Document Sample

                       Sundar Subramanian

                     Studies In Popular Music
         Avril Lavigne, a teenage girl from smalltown Ontario, has been a hugely popular

and visible pop phenomenon since last year, with the second best-selling album of 20021

and two number one singles, including ―Sk8er Boi‖. This study will argue first that

Lavigne‘s persona, as has been constructed through channels of mass media and

marketing, is one that has largely been constructed as that of a young female pop star

who is oppositional to contemporary female pop stars such as Britney Spears. She has

been positioned as a youthful ‗tomboy‘ figure who is less associated with glamorous,

sexualized fashion or a ‗sex object‘ type of image. She has been associated with

constructions of perceived ‗rock‘ or ‗punk‘ authenticity (albeit in a somewhat conflicted

manner) as well as with certain aspects of traditional morality and community. Reference

will be made to coverage in mass media outlets such as Maclean’s magazine, Rolling

Stone magazine, and MTV, as well as Lavigne‘s offical web page. Stylistic elements of

―Sk8er Boi‖ will then be analysed to demonstrate that this is a distinctive piece of music

which reflects and signifies all of these elements of Lavigne‘s distinctive persona in its

music, vocal delivery, and lyrics. The instrumental track will be discussed to argue that

the combination of a loud postpunk guitar rock idiom with a high level of studio

production in the specific manner of the song implies a certain degree of ‗rock‘ or ‗punk‘

authenticity while at the same time contradicting certain elements of ‗rock‘ or ‗punk‘

ideals in a manner appropriate to a ‗tomboy‘ pop star. Similarly, vocal delivery will be

compared to contemporary examples of both ‗pop‘ and ‗punk‘ voices to demonstrate its

distinctiveness from both as well as its incorporation of signifiers from these idioms as

    Shanda Deziel, ―Avril‘s Edge‖, Maclean’s, January 13, 2003, 24.
well as outside sources to signify Lavigne‘s distinct persona. Finally lyrical style and

content will be considered in terms of these elements.

       Lavigne‘s youth is one element of her image which is strongly emphasized in the

media and marketing. For example, her official web page contains a ―Journal‖ section.

The first entry (―My first journal entry‖) reads:


       This is my first journal entry. Sorry I didn‘t get it up earlier. I‘m gonna try to get
       things up more often .(sic) My life‘s been real crazy lately, but I‘m gonna try to
       make time for this more often.

       I‘ve been starting to realize how special fans are lately. I get approached quite
       often now and am realizing that people do care, and people do want to hear from
       me. Sweet. I like writing and expressing myself, so this should be fun.

       Right now I‘m sitting in the Pittsburgh airport. I just finished eating a McDonalds
       crispy chicken sandwich,… I feel sick. Now a days it feels like half of my life is
       spent on airplanes and in airports ……..BORING!!! I‘m going to Norfolk , VA
       for some radio promotion. Then I‘m off to NYC for a couple of days. I‘m doing
       TRL soon.

       Today I was in Toronto making a cameo appearance in the new Treble Charger
       video for "Hundred Million" It‘s a good song. Swollen Members, Gob, and Sum
       41 were also making cameo appearances. We did a bit of stage diving and
       moshing. Good times.

       Much Music came by and I did a little interview with them. I also had 2 photo
       shoots, and another interview. I felt bad cause I was really rushed and couldn‘t
       stop to sign autographs and do pictures for every one who wanted them. I tried!!
       You know it‘s really cool when people ask for a hug. I love it. Hugs are special. I
       think they are important.

       I love hugs!!
       I‘m gonna go cause I‘m tired k.


       P.S. my cd comes out in like a week. June 4. all I can really say is…..Finally!

The diction used throughout is typical of the conversational tone of a Canadian teenager.

Examples can be seen in the use of the contraction ―gonna‖, the use of ―real‖ as an

adverb instead of ―really‖, the one-word declaration ―Sweet‖, the exclamation

―BORING!!!!‖ with multiple exclamation marks, the descriptive phrase ―really cool‖,

and the abbreviation ―k‖ for ―okay‖. Also notable are the references to ―stage diving and

moshing‖, which remain popular youth activities at rock concerts.

       When Shanda Deziel wrote about Lavigne in the cover story for Maclean’s

magazine‘s January 13, 2003 issue, Lavigne‘s youth was heavily emphasized. After

noting that Lavigne was in a ―foul mood‖ on the day of the interview, she comments:

       Has Lavigne already become a spoiled rock ‗n‘ roll diva who considers it her right
       to mope through an interview? She‘s certainly rich and famous enough for that.
       But after witnessing two concerts, watching her and her band‘s innocent
       backstage antics, and grabbing some more one-on-one time which yielded brief
       moments of animated conversation, a couple of smiles and even one hearty laugh,
       I‘m ready to give Avril the benefit of the doubt. She‘s probably just a typically
       moody young person – likeable when she‘s up and trying when she‘s down. Her
       celebrity doesn‘t seem to have hit yet, but what has struck is the teenage blues.
       And she has to contend with them in that pressure cooker known as pop stardom.3

Lavigne is presented then as a ‗typical‘ teenager, one who has not even been changed by

celebrity. Her irritability, which in another pop star might be ascribed to arrogance (―a

spoiled rock ‗n‘ roll diva‖), is ascribed instead to ―the teenage blues‖. Her mother, Judy,

is later quoted: ―‘She‘s still a teenager‘, says Judy. ‗We have three teenagers. We go

through a lot of changes and mood swings.‘‖4

       Lavigne‘s father John is also quoted:

  http://www.avril-lavigne.com/indexframes.html (―Journal‖ [―My first journal entry‖])
  Deziel, 23-24.
  Deziel, 25
        He wishes she wouldn‘t talk about drinking in interviews, but recognizes she‘s 18
        and has to experience things for herself. He calls her a prankster: ―She can stir
        the pot if she wants to. If she didn‘t have this [career] she‘d be in more trouble
        than you can shake a stick at.‖5

It is notable not only that Lavigne‘s youthful need for experience and rebelliousness are

emphasized but also that her parents are still referred to as authorities in this context.

        Also important to consider is the construction of femininity that is presented and

emphasized in coverage and presentation of Lavigne. One archetype often used to

describe her is that of the ‗tomboy‘: ―. . . against a backdrop of hypersexualized stars like

Britney Spears, she‘s emerged as a tomboyish, skateboard-toting alternative for both boys

and girls‖6. After quoting her father John on Lavigne‘s ‗prankster‘ nature, Deziel also

mentions Lavigne‘s participation in a boys‘ ice hockey league and her propensity for


        But when asked about her self-perpetuated reputation for fighting, he [John] says,
        ―I don‘t think she looks for fights, but she can hold her own if she has to. She‘s
        had enough of those in hockey.‖

        At ages 10 and 11, Lavigne played in a boy‘s league in Napanee. ―One time,‖
        John recalls, ―the two teams were coming off the ice and next thing you know
        there‘s a great big commotion and moms and dads were pulling out. I went to the
        dressing room thinking, ‗Who‘s that rotten kid that started this?‘ and . . . she
        started it.‖ She also played baseball and was a pretty good pitcher. In Grade 10,
        she discovered skateboarding.7

Lavigne‘s participation in activities that are traditionally coded as masculine is

emphasized here – not only did she participate in sports but she participated in violent

(hockey) and dangerous (skateboarding) sports and was not only a participant in hockey

fights but an instigator.

  Deziel, 25.
  Deziel, 24.
  Deziel, 25-26.
       The biography on Lavigne‘s web page makes similar references to Lavigne‘s

tomboy nature, quoting her directly:

       She jokes, pointing out that touring with her own sk8er punk band of rocker boys
       probably won‘t be all that different from her childhood, ―I was always a tomboy
       and I guess I still am. I played hockey during fall/winter and baseball in the
       summer. I loved playing with the boys.‖8

       Elements of the ‗tomboy‘ can also be seen in Lavigne‘s fashion statement. The

photos that accompany Deziel‘s article depict Lavigne wearing a camouflage-print T-

shirt, worn blue jeans, scuffed basketball sneakers, ‗skater‘-style chains, and studded

wristbands. Photos on her web page show her in a black T-shirt, red plaid pants, and

thick leather boots, again with studded wristbands, sitting with her legs wide apart and

making ‗devil‘s-horn‘ ‗rock-salute‘ gestures. She makes similar gestures in photos

accompanying a Chart Attack article9. Even when Lavigne does ‗dress up‘, it‘s in a

particularly ‗tomboy‘-like fashion – famously, she wears a tie, tied loosely. This can be

seen in the video for ―Sk8er Boi‖ as well as in the photos on her web page. Eliscu

comments that ―She shops like a dude -- moving quickly and zeroing in on only what she

came to buy.‖10 She also comments that ―she‘s girly and tomboyish at the same time –

like when she shows me that she had her legs waxed and then explains that she did it

because she can‘t be bothered shaving‖11.

       A broader ‗anti-fashion‘ sort of aesthetic, which is compatible with the ‗tomboy‘

archetype seems to be important to Avril Lavigne‘s image. At the Grammy awards,

  http://www.avril-lavigne.com/indexframes.html, ―Bio‖.
  Brian Pascual, ―Avril Lavigne Hates Britney Spears‖, Chart Attack,
http://www.chartattack.com/damn/2002/04/1901.cfm, April 19, 2002.
   Jenny Eliscu, ―Avril Lavigne‖, Rolling Stone, Mar 20, 2003,
       Rowdy and rag-tag Avril Lavigne and her band all wore the ugliest tuxedos they
       could find. On purpose. Lavigne wore a tux with studs and skull-and-crossbones
       because, she said, "There's no friggin' way I was going to wear a dress." The rest
       of her bandmates wore clashing tuxes with gaggy water-squirting flowers and
       light-up bow ties12.

       The ‗tomboy‘ image is important in terms of how Lavigne has largely been

positioned – as oppositional to contemporary female pop stars like Britney Spears and

Christina Aguilera, as an ‗anti-Britney‘. Eliscu describes her as ―an icon . . . who wears

baggy pants, plastic bracelets and a scowl -- not the skimpy threads and Ultra brite smiles

of Britney and Mandy and Beyonce and pre-"Dirrty" Christina.‖13 Deziel‘s comment,

quoted above, that Lavigne‘s tomboyish, skateboard-toting image is an ‗alternative‘ to

the ―backdrop of hypersexualized stars like Britney Spears‖ is also salient here. In an

interview with Brian Pascual of Chart Attack entitled ―Avril Lavigne Hates Britney

Spears‖, she is quoted on Spears:

       I mean, the way she dresses – would you walk around the street in a fuckin‘ bra? .
       . I‘m not trying to dis anyone, but with me, the clothes I wear onstage are the
       clothes I would wear to school or go shopping. I‘m not gonna go up onstage and
       dress different. Britney Spears goes up onstage and dresses like a showgirl.
       She‘s not being herself up there because she dances like a ho. Is she ho (sic)?
       She says she‘s a virgin. Y‘know, it‘s just not clicking. She‘s doing one thing and
       saying another thing, y‘know. It‘s definitely not what I‘m going to do.14

       A conservative element could perhaps be observed in this oppositional

positioning. Britney Spears is perceived as inauthentic because she ―dresses like a

showgirl‖ and ―dances like a ho‖ – Lavigne even compares her to a prostitute, using a

derogatory slang term, because she wears revealing clothing. She loses authenticity

   Abbey Goodman, ―Durst Dresses For a Gray Mood, Avril Gets Hideous, Rappers Turn
Pink On Grammy Red Carpet‖, MTV.com – News,
http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1470106/02232003/lavigne_avril.jhtml, February 23,
(―She‘s not being herself. . .‖) by behaving in a conventionally sexually provocative


       And Lavigne‘s Christian, traditionally moral upbringing has been emphasized in

the media coverage:

       The Lavignes are devoutly Christian; some of Avril's first singing appearances
       were in church, and her earliest recordings were with Christian singer-songwriter
       Stephen Medd on tracks such as "Touch the Sky." Though she has always been a
       mischievous kid, Lavigne says that her core values were shaped by growing up in
       a religious household. "My mom wouldn't even let me sing [the country song]
       'Strawberry Wine,' because it said 'wine' in it and I was this little kid," she
       remembers. "She protected my image. And that's not the only reason why I don't
       dance around like a ho onstage, but it definitely has something to do with being
       brought up with tons of morals. And I'm not saying I'll never write a song with a
       curse word, because there's definitely been times when it's like, 'Aww, man,
       "fuck" would sound so good there!' But then I think about my mom, and how it
       would probably hurt her," she says, laughing quietly. "So I just say 'frig' instead."
       . . . Her attitudes about dating are pretty old-fashioned. . . At the time, she recalls,
       she hated all those restrictions. Now she realizes they were for the best: ―That‘s
       a good way to bring up your kid, because if you let your kid do everything – go to
       parties, get trashed really young and get out of control – she‘s gonna get taken
       advantage of, and she won‘t be taught that having sex with a ton of boys is a bad

References are made here to Christianity, traditional decorum in language, and sexual

conservatism and restraint. Deziel also discusses this aspect of Lavigne‘s upbringing,

associating it also with her small-town roots16. She also mentions that it may be an

element of her success, making her a more comfortable alternative to other pop stars for


       Jeanie Goodman brought her 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to a recent
       Baltimore show. ―There‘s not that much you can bring them to these days,‖ she
       says. ―but Avril you can. She doesn‘t have all the trashy lyrics.‖17

       The importance placed on Lavigne‘s small-town roots is notable:

   Deziel, 25.
   Deziel, 24.
       When she was five the family moved from Belleville in eastern Ontario, where all
       the kids were born, to Napanee, pop. 5000, 40 km to the east. It‘s primarily a
       farming town, big into sports and country music.18

An article at MTV.com also cites her small-town background as playing a role in the

instigation of her singing career:

       When you grow up in a rural Canadian town with nothing much to do but sing in
       the church gospel choir and get bored at school, you're gonna want to rock

That this is perceived as being an important aspect of her image can be seen in the

sensation caused over a high school soccer jersey that she wore on Saturday Night Live

which bore the logo of the Napanee Home Hardware store:

       The day after Lavigne's January 11 performance on "Saturday Night Live," during
       which she wore her old high school soccer jersey, the Canadian chain Home
       Hardware, which has more than 1,200 stores across the country, was slammed
       with shirt requests.

       "We normally don't sell any of these shirts, since they're made for the soccer team
       we sponsor," said Dan Jones, assistant manager of the hardest hit store in
       Lavigne's hometown of Napanee in Eastern Ontario, "but since she wore it [the
       chain has] sold more than 8,000." More than 2,500 of those shirts have been
       ordered from the Napanee store, which has raised a record $13,000 for Avril's old
       soccer club. An additional $30,000 has gone to the singer's handpicked charity,
       the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. . .

       Tourists from all over Canada have been making pilgrimages to the Napanee store
       to buy the soccer jerseys and have their pictures taken out front.20

Fans who identified with the singer‘s image clearly saw a fashion item proclaiming an

affiliation with a local business and sports team as a significant enough component of her

   Deziel, 25.
   Gil Kaufman. ―It‘s Not ‗Complicated‘ – 17-year-old Avril Lavigne Was Born to
http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1454441/20020521/lavigne_avril.jhtml?headline, May
21, 2002.
   Gil Kaufman, ―Avril Lavigne – Fashion Rebel With a (Good) Cause‖, MTV.com –
News, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1470449/03102003/lavigne_avril.jhtml, March
10, 2003.
image that they were willing to make the effort to order similar shirts. This can also be

linked to her ‗tomboy‘ image – both athletics and hardware stores have masculine

association – as well as perhaps the moral, traditional elements of her image – she

demonstrates a connection with her community and school.

          Another way in which Lavigne‘s image has been defined in opposition to that of

other female pop stars is by the use of signifiers of harder styles of rock music, hard rock

and punk. The masculine associations of these musics are compatible with her ‗tomboy‘

image. As well, rockist constructions of authenticity (where rock is seen as more

authentic than pop) become active here. Lavigne comments, for example, on her image:

―Whatever, I think the image is way too f—ing pop, it doesn‘t show my whole realness

and my rock, edge side.‖21 While she mentions a dissatisfaction with the lack of enough

‗rock‘ signifiers in her image, the fact that this is even a concern for her, and that she sees

authenticity (―realness‖) as deriving from such signifiers, is noteworthy.

          The use of punk/rock signifiers can be observed the moment one loads Lavigne‘s

home page – the screen is covered with five-pointed stars designed to look as though they

have been spray-painted. This is a clear reference to the graffiti one might find spray-

painted by punk rockers in skateboard parks. As well, she has sought associations with

artists in these genres. The web journal entry quoted earlier refers to her appearance in a

video by the rock band Treble Charger alongside pop-punk artists Gob and Sum 41 and

the rap group Swollen Members. She has toured with pop-punk group Simple Plan22.

She is also scheduled to perform a cover of song by canonical heavy metal artists

Metallica in mtvICON: Metallica, a tribute programme to be broadcast on May 3. She

     Deziel, 27.
     Deziel, 26.
has also covered the song ―Chop Suey‖ by the popular heavy metal band System Of a

Down, which is available online23. Other artists who are also scheduled to perform

include hard rock bands Korn and Limp Bizkit and Sum 4124. Her (entirely male) band

members also come from a similar background, which is mentioned in media coverage:

       While many solo artists are backed by seasoned players, most of Lavigne‘s
       musicians had barely made it out of their basements before being thrown onto the
       world stage. Colburn, 21, and drummer Matt Brann, 22, had been part of the
       Ajax, Ont., punk scene, playing with the guys from Closet Monster and the hit
       band Sum 41 . . . Bassist Charles Moniz, 22, had been in a Burlington, Ont., punk
       band. And lead guitarist Evan Taubenfeld, 19, from Baltimore, was in a rock

       And according to Eliscu:

       The four punk rockers have been trying to school Lavigne on what she should
       listen to. "For her birthday, I got her [AC/DC's] Back in Black, the Clash singles
       and the new Me First and the Gimme Gimmes - your straightforward rock & roll,
       your punk and your pop punk," says bassist Charlie Moniz, the resident indie-rock
       connoisseur. Brann gave her a copy of Nirvana's Nevermind. And Colburn gave
       her the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream and some Pixies stuff. "I started her
       off with the more palatable ones, like 'Monkey Gone to Heaven,' " he says. "Then
       I give her 'Debaser,' and she's like, 'I don't know about that.' " She even got a
       lesson in recent music history from one of her heroes: the Goo Goo Dolls' Johnny
       Rzeznik. "What's that CD that Johnny Rzeznik bought me?" Lavigne asks her tour
       manager, Dan Garnett. "It starts with an R." She squinches her forehead and tries
       to remember. Finally she asks me, "Do you know who Johnny Rzeznik's idol
       was?" The Replacements, I suggest. "Yeah, the Replacements! I never have time
       to listen to it, but I like it."26

       Punk signifiers can also be seen in Lavigne‘s fashion statement – the studded

wristbands, the armband declaring ―Rebel‖ she wears on the cover of the January 13,

2003 issue of Maclean’s, as well as the more general ‗rock‘ signifiers of worn blue jeans

   Joe D‘Angelo, ―Avril, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Sum 41 Set For ‗mtvICON: Metallica‘‖,
MTV.com – News,
http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1470978/04032003/lavigne_avril.jhtml, April 3, 2003.
   Deziel, 26.
and dirty sneakers. Also noteworthy is the serious, unsmiling expression on her face in

most of the photos accompanying the article, which is more typical of rock artists than of

the smiles habitually worn by pop stars. Also perhaps worth considering is her

performance at the 2003 Juno Awards. She performed ―Losing Grip‖, one of her more

‗rock‘ songs, using a number of signifiers of rock performance practice, standing with

legs apart and a scowl on her face, gripping the microphone with both hands, using

‗rock‘-style gestures, as opposed to the more typically choreographed dance routines and

costumes of ‗pop‘ performers (Shania Twain‘s performances can be compared).

          Eliscu comments that ―To a young audience tired of glitzy teen disco, Lavigne has

been presented as a guitar-toting singer-songwriter‖27. Authenticity is derived not only

then from signifiers of harder rock music but from the singer-songwriter tradition, which

is less explicitly ‗hard‘ and masculine but which, in its emphasis on seriousness,

introspection, integrity, and intimacy, has also traditionally been associated with greater

authenticity than chart pop.

          Significant to this discussion is a conflict of sorts that Lavigne has had with the

Matrix, the songwriting and production team who worked on her album:

          Because Lavigne has been positioned as a singer-songwriter, the issue of "written
          with" takes on a certain significance. Moreover, the Matrix team -- Lauren
          Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock -- describe the collaboration
          differently than she does. Though the publishing royalties get split evenly among
          Christy, Edwards, Spock and Lavigne, Avril implies that she was the primary
          author of the songs on Let Go. She says that when she was working with the
          Matrix, "one guy was in the room while we were writing, but he didn't write the
          guitar, and he didn't write the lyrics or the melody. Me and Lauren sat down and
          did all the lyrics together for every single song. Graham would come up with
          some guitar stuff, and I'd be like, 'Yeah, I like that,' or 'No, I don't like that.' None
          of those songs aren't from me.28

It is important for Lavigne to position herself as the primary songwriter – part of her

public identity and image comes from being perceived as a singer-songwriter, a rock

artist, who is an alternative to ―glitzy teen disco‖ artists whose songs are usually written

by ―the Swedish hitmakers who write Backstreet Boys songs, or . . . the Neptunes, who

write everything else‖29. Authenticity comes partly from being perceived as one‘s own

songwriter. Even when she does concede that she was at most a collaborator in every

area of songwriting – lyrics were co-written; her role in composition of guitar parts

apparently consisted of selecting from parts that were written by Edwards – she

emphasizes that ―none of those songs aren‘t from me‖:

          "When I wrote ['Complicated']," she says, "I was feeling what the song talks about
          -- that there are tons of people in the world who are fake, who are two-faced."
          And when I ask her how long it took her to write that song, she says simply,
          "Maybe two hours," without equivocation. "Songwriting is like that for me," she
          adds, with a snap of her fingers. "Someone can say, 'Go write a song,' and I can
          do it. I can write a song a day."

Lavigne therefore also emphasizes her virtuosity, her facility as a songwriter, as another

source of authenticity.

          The Matrix team, however, ascribe to themselves a greater role in the writing of

the same song:

          But according to the Matrix, they wrote the bulk of the three hit singles by
          themselves, following their first meeting with Lavigne. "With those songs, we
          conceived the ideas on guitar and piano," says Christy. "Avril would come in and
          sing a few melodies, change a word here or there. She came up with a couple of
          things in 'Complicated,' like, instead of 'Take off your stupid clothes,' she wanted
          it to say 'preppy clothes.' "30

          Eliscu confronted Lavigne with the Matrix‘s version of the songwriting process:

          She seems annoyed when I tell her that I'm confused about how the collaborations
          worked. "I knew in my heart that I needed to be more pop to break," she says,
          staring down at the untied shoelaces of her black Converse All Stars. She says
          that the harder-rocking songs on Let Go -- specifically "Losing Grip" and
          "Unwanted" -- had the sound she wanted for the whole album. Those tracks were
          co-written with Clif Magness, who gave her enough creative control that she was
          able to pen "every single lyric and the melodies." She says the label wasn't thrilled
          by the heavy guitar sound, and that's when it hooked her up with the Matrix.

          "Arista was drop-dead shit afraid that I would come out with a whole album that
          sounded like 'Unwanted' and 'Losing Grip,' " she says. "I swear they wanted to
          drop me or something. I don't feel like 'Complicated' represents me and my ability
          to write. But without 'Complicated,' I bet you anything I wouldn't have even sold
          a million records. The songs I did with the Matrix, yeah, they were good for my
          first record, but I don't want to be that pop anymore."31

          Salient points here are that Lavigne felt it important to present herself as a

primary songwriter. Even when a conflicting version of the songwriting process was

presented to her, she perceived the songs she did with the Matrix as representing a ‗pop‘

compromise she does not want to continue. She sees songs she wrote herself as being

more ‗rock‘ and more authentic whereas the more ‗pop‘ Matrix songs are less authentic,

pressed on her by her label. She presents her harder, more ‗rock‘ songs as the ones with

which she has greater personal investment.

          One can observe that Lavigne‘s image has been defined largely as oppositional to

contemporary female pop stars. Her identity as a teenage girl is important but the

construction of femininity offered is that of a ‗tomboy‘ who maintains ties to her

community and traditional morality while remaining more authentic than other teenage

female pop stars by the use of ‗rock‘ and ‗punk‘ aesthetic signifiers and collaborative

affiliations, an anti-fashion statement, and concern with more traditionally ‗rock‘

signifiers of authenticity such as personal involvement with songwriting.

                                        ―Sk8er Boi‖

       Lavigne‘s song ―Sk8er Boi‖ will now be discussed in terms of these elements.

Musically, the song is a piece of up-tempo post-punk ‗power pop‘-like rock music with

heavily distorted guitars. This is worth considering in terms of both Lavigne‘s concern

with ‗rock‘-identified authenticity and her ‗tomboy‘ image. She has clearly demonstrated

an interest in associating herself with harder styles of rock music in terms of its value in

terms of ‗authenticity‘ – this can be observed in the choice of idioms for this song.

       Hard rock music, especially in its classic form (which is, admittedly, somewhat

different from the idiom of ―Sk8er Boi‖), has traditionally been seen by many critics,

such as Frith and McRobbie or Reynolds and Press32, as heavily masculinist – Frith and

McRobbie famously labeled the genre ―cock rock‖ in ―Rock and Sexuality‖33. By

associating herself with a harder style of rock, Lavigne may be helping to set herself up

as a ‗tomboy‘ in comparison to other female pop stars. Frith and McRobbie did,

however, see punk as having oppositional qualities to more classic forms of hard rock in

this regard:

       Punk involved an attack on both romantic and permissive conventions. In their
       refusal to let their sexuality be constructed as a commodity some punks went as
       far as to deny their sexuality any significance at all. ―My love lies limp,‖ boasted
       Mark Perry of Alternative TV. ―What is sex anyway‖ asked Johnny Rotten, ―Just
       thirty seconds of squelching noises.‖ Punk was the first form of rock not to rest
       on love songs, and one of its effects has been to allow female voices to be heard
       that are not often allowed expression on record, stage, or radio – shrill, assertive,

   Reynolds, Simon and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press, 1995.
   Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie. ―Rock and Sexuality‖ in On Record. Edited by
Frith and Andrew Goodwin. London: Routledge, 1988.
         impure individual voices, the sounds of singers like Poly Styrene, Siouxsie, Fay
         Fife of the Rezillos, Pauline of Penetration. . .34

         The style of the song‘s musical track is not exactly punk rock but does contain

signifiers of the genre‘s influence as opposed to other styles of hard rock – the absence of

guitar solos or lead guitar parts at all, the use of palm-muted eighth-note strumming, the

absence of overtly blues-derived harmonic or rhythmic elements. While Lavigne‘s voice

is not being compared here to the classic punk rock singers discussed by Frith and

McRobbie, the use of a similar or affiliated idiom can still carry connotations of

meanings implied by or associated with the musics of these artists. These can include a

feminist reclaiming of a traditionally masculine aesthetic (that of aggressive guitar rock)

as well as a rejection of traditional constructions of femininity. Both of these are relevant

here. As well, punks‘ ―refusal to let their sexuality be constructed as a commodity‖ is

comparable to Lavigne‘s disgust with the displays of artists like Britney Spears and her

emphasis on a less sexually provocative image. To ―deny [one‘s] sexuality any

significance at all‖ can, it can be remembered, carry a reactionary subtext and imply,

even if unconsciously, certain traditional or conservative moral attitudes.

         At the same time that the piece is loud guitar rock, the guitar texture is heavily

produced and layered in a ‗pop‘ manner which can be seen as oppositional to some

traditional hard rock ideals. A large part of the song‘s distinctive nature and possibly its

appeal might in fact be seen to lie in the production used on the guitars. For example, at

0:26, the ‗punk‘-style rhythm guitar strumming is overlaid with a brief melodic figure

that appears in the left channel, distorted to created an almost organ-like timbre (though

the attack of the plucked guitar string is preserved), followed by a reverberating ‗wind‘-

     Frith and McRobbie, 384.
like sound effect that resembles, possibly, the fade-out of a distorted strum, possibly

generated with a volume pedal. At 0:35, these two effects are repeated, with the

reverberating sound effect appearing in the right channel this time. At 0:38, the sound of

a scraped guitar string is laid over the track to introduce the chorus. When the chorus

begins at 0:40, a higher, lighter ringing drone-like guitar sound is laid over the track, like

a synthesizer might be used in some other cases, to change the mood of the track for the

chorus. This effect moves from the left channel to the right and is repeated. At 0:53,

towards the end of the chorus, a high resonant guitar distortion sound appears and slides

downwards to a degree, coinciding with the phrase ―She needed to come back down to

earth‖. During the second verse, the organ-like melodic figure is repeated at a louder

dynamic level throughout the verse, repeating in strict stereo separation. It sounds like

chorus and a high level of compression are used as well as distortion, reminiscent of the

guitar tone in Van Halen‘s ―Ain‘t Talkin‘ ‗Bout Love‖. The timbre changes slightly each

time to allow more of the higher harmonics with each repetition, creating a sense of

anticipation towards the chorus. During this chorus, there are even more effects laid over

the track, some like scratches on guitar strings, some more like electronic sound effects

(such as ‗swoops‘). After the chorus, an electronic ‗swoop‘ introduces a ‗break‘ of

sudden stopped chords and treated vocal samples. At least three layers of guitars can be

heard in the bridge, one strumming the muted eighth-note rhythm, one playing the main

‗riff‘ of the song, one providing a higher drone-like effect. In the next section, a more

ethereal sound is used. Guitars are fingerpicked with reverb and chorus while the vocals

are delayed and reverberated. It sounds like one track provides a ‗drone‘-like effect

while another features these arpeggiated guitars in the left channel. Chorus-effected
guitars are strummed in the right channel. Then, a quieter verse begins. The melodic

verse progression is plucked with the strings muted, then the organ-like figure is

superimposed to create greater density of sound. A ‗hum‘ grows in volume through this

section, building to a high-pitched electronic ‗swoop‘ that introduces the chorus. After

this final chorus, the song is ended with the sound of decaying feedback and a descending

electronic tone.

        Movement, density, and character of the song‘s musical track are therefore

generated largely through change and development in timbres and production texture of

the guitar parts (as well as vocal parts, which will be discussed later), in fact more so than

through the employment of traditional melodic or rhythmic techniques on guitar. This

emphasis on production texture can be considered in terms of ideals of contemporary

‗pop‘ music as opposed to more traditional ‗rock‘ ideals. Sympathetic discussion of

contemporary ‗pop‘ artists such as Britney Spears (as well as, for example, Justin

Timberlake, Destiny‘s Child and Missy Elliot, though it will be criticism of Spears that

will be specifically discussed in this study) often tends to revolve around the

sophistication of the electronic production of their music. This can be traced back to the

discourse surrounding disco producers like Giorgio Moroder and classic synthpop artists

like New Order and Depeche Mode, even back to 50s and 60s pop producer Phil Spector.

Moroder will be specifically considered here. With many of these musics, it is in fact the

producer who is seen as the auteur at least as much as the performer, and sometimes even


        On the other hand, there is a strain in ‗rock‘ discourse that is extremely

mistrustful of studio production, that sees it in fact as antithetical to ‗rock‘ ideals. Critic
and former owner of independent punk rock label SST Joe Carducci is a principal

exponent of the concept of postpunk rock authenticity. He gives his definition of ‗rock‘:

        The music is rock when it is guitar, bass, and drums at the centre and they are
        played by musicians who know the language of the instruments enough to be
        expressive with them while playing hard . . . With the band‘s individual musicians
        each aggressively supplying their element, the sound made together can become
        greater than the sum of its parts. This surplus value is the jam and if it‘s there in
        the performing then a rock band is effecting a transubstantiation nearly as sublime
        as any priest‘s. Rock reaches the spiritual by way of the physical; it requires an
        aesthetic of fully integrated completion.35

A number of criteria for rock authenticity are laid out here. First, instrumentation is

important – ―The music is rock when it is guitar, bass, and drums at the centre. . .‖ As

well, technical proficiency as an instrumentalist is valued – ―. . . and they are played by

musicians who know the language of the instruments enough to be expressive with them.

. .‖ And then, a certain dynamic level of intensity is important – ―. . . while playing

hard‖. The process of technically proficient live performers creating the music amongst

themselves in real time takes on near-religious significance – ―. . . if it‘s there in the

performing then a rock band is effecting a transubstantiation nearly as sublime as any


        In comparison:

        It‘s the party next door, the pop party, where half-measure scams are rewarded, if
        the managers have sense enough to buy good songs, if the producer is hip enough
        to the current charts, if the engineer knows how to use the new technology, if the
        artist‘s look can tap into the audience‘s needs. It‘s that party where all the non-
        musical commotion is . . . If we accept that rock music is important as music, then
        we must insist on a credible aesthetic definition . . . Only then can our ability to
        discern the aesthetic reality of rock music in a pop world keep up with that pop

  Joe Carducci, ―The Thing Of It and the King of Thing‖ in The Penguin Book of rock
and Roll Writing, ed. Clinton Heylin (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 1992), 148-
         world‘s rapacious material evolution toward an obliterating hegemony over
         market and mind.36

First of all, ‗pop‘, as distinct from ‗rock‘, is defined in terms of the processes of

generation and distribution involved. Songs are purchased by managers (not, presumably

written by the performers). (Interestingly, Carducci does seem to allow for the possibility

that the songs may still in fact be ―good songs‖.) The music is engineered using up-to-

date technology, not ‗jammed‘ in real time by the performers. The artist‘s image is

marketed. Then value judgments are placed on these processes – they produce and

reward ―half-measure scams‖. (There is no discussion of why these are ―half-measures‖

or explanation of what a full measure would be.) This ―pop world‖ is ―rapacious‖, using

its economic power, evolving towards an ―obliterating hegemony over market and mind‖

against which ‗rock‘ must be defended.

         Carducci illustrates by comparing Joy Division and New Order:

         When the singer Ian Curtis left town for good the others cheated a bit and
         changed their name to New Order, and more tellingly made a dramatic switch
         from rock (art) to pop (craft). The name change, reference-wise, switched from
         victim identification to perpetrator identification . . . On successive releases Joy
         Division had been pushing keyboards forward and guitars back in the mix –
         sweetening the sound – but they had still been playing a highly refined, yet
         Stooges influenced, rock music. But rock rhythm was traded for an electro disco
         one and New Order went down the sophisto dance path emphasizing techno tricks
         and textures and eliminating guitars altogether. Curtis‘s lyrics had been straight
         and had emotional content; the remaining members could only substitute a canny,
         hip vacuousness in their place.37

Carducci‘s conceptual distinction is clearly laid out here. Rock music, played by a live

band with confessional personal lyrics, is art. Pop music, produced electronically in a

studio, using drum machines, synthesizers, and electronic lyrics, with aphoristic lyrics, is

     Carducci, 132-133.
     Carducci, 127-128.
craft. (The idea is not entertained, for example, that artistry might be found in these

―techno tricks and textures‖.)

       One can also consider the comments of critic Joe Harrington on late 1970s AOR,

with specific reference to the band Boston. Harrington is an American critic who ahs

written for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, New York Press, Seattle Stranger, Lowell

Sun, Wired, Reflex, Raygun, High Times, Seconds, and Rollerderby. In Sonic Cool: The

Life and Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, he wrote:

       At that time, the realm of popular Hard Rock consisted of bogus corporate-Rock
       bands with innocuous one-name monikers like Boston, Foreigner, Toto, Styx,
       Queen, Kansas, Triumph, and Heart. As their names imply, their music was
       sterile, to say the least. The first Boston album had been a phenomenon, if only
       because it proved that a group could become a serious commercial entity without
       actually having cut any chops at all. In this case, the mastermind behind the
       group, Tom Scholz, quietly earned his degree at MIT while recording his
       elaborate demo in the basement with his cohorts. After Scholz sold the tape to
       CBS, the subsequent album went on to become the biggest-selling debut in Rock
       history. Tight as a drum, Boston‘s sonic assemblage of ten thousand overdubbed
       guitars and whooshing synthesizers was the perfect formulaic backdrop to all
       those ―good times‖ in the late 70s. It also established a precedent in which a
       ―Heavy Metal‖ band didn‘t have to have any grit, balls, or stage presence – or
       identity. The only requirement was that the sound was dense and clean. . .38

There is much to unpack here. It is worth noting first of all that while Harrington does

acknowledge that the recording was ―tight as a drum‖ and was an elaborate ―sonic

assemblage‖, incorporating a dense layered combination of guitar and electronic sounds,

he dismisses the band as not ―having cut any chops at all‖. ―Chops‖ are not exactly

defined here but it is clear that skill in dense, meticulous production is not considered a

legitimate form of ―chops‖ for a hard rock artist. The music is not even seen as authentic

rock music but as ―bogus corporate-Rock‖, presumably because of the emphasis on

  Joe S. Harrington, Sonic Cool: The Life & Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Hal
Leonard, 2002), 314.
studio production texture over more naturalistic live band sensibilities. There also seems

to be perhaps a mistrust of pleasure, at least that which is acquired through mainstream

channels, in the patronizing reference to ‗good times‘. Importantly to this discussion, a

masculinist aspect can be observed to this critical perspective: a band of this nature is

perceived to not have any ‗balls‘.

         This is illustrated further by Harrington‘s next paragraph, in which these AOR

bands are compared unfavourably to ―two groups [who] were adding something new to

the same tired old formula‖39, Van Halen and AC/DC. His comments on AC/DC are

particularly relevant:

         . . . AC/DC. . . hailed from Australia and dealt ferocious staccato blows based on
         the most simplistic rhythms, albeit accelerated to absurd levels of testosterone

This band, which places less emphasis on studio production, which plays ‗raw‘ live band-

based rock music ―based on the most simplistic rhythms‖, is seen as more authentically

‗rock‘. It is significant that ‗testosterone‘ is also central to their aesthetic. The

‗primitive‘ and the masculine are valued

         Harrington‘s subsequent comments suggest that this approach is also influenced

by the affiliation of rock criticism with 1960s countercultural ideals. (The ‗serious‘ rock

press, after all, has its roots in that same movement):

         A lot of the glory had disappeared from the Hard Rock ethic. In the 60s, rent was
         cheap – ten hippies could live in one ‗crash pad‘ and basically do nothing but
         devote their time to the lifestyle of spiritual fulfillment (sex) and self-expression
         (drugs, or vice versa). In the 70s, with inflation (not to mention drug prices) on
         the rise, the burnouts – who were the younger, more disaffected siblings of the
         hippies – were forced to take some dead-end job to support their indulgences,
         which included expensive concert tickets to see groups like ELO and Boston.

     Harrington, 314.
     Harrington, 314.
         This put them on the same timetable as the ‗squares‘ – only with less education.
         The lines weren‘t quite so clearly drawn anymore. The music became more
         conservative. For the first time in Rock‘s brief history, the mainstream American
         teen wasn‘t necessarily rebelling against anything. To the contrary, teens were
         actually quite content with a basically apathetic existence that included smoking
         lots of pot and watching Saturday Night Live every weekend. From Saturday
         Night Live to Saturday Night Fever [which is also pilloried in Harrington‘s book],
         everything centred on the weekend. In the realm of Heavy Metal, it took on an
         almost mythic significance, as epitomized by Boston (―Smokin‘‖, ―Party‖), Ted
         Nugent (―Weekend Warrior‖), and Loverboy (―Workin‘ For the Weekend‖).41

While Harrington does approach the 1960s counterculture with some cynicism as well,

when one considers these comments in light of the earlier derisive reference to ‗good

times‘, it appears that part of the hostility towards heavily produced mainstream guitar

rock is associated with a hostility towards mainstream consumer culture and its values.

Adolescent rebellion against the status quo (which, Reynolds and Press have argued, is

traditionally constructed in a fundamentally masculinist manner) is viewed as an essential

aspect of rock‘s meaning. Without it, teenagers are held to be ―apathetic‖, their music


         Another example is seen in his comments on the Velvet Underground and the

Stooges, whom he favours:

         The urgent primal need for scraping noise was not being satisfied except by a
         handful of groups. But these groups would spawn the future, because in their
         rejection of the gloss they were letting their basic musical instincts run wild. This
         is the only way a legitimate Rock movement can grow – by accident . . .

         Punks were buttheads – they butted their heads against the cultural elite: the big-
         name critics and record companies. They weren‘t commercial 42

Again we can see what is valued – the ‗primal‘, ―scraping noise‖, ―basic musical

instincts‖ that can only be released when ―gloss‖ is ―rejected‖. To adopt this sort of

     Harrington, 315.
     Harrington, 321-322.
aesthetic is not only ―the only way a legitimate Rock movement can grow‖ but appears to

be held to be anti-commercial. (Even though both of these bands were in fact on major

labels and were always recipients of generally favourable critical reception, these

aesthetic qualities are still perceived as oppositional. To adopt a more disciplined,

production-intensive approach to musicianship is associated in this view with

commercialism as well as apathy. However, judging by the responses of critics such as

Harrington, it would appear that it was in fact Boston and not the Stooges who butted

their heads against big-name critics!)

       These attitudes were also demonstrated by responses to a presentation this term in

graduate level course 6320.03 (Studies in Popular Music). Both Led Zeppelin‘s ―Babe

I‘m Gonna Leave You‖ and Boston‘s ―More Than a Feeling‖ were played in class to

demonstrate the use of homologies in discussion of popular music. The Led Zeppelin

song, from 1968, when hard rock music still had associations with 1960s counterculture,

was rough in its recording quality and sloppy in its guitar playing, with the vocals almost

totally unconcerned with classical standards of pitch and tone, culminating in a ‗primal

scream‘, reflecting countercultural Romantic glorification of the ‗primal‘ and immediate,

of the rejection of traditional values of restraint and discipline. The Boston song, from

1976, when hard rock music had become the music of mainstream America, contained

similar stylistic elements in the interplay between fingerpicking and distorted power

chords to create dynamic change, in the use of the high male voice which went from a

softer ‗murmur‘ to a louder ‗wail‘ when the guitars went from fingerpicking to power

chords. However, the performance values were flawless in the classical sense – there

were no muted or missed notes in the guitar playing. (These had been observed to be
abundant in the Led Zeppelin song.) The production values were very different – the

guitars were heavily treated, layered, and harmonized in a ‗chorus‘. The voice was also

perfectly in key, with a full tone, and accompanied by the rest of the band in perfect four-

part harmony in the chorus. Structural elements of the music were more consistent with

mainstream values of control, precision, and technical mastery. Prof Rob Bowman

agreed with this homology and stated that in fact it was the reason for his hatred of

Boston (compared to his love of Led Zeppelin) – he felt an opposition to constructions of

control and mastery in dominant cultural institutions, such as political ones, and this

music was reminiscent of those elements. He felt greater sympathy with countercultural

ideals and thus preferred music that reflected those – this music was more authentic to

what he values in ‗rock‘.

        In much of the discourse surrounding ‗pop‘, on the other hand, it is the producer

who is seen if not as the principal auteur at least as central to the artistic process – the art

of the music is seen to lie at least partially in the production itself. The aesthetic of the

‗raw‘, the ‗primal‘, as defined by the absence of high production values and the emphasis

on the live band dynamic, is less important. Outlets that cover both genres might even

apply one criteria to one ‗genre‘ and the opposite one to the other. Rolling Stone‘s

review of Britney Spears‘ Britney (to which they gave three stars – ―fair‖) reads in part:

        Just as Abdul was a choreographer who sang and Madonna is a performance artist
        who makes music, this former Mouseketeer is a nice actress playing the part of a
        bubblegum icon intent on being teasingly naughty. Never has a female star
        courted the preteen and trench-coat crowds so simultaneously and shamelessly.
        Although she at first appeared to be choking back psychological pain while
        executing coy dance moves and signature guttural gasps, Spears now seems like
        she's in on and enjoying the joke scripted for her. And just as Janet Jackson
        claimed Control while aspiring to adulthood, Spears aches to put her own
        authorial stamp on the "Britney" story. Despite Britney's five co-songwriting
        credits, her music is ultimately driven by producers who must work around her
       vocal limitations. But an identity is now asserting itself: Britney is by far her most
       personable album, the most consistently playful and the least wince-inducing.
       Producer Rodney Jerkins' hip-hop blaspheming of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n'
       Roll" doesn't go as far as it should (is a Limp Bizkit remix in its future?), but it
       certainly beats what her earlier studio architects did to those Sonny and Cher and
       Stones songs.

       Although they're not the album's most melodious cuts, the Neptunes' "I'm a Slave
       4 U" and "Boys" could be Britney's most important. This ultra-hot hip-hop duo
       feeds Prince's girl group Vanity 6 ("Nasty Girl"), Rick James' female foursome
       the Mary Jane Girls ("Boys"), and Jam and Lewis' pivotal Janet production
       ("Nasty") into their own studio machine. The resulting montage of 1980s-R&B
       male fantasies clings bizarrely close to its sources while feeding Spears avant-soul
       beats designed to carry her into twenty-first-century urban adulthood. It works:
       The "get it, get it" chant of "Slave" delivers classic "Britney"-ness, while "Boys"
       whips out a surprisingly tuneful bridge that dramatically rescues an estrogen-
       dripping but otherwise negligible song.

       Swedish teen-pop pioneer Max Martin and partner Rami reunite for tracks that
       link the international, kid-friendly sound of Spears' previous album, Oops! . . . I
       Did It Again, to her recent American R&B update. "Overprotected," "Cinderella"
       and "Bombastic Love" bear the expected monster choruses, familiar modulations
       and emotionally impulsive lyrical themes. Yet their grooves are sharper and their
       arrangements have more sonic twinkle. Once you get beyond its cringeworthy
       title, "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" supplies the weighty ballad Spears has
       craved and can now handle. Co-written by Dido, Martin and Rami, the track
       ruminates with sophisticated chords that complement the prefab sleaze and
       calculated rebellion elsewhere on the album.

       Jerkins' other productions, "Lonely" and "Let Me Be," improve upon his previous
       contributions to the teen-pop canon (Spice Girls, 'NSync). He is compositionally
       teamed with Josh Schwartz and Brian Kierulf, unheralded third-tier teen-pop
       producers (Aaron Carter, LFO, 2gether) who here transcend their filler-supplying
       status, particularly with the tracks they produce themselves. Spears usually puts
       on her cutesy, ironic "Material Girl" actor voice when she's not channeling
       understated Janet bravado, but on "Anticipating," a euphoric Rick Astley
       flashback, and "That's Where You Take Me," a sincere electro-ballad, she emotes
       without framing her vocals in Nickelodeon-schooled theatricality. Sugary and
       sparkly in a great way, these are the unexpected baubles that make the album
       more than a sonic Spears infomercial. . . 43

   Barry Walters, ―Britney Spears – Britney‖ (review), Rolling Stone, RS 882, November
22, 2001. Found at
Spear‘s role in the artistic process, her ―authorial stamp‖ is perceived to lie largely in the

construction of a persona and image. The auteur in terms of musical content is generally

perceived to be the producer – ―her music is ultimately driven by producers who must

work around her vocal limitations‖. Most of the aesthetic discussion and criticism of the

music centres around what the producers do – for example, the Neptunes are seen to draw

from various sources and create a ―montage of 1980s-R&B male fantasies . . . while

feeding Spears avant-soul beats‖. Max Martin is a ―teen-pop pioneer‖ with a signature

sound. Jerkins‘ production is also discussed in terms of the broader canon of his other

work. Spears‘ own musical contribution, vocally, is in fact discussed much more briefly

towards the end of the review.

       The All Music Guide biography of disco producer Giorgio Moroder found at the

Rolling Stone web site can also be considered:

       One of the principal architects of the disco sound, producer and composer Giorgio
       Moroder was born in Ortisei, Italy on April 26, 1940. Upon relocating to Munich,
       Germany, he established his own studio, Musicland, and recorded his debut single
       "Looky, Looky" in 1969; his first LP, Son of My Father, was released in early
       1972. Around that time Moroder was introduced to fellow aspiring musician Pete
       Bellotte, with whom he formed a production partnership; in collaboration with
       singer Donna Summer, the duo was to become one of the most powerful forces in
       '70s-era dance music, their success beginning with the release of 1974's Lady of
       the Night. Summer's Love to Love You Baby followed in 1975; the title track,
       clocking in at close to 17 minutes in length, was an international smash, its
       shimmering sound and sensual attitude much copied in the years to follow. At
       their mid-1970s peak, Moroder, Bellotte and Summer were extraordinarily
       prolific, releasing new albums about once every six months. Concept records like
       1976's A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love culminated with the release of
       1977's I Remember Yesterday, a trip through time which climaxed with the smash
       "I Feel Love." With its galloping bassline and futuristic, computerized sheen, the
       single was among the watershed hits of the disco era, and helped propel Summer
       to new prominence as the reigning diva of the dancefloor. . .44

   Jason Ankeny, ―Giorgio Moroder‖ (biography), All Music Guide. Found at
This producer is not only an auteur in his own right – he is even ―one of the principal

architects of the disco sound‖. He was a respected, pioneering artist – he extended the

boundaries of the genre in terms of track length and sound texture (―shimmering sound‖,

―futuristic, computerized sheen‖). Harrington tends to be dismissive of disco for just this

emphasis on the producer, because ―black music went back to being a producer‘s art,

much to the detriment of the music‖45.

         While studio production on the instrumental track is used on the music of

contemporary pop-punk artists like Sum 41, whose music is somewhat comparable to

―Sk8er Boi‖, it is believed here that ―Sk8er Boi‖ emphasizes this quality to a

substantially greater degree. Sum 41‘s ―Still Waiting‖, provided on the accompanying

disc of musical examples, incorporates overdubbed guitar melodies and scratches.

However, the timbre of the guitars in these layers is less treated – it rarely strays from the

norms of the distorted guitar timbre in ‗harder‘ forms of rock music, never approaching

the ‗organ‘-like timbres, ‗wind‘-like sound effects, or harmonics or chorus-treated

‗drone‘-like effects in ―Sk8er Boi‖, also never incorporating sounds that could not be

easily duplicated by a live guitarist, such as the electronic ‗swoops‘. There also appear to

be fewer layers. The track is much truer to what a live band could reproduce on stage

without electronic aid.

         The use of extensive studio production in the creation of a popular music

recording can therefore be associated with ‗pop‘ ideals rather than traditional ‗rock‘

ideals. Particularly in the area of ‗harder‘ guitar ‗rock‘, this is often seen as antithetical to

ideals of the genre. (There are cases where rock artists have used extensive production

     Harrington, 253.
and have received critical acclaim, such as Pink Floyd or Radiohead. In these cases,

however, the artist is first of all rarely one that performs ‗harder‘, more up-tempo

distorted guitar rock. As well, these artists are generally acclaimed in terms of being

more cerebral and avant-garde than the mainstream of rock artists – the use of extensive

studio treatment of music might still be seen as oppositional to rock ideals even in these

cases, though it might be interpreted by critics in a more positive light.) There is also a

strong masculinist element to the ‗rock‘ hostility towards this kind of elaborate studio

production. ―Sk8er Boi‖ is notable in this regard – while it is a piece of ‗harder‘ guitar

rock, oppositional stylistically to the pop of artists like Britney Spears, it is also a heavily

produced studio creation, with decided ‗pop‘ elements in this regard, and therefore

oppositional to certain masculinist traditional rock ideals. It is perhaps in this regard

suited perfectly to a ‗tomboy‘ figure.

        Lavigne‘s voice on this song should also be considered. It is first of all obviously

young and female, as is suggested by its pitch and timbre. While it is clearly female, it

may also be perceived as being less overtly ‗feminine‘, in some traditional senses, than

that of a traditional female pop star. The vocal on Madonna‘s ―Die Another Day‖,

included on the accompanying CD, can be compared. Madonna‘s vocal emphasizes her

feminine sexuality in traditional ways, whispering at points, with the voice sometimes

trailing into a ‗sigh‘, singing in a higher register, with a clean hard head tone. She can be

considered in terms of the ―woman as sex object‖ in Shepherd‘s typology of popular

music singing styles. He compares this vocal style to the other female singing style he

identifies, the ―woman as nurturer‖ (e.g. Anne Murray):

        The softer, warmer hollower tones of the woman singer as emotional nurturer
        become closed off with a certain edge, a certain vocal sheen that is quite different
       from the male-appropriated, hard core of timbre typical of ‗cock‘ rock. Tones
       such as those produced by Shirley Bassey in ―Big Spender‖, for example, are
       essentially head tones, and it could in this case be argued that the transition from
       woman the nurturer to woman the sex object represents a shift, physiologically
       coded, from the ‗feminine heart‘ to the ‗masculine head‘, with its stress on a
       cerebral, intellectual, controlled view of the world.46

While many aspects of Shepherd‘s analysis are debatable – the assumption of a literal

correlation between physiological means of production of vocal timbre and signified or

articulated world views, the premise that a ―woman as sex object‖ would necessarily

signify the type of world view he suggests – what is useful is to recognize this type of

female voice as applicable to the traditional female pop star, exemplified by Madonna in

this example, and to understand this possible signification of ―woman as sex object‖.

       Lavigne‘s voice on ―Sk8er Boi‖ is distinctly different from this type of singing.

The ―vocal sheen‖ noted by Shepherd is notably absent. The voice is more flat and nasal,

without the ‗sexy‘ embellishments of whispers or sighs. Sometimes pitch is

compromised to give a sound closer to that of speech, e.g. the words ―his baggy clothes‖

at the end of the first verse. At some points, where embellishments are used, for

example, when the first syllable the line ―Rockin‘ up MTV‖ is emphasized, almost

yelled, they are more typical of the exclamations of enthusiastic youths. The word

―enough‖ in the line ―He wasn‘t good enough for her‖ is emphasized with a delivery

resembling a youth‘s sarcastic taunt.

       In some of these respects it might be believed to be contain similarities to a ‗pop-

punk‘ vocal style, even a masculine one. But again, one can compare it to the vocal on

―Still Waiting‖. While there are some similarities in the flat, nasal tone and clipped

  John Shepherd, ―Music and Male Hegemony‖ in Music and Society: The Politics of
Composition, Performance, and Reception. Edited by Richard Leppert and Susan
McClary. Cambridge University Press, 1987, 167.
delivery approaching the cadence of everyday speech during the more melodic parts of

the song, the delivery on ―Still Waiting‖ is even more clipped than Lavigne‘s, has even

less of a ‗sheen‘. As well, the verses are more screamed and shouted than sung, which

never happens in ―Sk8er Boi‖. The vocal delivery on ―Sk8er Boi‖ can be seen to perhaps

contain elements of the ‗pop-punk‘ vocal style but in a manner that is more moderated,

with more ‗feminine‘ aspects, while still avoiding the overtly sexualized ‗feminine‘

aspects of the typical female pop star voice. It is perhaps again well suited to a persona

that is ―girly and tomboyish at the same time‖, that is distinctively young and female

while avoiding a number of the trappings of contemporary female pop stars.

       Also notable is the level of production on the voice. It is double-tracked during

the chorus. After the second chorus, the stopped power chords are interspersed with cut-

up vocal sounds resembling ―ow, ow, ow‖. During the ‗ethereal‘ section after the bridge,

the reverberating guitars are complemented by a delay effect on the last word of each line

Lavigne sings. When she sings ―We are in love‖ (using a gentler, ‗sweeter‘ tone on that

one line than she uses for the rest of the song), there is briefly a track of a backing singer

singing ―ooh‖ in a stereotypically ‗sweet‘ fashion – a surprising appearance of irony and

pastiche in this song! In the final chorus, after the narrator‘s triumphant conquest of the

―sk8er boi‖ has been announced, there is a track of a ‗chorus‘ of ‗glossily‘ produced

female voices chanting ―Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!‖ alongside Lavigne‘s main vocal. This level

of production on a voice that is in some ways more ‗rock‘ than the usual female pop star

voice is in keeping with the previously noted comments on the production of the

instrumental tracks of the song and in keeping with Lavigne‘s whole persona. Lavigne‘s

distinctive persona – the teenage tomboy anti-pop star – is signified in part by the
distinctive vocal employed on ―Sk8er Boi‖ that combines elements of different ‗pop‘ and

‗rock‘ archetypes with references to habits in everyday speech, pastiche, and irony to

signify its identity and narrative.

        Finally, an analysis is incomplete without consideration of lyrics. (An appendix

with lyrics printed is provided.) First of all, the vocabulary used in the song is casual and

simple, using some slang expressions connoting youth such as ―rockin‘ up MTV‖. The

song is clearly from the perspective of a young woman. It is significant that the narrator

positions herself in opposition to the shallow ‗girly girl‘ who ―did ballet‖ and rejected the

skater because his ―bad clothes‖ were unacceptable to her friends. This can be

considered in terms of how Lavigne‘s persona has been positioned in opposition to

contemporary ‗feminine‘ female pop stars and their glamour and fashion, as well as their

departure from some traditional values – the narrator of this song is after all sticking up

for the old adage of ―don‘t judge a book by its cover‖. Her embrace of the rejected skater

– a member of a youth ‗subculture‘ which positions itself as oppositional to the

mainstream in some ways - is also consistent with Lavigne‘s association with signifiers

of non-mainstream youth ‗subcultures‘ and opposition to what are perceived as dominant

values in pop music.

        (On a somewhat tangential note, it is interesting to consider the lyrics from a

feminist perspective. While empowering qualities may be seen in the fact that Lavigne is

singing from the perspective of a young woman who is not a victim or sex object, other

aspects of the song may be problematic in this regard. For one thing, the boy appears to

become almost a status symbol of sorts, a prized object of competition through which the

woman can achieve pride. As well, the song can be read as an extended taunt of a poor
single mother – ―Five years from now/She sits at home/Feeding the baby/She‘s all


       Avril Lavigne‘s persona has been constructed, using the media, as that of a

teenage girl pop star with a ‗tomboy‘ image who is oppositional to her contemporaries in

terms of her rejection of traditional feminine glamour and sex object status, who has

associated herself with greater ‗rock‘ or ‗punk‘ authenticity, and who maintains ties to

small town community and traditional morality in some areas. Music, vocal delivery,

production, and lyrics of the song ―Sk8er Boi‖ all tend to signify these qualities. Music

and vocal delivery are distinctive by being neither purely ‗pop‘ nor ‗punk‘ or ‗rock‘ but

by combining various elements that signify elements of both genres as well as perhaps

drawing from other sources such as everyday speech and pastiche in a manner that is

appropriate to the persona of a ‗tomboy‘ pop star. Lyrical themes of the song similarly

suit the constructed persona in their positioning of the narrator as oppositional to the

conventionally feminine, shallow, fashion-obsessed girl in the song.
                      AVRIL LAVIGNE – ―SK8ER BOI‖ LYRICS

He was a boy
She was a girl
Can I make it any more obvious?
He was a punk
She did ballet
What more can I say?
He wanted her
She'd never tell secretly she wanted him as well
But all of her friends
Stuck up their nose
They had a problem with his baggy clothes

He was a skater boy
She said see you later boy
He wasn't good enough for her
She had a pretty face
But her head was up in space
She needed to come back down to earth

Five years from now
She sits at home
Feeding the baby
She's all alone
She turns on tv
Guess who she sees
Skater boy rockin‘ up MTV
She calls up her friends
They already know
And they've all got
Tickets to see his show
She tags along
Stands in the crowd
Looks up at the man that she turned down

He was a skater boy
She said see you later boy
He wasn't good enough for her
Now he's a super star
Slamming on his guitar
Does your pretty face see what he's worth?
He was a skater boy
She said see you later boy
He wasn't good enough for her
Now he's a super star
Slamming on his guitar
Does your pretty face see what he's worth?

Sorry girl but you missed out
Well tough luck that boy's mine now
We are more than just good friends
This is how the story ends
Too bad that you couldn't see,
See the man that boy could be
There is more that meets the eye
I see the soul that is inside

He's just a boy
And I'm just a girl
Can I make it any more obvious
We are in love
Haven't you heard
How we rock each others world?

I'm with the skater boy
I said see you later boy
I'll be back stage after the show
I'll be at the studio
Singing the song we wrote
About a girl you used to know

I'm with the skater boy
I said see you later boy
I'll be back stage after the show
I'll be at the studio
Singing the song we wrote
About a girl you used to know

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