Avril Lavigne, "My Happy Ending" and "Don't Tell Me"
If "My Happy Ending" isn't another brilliant single from Avril Lavigne's second album, Under My Skin, then my name isn't Frank Wagoner. My name is Dylan Hicks. "My Happy Ending" is, at least, better than Skin's first single, "Don't Tell Me," which despite half a well-crafted chorus (the second half) is one vigorously irritating piece of music (killer line, underscored with the obligatory transistor-radio echo: "I'm really upset"--show, don't tell, sister!)
Teen pop stars, especially female teen pop stars, get a raw deal from meatheads old and young, and they're often accused of a vacuity that they generally possess in no greater quantity than vanloads of older and manlier musicians. Lavigne, then, is an easy target, which is another way of saying an uninteresting target. As a result, editors in the pop music press, I suspect, are more inclined to publish a favorable or at least not unkind review of an Avril Lavigne album than a slam, since any high school zine publisher could issue the latter. Whether their motivations are sincere or cynical or influenced by higher-ups, critics have on the whole been overgenerous to Avril. For instance the usually astute Kelefa Sanneh, reviewing Lavigne's Under My Skin for Rolling Stone, argued that the singer's special talent is her precise expression of "bored teenage blankness." She does this, says Sanneh, by singing "plainly," by resisting the ornamental excesses heard on American Idol. "She pronounces every syllable individually," Sanneh writes, "avoiding the slurred consonants and distended vowels that singers often use to convince us that their lyrics mean something. All Lavigne delivers is the words and the tune, and it's often enough."
That's fine writing and not a bad thesis on paper. It might even be briefly convincing if Lavigne's words and tunes were always as whiz-bang as they are on Under My Skin's Runaways-like "He Wasn't" or on the crunchy last two measures of "My Happy Ending"'s monster chorus. But Sanneh's analysis suffers from at least one crucial weakness, which is that it's not true. While Lavigne isn't interested in or capable of gospel/Mariah-rooted hyper-melismas, her singing is far from plain. Often she's a gaudy, tasteless singer. Her breathy, cracking, quavering style owes much to the Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan, another vocalist who rarely met an obnoxious affectation she didn't invite in for cheese and Wheat Thins. Lavigne contorts phrases with TV melodrama, pronounces words as if phonic corruption equaled distinction, and contrary to Sanneh's claim, she distends vowels left and right, turning "cry" into "cry-ee-eye-ee-eye" and "do" into "dew-ooh-ooh" (two examples from "Don't Tell Me"). (Distending vowels, by the way, is just fine, but Lavigne is lousy at it.)
These are worse sins than Lavigne's bad pitch and ugly timbre, problems that can be compensated for if one has other talents and isn't singing opera. Which isn't to say that her technical inadequacy isn't also a drag, as on the horrendously shrill second half of "Happy Ending"'s bridge. For that, the stock comparison would be to chipmunks, animated or natural, but that would be a calumniation of our chipmunk brethren. Measured against the panorama of competition, Lavigne is less terrible than mediocre. But mediocrity is insidious.
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