Nevermind the Ashlees, here's the Avril: and yes, she did steal your boyfriend.
The thing about the job of being a pop star is that, first and foremost, it's a job. And for a 26-year-old with a gazillion records under her studded belt, that's probably the healthiest way to think about her chosen field. Lavigne, newly married and evidently under the care of a stylist, has already proved that she cleans up nice. Like all young starlets she's been tagged by the paparazzi, drunk and piling into the passenger side -- but at least she keeps her panties on. The favored musical direction for such a young lady in third-album mode would be to extend an olive branch to the pose of maturity: maybe give Linda Perry a ring and plot a return to the muted AAA acoustic ballads that made her sound so precocious on Let Go. You can imagine her handlers gathering round, heaving a collective group sigh, and advising, "Oh, grow up, dahhhhling."
Thank fucking christ that didn't happen.
The new Avril Lavigne single, "Girlfriend," sounds like nothing she's ever done. If anything it's a regression -- or not so much a regression, since this wasn't how she began. Maybe more of a prequel. We're following her back to high school, back to pre-married life, back to a conjuring of a self she's never laid claim to but that, coming after two albums of self-depricating angst, feels like her due. Think of it as her "Milkshake." Meet Avril Lavigne: boystealer, girlfriend-wrecker . . dancehall chatter? The fuck?
Avril's always done her best work in tandem with hotshot writer/producers, and she's never needed good ones more than she does now. The field is ever more crowded, and she's complicit in the success of her biggest rival for teen queen. Heads have mostly forgotten that she co-wrote the title track on Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway, and that Kelly's best-selling single, "Behind These Hazel Eyes," was cut from nearly the exact same cloth as Avril's Under My Skin. For "Girlfriend," Avril's countered by teaming with Dr. Luke, a/k/a Lukasz Gottwald, the Saturday Night Live guitarist who has become arguably as crucial to the current pop moment as the Matrix were, briefly, to theirs. It was Gottwald who helped usher Swedish teenpop svengali Max Martin back to the top of the charts, repackaging the magic Martin had brought to Britney and Backstreet for a marketplace that now wanted big guitars. For Breakaway, Dr. Luke went to Sweden and came back with "Since U Been Gone" and "Behind These Hazel Eyes." The Max & Luke show also produced a few of last year's juiciest mallpunk specimens: the Veronicas' "4Ever," Ashley Parker Angel's "Let U Go," and P!nk's "U + Ur Hand." For an encore Luke singlehandedly broke Lady Sovereign in America with the Atari-fied TRL smash "Love Me or Hate Me." Now that he's with Avril, how excited should we be? Very, maybe? For now, while we have only a glimpse, let's be hysterical: this is like Quincy and Michael, like Timbaland and Timberlake.
These are people whose skills were made for each other, peaking at the top of their game. The first thing you hear on "Girlfriend" is a drum track straight outta Toni Basil, only with just enough snap in the snare to suggest some pre-programmed riddim machine, and Avril going all jumprope-rhyme over the top. The guitars come in tight and un-barred, signifying the Top-40-ready pragmatism of latter-day emo over the Green Day power-chords that Av used to make her band play on B-sides like "I Don't Give a Damn." (The only uncommercial gesture in "Girlfriend" is that she drops her second, third, and fourth cuss-words ever -- "damn," "hell," and "motherfucker" -- which only guarantees that Ryan Seacrest's edit men will be working overtime.) In "sk8er boi" a tomboyish Avril rebounded a young punk who'd been dumped by a preppie ballet dancer; on "Girlfriend" she's taking what she wants by any means necessary. "She's like, so whatever/And you can do so much better/I think we should get together now/And that's what everyone's talkin' 'bout." She ain't talkin' 'bout love. In verse two, a slow background harmony slides over her drag-racing come-on, a trick I'd bet Dr. Luke learned from Fall Out Boy. And then, at the end, she starts shaving the r's off her enunciation and leaves melody in the dust. OK, maybe "Girlfriend"'s final coda doesn't really count as rapping. But you can't help but wonder if it was a couple of bars that were rescued from SOV's cutting-room floor: "In a second you'll be wrapped around my finger/'cause I can do it better/there's no other, so when't it gonna sink in? She's so stupid, what the hell were you thinkin'?"
A couple of years ago, maybe Avril wouldn't have done this: note how she bristled when the Matrix took all the credit for Let's Go and then never worked with them again. Maybe she's figured out that this pop thing is still, after everything else, a profession; maybe she appreciated what Kelly Clarkson did with the professionals. In any case, there's no mistaking the end result. "Girlfriend" is Avril's shot over the bough of the current teen-pop crop: here's one girl who ain't going quietly into her late-twenties, like Mandy Moore or some shit. Instead she's going straight for the snotty, backstabbing heart of the next bubblegum generation.
DOWNLOAD: Avril Lavigne, "Girlfriend" (mp3 at Music for Ants)