dolescence is two things, but people only remember one. There’s the angst, yes, and that persists: you get older, sadder; your poetry gets better. But what’s flattened is the schizophrenia—the emotional whiplash, the absence of subtlety and the cavalcade of instant recoveries. Adolescence is about never being anything but jubilant or dead, and adolescents know this. I can’t make a scientific study, but Avril Lavigne’s bouncily tortured Under My Skin fared better with the thirtyish music critics I know now than with the sixteenish girls I chased then, and it wasn’t because the adults overlooked the awful lyrics but because the teenagers couldn’t: there was something missing, some depth unplumbed, and not only could we tell but we cared, because it wasn’t enough that “My Happy Ending” was a great song. It needed to get us.
People will praise The Best Damn Thing for “cheering up”—for departing teenage doldrums for some postpubescent hinterland where bubblegum’s taken seriously, where we’re Free Of All That and ready to enjoy an absurd hook or six. Once again they’ll miss the point; Lavigne’s going on twenty-three, but she finally knows how to talk about being seventeen, and The Best Damn Thing is better anthropology than Let Go (which, don’t forget, had “Sk8er Boi,” whose opening lines ought to be on headstones). Thematically everything on this album is absurd, ridiculous, overblown; Lavigne doesn’t know for a minute the meaning of proportion, and her collaborators—their hands holding hers to confusing degrees, because some of these lyrics are terrible, but some of them are “She’s, like, so whatever / You could do so much better”—don’t tell her.
One segue explains everything—it’s from the SCUM manifesto of “Everything Back But You” to the refined orgasm of “Hot,” when Avril tells us we’re so good to her, baby, and means it, but just a second ago she wanted to see us cry like she did a thousand times. Everything’s an extremity: she HATES you, she LOVES you; every song’s a castration or a blowjob. But they’re both expressed exactly the same way because it’s not about you, it’s about her, and when feelings get this strong they all bleed into white. On the big single, Avril tells you to leave your girlfriend without bothering to make a case as to why; she leads a cheer for herself on the gloriously polymorphic title track (she’s its antecedent, natch), she condemns some coquette for acting just like her on “One of Those Girls” and silently dares you to make the connection. Having a bourgeois bad day on “Runaway”—“I crashed the car and I’m gonna be really late”—she claims in the chorus to “feel so alive” but slimes it with such sarcasm you suspect Zen sucks.
Such double-taken slyness surfaces more than once, most notably on “Everything Back But You,” where the letter Avril catches you smelling “like cheap perfume / And it didn’t smell like you,” which might be really funny. As with “Girlfriend”’s big line, I don’t know if Avril is totally responsible for the lyrics (the credits aren’t clear), but if we can give Lavigne some credit for the music—tighter than Let Go, more omnivorous than Under My Skin—we can certainly grant some for the lyrics, and as a personality she’s snugger in this album than in either of those because she’s a brat, and so’s the record. Handclaps, giggling, melodies numerous and restless, lots of loud things, drums bigger than before. Even “When You’re Gone” and “Innocence,” turgid and humdrum, are taken at times by an exhilarating slickness; and “Keep Holding On” ends the album for the same reason graduation ends high school: because after all that, Hallmark means something.
Forget LiveJournal, forget the Used; The Best Damn Thing isn’t about the angst you’ve made respectable. I love this record because I don’t know how smart it is—don’t know if its quips are ironic or oblivious, if Avril’s writing the ballads thinking about her husband or the runtime—and don’t care. It’s enormous, senseless, superficial, selfish, and cocky past the point of absurdity, but it’s never wrong. You haven’t grown out of it because you haven’t gentrified your schizophrenia; you’ve forgotten it. It kinda was the best damn thing. Out of the mouths of babes.