Avril Lavigne has never been an icon of artistic integrity. At her best, she sang relentlessly catchy mall-pop. At her worst...well, at her worst, there's the video for her new song, "Hello Kitty."
Avril Lavigne is turning 30 this year. That's all I could think as I watched this video and listened to this atrocious song which, if you listen carefully, is layered on top of a keening whine of apathy. She's turning 30 and she's dancing and singing in a video for a pop song that is, if anything, a regression from her 2007 single "Girlfriend." "Girlfriend" was at least confident about the kind of song it was—a pop perversion of punk, an adoption of the imagery, stance, and sound of punk music with all the edges shaved off.
"Hello Kitty" is every bad decision of the last ten years, all wrapped up in one video: The thoughtless appropriation of popular Japanese culture a lá Gwen Stefani and, later, Katy Perry; the half-baked dubstep drop; the lame "OMFG" in the lyrics; and the sad autotuned chorus. The shameless handling of race and culture is the worst offense, of course: The random shouting of Japanese words; the scene where Lavigne goes to eat sushi and drink sake; her crew of silent, emotionless backup dancers, all dressed exactly alike, who follow her everywhere; the weak kung fu moves integrated into the dance.
And everyone involved seems to know this is a bad idea. You can practically see the backup dancers rolling their eyes at everything going on around them. Lavigne looks actively uncomfortable for most of the video. She's way too old to be boasting about her mom not being home tonight. Her objectification of young Asian girls as "kitties" doesn't come across as a personal come-on; with her obvious awkwardness, Lavigne seems to be singing this song from the perspective of a white guy who only gets off on young Asian women. It's less about a particular person than treating certain people like a fetish, like something to be consumed. This is a song that I expect will be played in strip clubs for years to come, whenever young dancers with pseudonyms like "Asia" and "China" take the stage. It's sleazy and it's gross and it's racist and it's embarrassing to watch.
The response to this video has been unanimous: Everyone is disgusted. People are offended by the racial and cultural politics, they're nauseated by the lyrics and the shitty production, they're cringing in staggering numbers all over the world. I don't especially blame Lavigne for this song—she was credited for writing it, but she shared the writing credits with three (!) men, and it was produced by four (!) men. Wikipedia claims that Lavigne loves Hello Kitty products and Japanese culture. But you can't take a predilection for Hello Kitty products and turn it into something as wrong as this video. This video is the kind of wrong-headed, ahuman product that only comes from a committee, or more likely a committee constructed of other committees.
Lavigne has always been a conduit for the baser forces of the record industry, the mirror through which we learned what music executives saw in the music-buying public. Somewhere, someone thought we really wanted "Hello Kitty," that it was the song we were dying to hear. And maybe it is. Maybe we needed to look this corruption square in the face. Maybe we needed a high-water mark, something we could point to and say, "We don't need or want any more of that." Maybe that's the one good thing that can come from all this.