In 2013, Avril Lavigne put out a record no one cared about. That is, until a few days ago, when she released the video for the self-titled album's fifth single, Hello Kitty.
The song is basically one over-long obnoxious cheerleader chant that includes such prestigious songwriting award-baiting lines as "Let's all slumber party/like a fat kid on a pack of Smarties" set to wildly aggressive dubstep. It somehow manages to out-insipid Rebecca Black's Friday, the very benchmark of insipid.
And then we have the accompanying controversial video, which caused a firestorm on the Internet this week. Allegedly, Hello Kitty is supposed to be a homage to Lavigne's love of Japan's most iconic cat -- although many have inferred she's using a different feline metaphor altogether -- and, as such, the video is billed as (sigh) "a celebration of Japanese culture."
In other words, it's a horrifying Technicolor collage of stereotypes -- right down to the entourage of unsmiling, infantilized Japanese women. This is the latest in a long list of culture-as-costume, people-as-props musical offences; Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Lily Allen have all been recently criticized for cultural appropriation because apparently no one learned anything from Gwen Stefani's Harajuku phase.
Lavigne's response to the criticism? "RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video... specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan."
Her latest album -- which has the worst sales figures of her career in North America -- went platinum in Japan, so the "I spend half my time in Japan" part is probably at least half-true. But she might as well have added, "some of my closest friends are Japanese!"
It's puzzling that someone who professes to love Japanese culture would rely on such base caricatures, but her inadequate response underscores another striking thing about this video: Lavigne's breathtaking immaturity.
At 29, she's still every bit the petulant teen she was back in 2002, when she pretended to defecate in the mall in the video for Complicated. A grown-ass woman singing about a cartoon cat and slumber parties in a cupcake tutu is more than a little embarrassing -- but it's not surprising. Lavigne is a product of the pop machine.
It's a minefield out there for female pop stars. They get to be Good Girls (like Taylor Swift) or Bad Girls (like Rihanna). Of course, absolutely no one can fit within that Madonna/Madonna binary, so everyone loses. Our culture has set up some pretty impossible parameters. It fetishizes virginity -- see: the unsolicited hymen updates we received about early-career Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears -- while, at the same time, sexualizes girls and infantilizes women. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Spears' now-classic late-'90s Rolling Stone cover -- for which she's posing suggestively with the purple Teletubby -- is the Mona Lisa of this concept.) Be sexy, but not too sexy -- because then you're a slut, and no one likes a slut.
But unlike, say, Miley Cyrus -- who shed her squeaky-clean, childlike Hannah Montana image and has been exploring her sexuality and womanhood -- Lavigne has never gone through a fraught period of public self-discovery and reinvention, sexual or otherwise. She's the Peter Pan of popular music, her adolescence in perpetuity. She clings to her bratty, pouty teenage image likely because it used to make her lots and lots of money. Lavigne isn't stupid -- nor is she likely a racist. She just hasn't quite figured out where she fits in a game that has an ever-changing set of rules.
Which brings us to Hello Kitty. It sees Lavigne perpetuating all kinds of stereotypes -- about Japanese culture, yes, but also about female pop stars, too. We have a woman performing as a sexualized teen girl, giving us what she thinks we want.
If someone never evolves, her music can't. And if someone, somewhere out there keeps buying what Lavigne's selling, her music won't.