simply a callback to an era of pop in which Lavigne feels more comfortable? Either way, it’s the only song that sounds like this on the album, which only layers on more confusion.
It’s difficult to imagine Lavigne trying to compete with today’s pop sound; the stripped down, hip-hop infused, Soundcloud-driven world that even Taylor Swift embraces is such an anathema to Lavigne’s pop punk world where guitar-driven pop still exists. And her rhyming schematics (she memorably tries to bounce “pajamas” and “bananas” off each other in “Goddess,”) would never work in the current pop style. For Lavigne, staying in her early aughts lane isn’t just a creative choice; it’s her only choice.
Since her debut, Lavigne’s music has struggled to reconcile grandiose, clean pop production with a self-consciously messy, rebellious singer. For Lavigne, the tightrope might be easier to walk if she shifted more towards rock, rather than try to recreate a pop sound that has long since left the arena.