There aren't many constants in American popular culture, but one behavior that occurs with remarkable regularity is America's need to punish itself for its fascination with ephemera. Every few years, we do these massive, meaningless acts of contrition, sacrificing our feel-good pin-up pop stars for musicians who are decidedly more "credible." The last time this happened was in the mid-'90s, when we welcomed Jewel and Paula Cole into our CD racks, fostering a "serious songwriter" revolution that lasted a whopping three years.
Well, it's repenting time again. And our newest paragon of sincerity is 18-year-old Canadian songstress Avril Lavigne. Eschewing the sexpot ethos, Lavigne has leveraged her career against America's retreat from big beats and dirrrty blondes. The strategy is working: She has sold close to 3 million records and recently landed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly as the spokesmodel for post-Britney America.
But what's fascinating about Lavigne is not that she's successful -- it's the way her success reflects our convoluted definitions of legitimacy. Consider the chief charge brought against polished pop -- that our teen dreams don't write their own material. It isn't enough that Christina or Mandy give voice and face to a string of platitudes -- they must have a hand in writing those platitudes as well.
Though it seems sound on the surface, the problem with this line of thinking is that it flies in the face of pop history. Elvis Presley wrote none of the songs he is famous for. And yet he is the very definition of credibility. More than half the songs on the first five Rolling Stones records were written by someone other than the Stones themselves, and most of the early Motown groups were little more than mouthpieces for label head Barry Gordy and songwriting juggernaut Holland-Dozier-Holland. To reverse the equation: Poison can claim songwriting credit for almost all of its canon -- but does that mean "I Want Action" is to be preferred over Aretha's rendering of "Chain of Fools"?
Put this way, linking authorship and authenticity is a risky proposition. Which gave rise to a different lament: The Backstreet Boys' greatest sin was the fact that they didn't play their own instruments. But follow that argument to the hilt, and you neutralize Otis Redding and Solomon Burke. Never mind the shattering implications for hip-hop avatars like Public Enemy and N.W.A.
And so, another course must be pursued -- this one even more tenuous than the other two: Our candy-striped cantors should be discarded because they're all image. Britney succeeded because she looked pretty -- she's a fashion plate, not a musician. But what does this do for the career of David Bowie, for whom obsession with image and fashion was a central conceit? What about Madonna, whose formidable career is owed in no small part to her ability to cast and re-cast her own public image?
By clinging to such limited and problematic definitions of credibility, we aren't really defining what "excellence" is -- we're simply defining what teen pop isn't. And now, meeting these wrongheaded and contradictory ideals is the principle upon which the careers of Avril and Vanessa Carlton and even the Vines, are being based. Label bosses like L.A. Reid know that we feel guilty about tarrying with the Backstreet Boys for a full six years, and they're going to play into our deep and desperate need for contrition by appeasing our stated, superficial ideals. Enter Avril: She writes her own songs, she plays some guitar, and she's not concerned with the way she looks. We know this because it's the premise for every single article and profile written about her.
The truth is we're not really any more tired of artifice than we were four years ago -- we've just changed the way that artifice looks. Avril's Dickies are just as much an image as Britney's cherry-red cat-suit. Until we figure that out and stop understanding pop music as a battle of extremes, we're never going to free ourselves of this maddening cycle of indulgence and attrition. All we're going to do is add more momentum to the pendulum.
Consider this: In three years, when everyone is suddenly tired of how "serious" pop music has become, where do you think we're going to look for relief?