Monday, June 6, 2011

The Cult of Avril Lavigne's Femininity

I think you might be taking your "punk princess"
title a bit too literally here, Avril.
Bold title, huh?  This post has been a long time in the making.  What side of me it reveals to the world I'm not entirely certain, but it's the next part of my narrative, and thus gets a post like the rest of them.  This post is ostensibly about Avril Lavigne, but it's really about perception, and how things are not always what they appear to be.  I will begin with a confession: I have an incredibly twisted, one-way, love-hate relationship with pop singer Avril Lavigne.  This relationship has existed since the release of her first album in 2002, and it continues to this day.  I have expended great time and effort trying to explain this relationship to myself, and now finally nine years later, I think I can.

I'll begin with some background.  I was not really popular with the ladies until my senior year of college.  I've lived most of my life in abject terror, held hostage to flickering, overwhelming anxiety about people, and in particular women.  I have a long history of run-ins with female authority figures, which while pertinent, are too lengthy to list in any detail here and deserve their own posts, so for now I'll trust that you can take me at my word.  My dating history before the age of 22 is equally dodgy.  I had one significant relationship in 2001, for which to say it ended acrimoniously would be a tremendous understatement.  Then nothing save for an on-again/off-again fling from 2003 to 2005, until finally in 2006 my love life started to pick up, culminating in meeting my fiancée in early 2007.  Social skills are not something that really developed in me until my twenties.  In the meantime, in part because of my romantic experiences and in part because of the way I had been raised (my mother is a radical femininst, but that's a post for another day), I had come to view women and feminine power as a kind of strange magical force -- a force I both feared and sought for myself.  Let's call it femme-manna.  Enter Avril Lavigne, who entered my life while I was working at a bookstore in 2002 and 2003 after dropping out of high school, while all my friends were starting college.

I am obsessed with direction.  There have been long swathes of my life where I felt like I've had very little of it, and I crave it more than anything else.  Presented with anyone young and successful -- their persona and image, but also particularly their confidence -- will quickly become the object of considerable envious obsession.  To me, direction is power.  So when I read an article about Avril Lavigne in 2002 after her debut album began to make it onto the playlist for our overhead sound system at the bookstore where I worked, there was an instant and devastating connection.  She plays hockey with boys.  She's confident and assertive.  Oh yeah, she's only seventeen.

Power.  Pee on me to show your dominance, why don't you?

Yes, like a good dominatrix or reptile, Avril Lavigne is the master of displaying her dominance.  Watch her videos, or read her interviews, or better yet, listen to the lyrics in her songs.  Whether it was her first record LET GO, THE BEST DAMN THING (of Girlfriend fame), or her latest single What the Hell.  I am Avril, she shouts, I am better than you, and I am in charge!  Moreover, she carefully cultivated a personal style that rebuked the loud, sexualized, but also subtly submissive femininity of stars who were popular at the time such as Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson.  At first it was actually quite masculine, evolving into time into the more feminine pink skulls that almost seemed to announce: "I have not only captured my femininity from THEM, but I've conquered it as well."  Not only that, there was this other element to it too: like she was saying "This is who I truly am."  Especially viewed side-by-side with someone like Britney Spears, she certainly made a compelling case.  And if Avril is one thing, she is very good at convincing others of how genuine she is.  In the cult of femme-manna, Avril was High Priestess.

So it went for the better part of a decade.  Avril continued with her message, each record she made seeming to only increase the level of intensity of her message, and me like a hopeless addict worshipping at the altar of the feminine power women seemed to hold over me.  She even managed to penetrate the fantasy world, shaping how I viewed my sexuality and allowing me to warp it around my own delusions of dominance and submission.  This was, in fact, a spell that remained in place even throughout my relationship with Kari.  For years I couldn't explain it.  Except now I think I can, and herein lies the lesson in perception.

There's always been a part of me that wanted to call Avril a fraud.  She didn't really mean any of her lyrics; this was all a sham, a giant dog and pony show fueled by a cynical desire for money, fame, and power.  I won't deny that probably had something to do with it -- after all, why does any artist slave away over their creations but for the glory?  This I can actually relate to.  But there was always something more to it.  I believe very firmly that if we tell a story about ourselves long enough, that story will eventually become us.  This is true regardless of how genuine or deceitful that story is.  Avril has been broadcasting her message for a long time now.  If she didn't start out that way, she certainly seems to be living it now.  In fact, it is because Avril seems so genuine about her message that I feel like I can finally understand it.

For the sake of argument, let's take Avril at face value.  That means we'll take her music, lyrics, and image literally.  What is she?  Avril Lavigne is, quite literally, what we expect a famous empowered young woman to look, act, and feel like.  I'm not using the word "empowered" here in its colloquial sense, but rather a literal one.  She has a lot of power, and she wields it.  Read her lyrics.  Sk8er Boi, Girlfriend, My Happy Ending, What the Hell, the title track from The Best Damn Thing (in which she actually goes to the effort to spell her name out as part of the song, and proclaims herself quite literally "the best damn thing your eyes have ever seen").  She kind of comes across as a selfish bitch.  Not just an allegorical one, either.  She is someone who I genuinely do not wish to meet or get to know.  I've watched video of her concerts: they only seem to reinforce the notion.  I've been to both large and small concerts.  There's always some degree of interaction between artist and audience.  This ain't it.  Rather, it's high mass at the temple of femme-manna to the glory of the high priestess herself.  And before you claim that all pop singers do this, watch any Lady GaGa performance and see if she does the same thing.

Yet, at the heart of it, this doesn't make me enjoy or desire Avril any less.  It's the social equivalent of a highly-sophisticated optical illusion.  I desire her power and prestige and seek it out.  She embodies it.  All this despite the fact that what that power and prestige actually means in functional, literal terms is something highly undesirable to me.  Avril isn't what I actually want.  She's what I think I want.  Therein is the heart of her genius as a pop singer: give us what we think we desire, and make us believe it.  We do want to believe it.  There is some powerful part of our brains that tell us not only that this is the way things are, but that it's desirable and damn the consequences.  To a girl between the ages of eleven and fifteen, I can imagine this message is especially powerful.  It carries all the more weight, because she's been so successful at putting her fame to useful ends.  The fragrance, the clothing line -- she's a brand and her brand is now a business.  The most successful artists all do the same thing.  Artists don't really sell art anymore, or at least the ones who do don't see a whole lot of material success for it.  Materially successful artists sell an image, and that image becomes a brand of which their art is only one interlocking part.  Purists decry this as a corruption, but I don't see it that way.  It's a natural evolution, and there's nothing wrong with it.

We all tell stories about ourselves and the people we meet and see in our lives.  Avril to me is a story, for better and for worse.  There's nothing wrong with that.  The only time it should be considered a problem is if it causes the storyteller distress.  I am not an artistic purist.  It doesn't matter how eloquent and beautiful your message is if you're screaming it into a brick wall.  Rather, let this post just serve as a caution not to let the stories you tell and the beliefs that go with them go to your head.  Things are not always what they seem.


  1. You're one helluva writer. You have talent so keep it up.

  2. I remember when Avril "changed" her style and everyone was saying "oh, we want the old Avril!". Now that HTNGU single appears and she used her Complicated "costume" everyone's saying "Avil is the best! Learn something Beyoncé." and stuff like that. Personally I like her music, image and brands but I like what you say that "CAUTION: Don't let the stories you tell and the beliefs that go with them go to your head." To keep her and all other artist the way they are: ENTERTAINMENT and a story to learn for bad or good. That's all.