Friday, March 1, 2019

Avril Lavigne's Got Her "Head Above Water" & Her Voice Strong

After her long and painful battle with Lyme Disease, Avril Lavigne is happily in remission and making new music. Her new full length album Head Above Water was released on February 15, with twelve songs including the powerful and inspiring title track that meant a lot to me personally when it was released last Fall.

I could definitely relate to that song, in its overall imagery and in the very poignant prayer it articulated. (I wrote an article about it on this blog back in September - see HERE.)

Now there's a whole new "big record." Woot!⭐ I am really excited for her. She did it! She's got the Lyme under control. She managed to write, record, and release a full length album. I'm amazed. Knowing what I know about music and Lyme, I feel ... proud of her!

This weird disease brings together people from many different backgrounds and circumstances of life, who find that they share a common experience that can be difficult for others to understand. We have learned to appreciate one another's very particular (and sometimes very peculiar) sufferings, struggles, setbacks, victories, and overall tenacity.

Thus the old, gray-bearded professor discovers a surprising sense of "kinship" with a performer who, through most of her career, has been known as the Punk-Pop Princess.

Actually, it's not completely surprising. The professor is himself a guitarist (and was once a pretty good one too), and anyone who reads this blog knows he keeps an eye on contemporary music.

But still... my interests more recently have been with independent music and emerging venues like YouTube (and now, Instagram), rather than mainstream pop. Moreover, during the years of Avril Lavigne's rise to international superstardom, I was going through the worst period of my own Lyme odyssey. It was only when she announced her illness in 2015 that I thought, "Oh, I should find out more about her," and began to listen to her music.

There was a lot of music: five albums and five world tours in 12 years. There was also the whole "Avril Phenomenon," which hits many of the themes I continue to examine in my Media Studies Project. Avril's image is an example of the workings of our enormously "expanded" collective imagination; it's a multimedia story we've "seen," "heard," and "read about" from her own performances and recordings, along with countless media-generated interpretations. It has been woven together - moreover - during a time of rapid transition in media technology.

On the "outside," it has all the elements of the classic "rock 'n roll fairy tale": talented small town kid gets 'discovered' by record exec, makes the album her way, becomes an overnight sensation and, eventually, a generational icon. Wow, awesome!

It also has (on the outside) some of the elements of the classic "rock 'n roll cautionary tale" of life-spiraling-out-of-control: ambitious kid with complex personality and (perhaps) unresolved issues becomes famous rock star too young too fast, is bombarded and "traumatized" by hyper-exposure to the immense power of the whole realm of modern high-speed brain-and-body-stretching technology; she travels the world, is seen and heard (live or through media) by millions of people, has a total blast, parties hard, and is constantly hounded by paparazzi who usually end up with pictures of her flipping them off. Nevertheless, she has her remaining adolescence and young adulthood relentlessly scrutinized and distorted by tabloid gossip.

She puts out more hit records, and experiments with various musical and fashion styles - which cause some to think she's having an identity crisis and others to create an "Avril is Dead" conspiracy theory in which she is replaced by a double (or a clone). She tries marriage twice and goes through other relationships, ends up partying even harder and drinking (probably too much) and singing about partying and drinking and "getting wasted" and "never growing up." Then she CRASHES!, before the age of 30, and disappears.

Did I miss anything? In any case, you get the idea.

Sounds like a template for a celebrity melodrama (except the "crash" at the "end" comes from a place entirely different from what the script usually calls for).

But this story is not the real story of a human being. It's a distorted projection of superficial impressions that gets in the way of what the artist is trying to express through her creative work. Obviously, the story is connected to some real and not always edifying events, some difficulties, excesses, and flaws. And the artist contributes to the cultivation of this Big Story, more or less voluntarily. An artist's ego seeks attention, but real artistic sensibility is not long satisfied with this kind of attention. Yet "the music business" can make artists feel trapped in the perpetuation of this external image. We also trap them with our expectations and our fickleness.

As for the "inside" of the story ... well, we have no room for an "inside," because that requires respect for privacy, and the recognition of the ambivalence of a human life in progress, with unresolved problems and paradoxes that defy categorization. We have to admit that we don't really know and don't understand most of the story of a person.

Our culture's strange obsession with "celebrities" says more about us than it does about the actors, entertainers, public figures, and artists that we alternately idolize and skewer.

What are we expecting from our popular music artists in these times when everything is too big, too fast, too much?

I want a musician to make good music. I want a songwriter to write good songs and a singer to sing them in a way that brings them to life.

Avril Lavigne has proven consistently that she can write and sing songs that range over a wide spectrum of emotions. Her artistry is direct, intuitive, even visceral when she grasps a theme and drives it home with the whole force of her distinctive voice. This means more than volume and pitch (though she has plenty of both); it's her whole way of enunciating the right phrase at the right moment with the right emotional intensity so that it wafts through the ears or cuts down to the bone.

The words of her songs are usually simple; the key is the coherence between a phrase and her very particular, dramatically gauged articulation of it. I sometimes say that my favorite lyrics of Avril are "Yeah," "nana" and "lalalala." She knows just where and how to insert them. Her singing voice is her own unique craft, and as such she can "own" songs that would ordinarily be classified under different genres.

There's even a real CD. With a booklet. Like the olden days!
When she was 17, someone asked her what genre her music belonged in, and she responded without batting an eye: "it's 'Avril Lavigne'!"

This is especially evident on the new album. Critics have complained that Avril doesn't have a coherent style. They accuse her of dabbling, going through the motions, singing a bunch of generic songs,

They are not listening!

Some music critics seemed to have already made up their minds that this album is just the last chapter (or the epilogue) to "the Avril Story" that I outlined above. Because that story is "so over" - it's "so last decade;" this album is a comback "attempt" that "falls flat." "She hasn't kept up with the trends in music." "It needs more of this, it needs less of this." Blah blah blah.

I don't agree.

I have listened to the Head Above Water album several times over the past two weeks. It's overall a very good piece of work. Her voice is stronger and more agile than ever, and she makes full use of it. The singing is solid and has some epic moments. The overall mood of the album (i.e. in most of the songs) is calmer, more mature, more subtle in its themes.

There are themes of struggle and recovery in these songs, but they are set within the context of relationships. Thus the album is not about Avril's experience with Lyme Disease, though some of the real human drama of this sickness might lie under the surface.

It's also not a "worship album" (surely no one was expecting it would be). God only gets mentioned in the title track, which was written about a particularly vivid experience during a terrible time. Another song uses some religious themes in a metaphorical way. Otherwise this is not a "religious album" except insofar as it expresses and portrays something of the drama of God's needy, often mistaken, afflicted, resilient, hopeful human creatures. That's nothing new for Avril as a songwriter, though I sense some deepening and enrichment going on.

This may be an album that ushers in a new phase in her musical career. It's not an album that "can't find its style or consistency" nor is it a "weak effort of a has-been artist" (some of these critics have got me mad, ha!) - it has a very precise style: it's genuine "Avril Lavigne."

It's a style I have come to appreciate.