Good Girl Gone Melisma: the racial politics of Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell”
Avril Lavigne’s newish single “What the Hell” offers us a quick, clearly defined lesson about racial signifiers in American pop music. It all has to do with the one little arpeggiated melisma in the chorus of an otherwise vocally minimalist pop punk track. Here’s the track. Listen both for the main vocal aesthetic—a standard pop-punk drinking-song chant-like delivery (it’s actually very Go-Gos)—and for that one little run that comes right when she says “All my life I was good, and now/I-I-I-I-I’m thinking what the hell” (first around 0:54):
10 or so years ago, AL was a blonde teenage emo-rocker marketed to the Hot Topic demographic. AL’s mall-goth/skatepunk style distinguished her from other blonde teenage divas of the era (Britney, Christina). This contrast was drawn not only through visual style, but also through music aesthetics. Because she played her own instruments, and because she sang straightforward pop-punk songs, she was offered as a musical alternative to the solidly R&B influenced work of Britney, Christina, and Destiny’s Child. (Pink occupied a place somewhere between R&B and rock, at least early in her career.) These other singers’ work from that era (early 2000s) made extensive use of melisma. There’s some good stuff on teh interwebs about millennial melisma: look here and here to start. The important thing for my purposes here is that melisma, though it has origins in medieval chant, nowadays signifies R&B, i.e., black music, i.e., blackness. The blackness of melisma is often contrasted to the whiteness of non-melismatic singing (e.g., Ke$ha’s white-girl party rap flow in the NYT article above).
The perceived “blackness” of melisma plays a key part in AL’s use of it. In “What the Hell,” melisma is used to emphasize the narrator’s rejection of monogamy (“All I wanna do is mess around”), and in turn her rejection of norms governing “good” white girl sexuality. “All my life I was good,” the narrator sings, until she decides to go wild with melisma! (But not too much melisma, just one little section of the chorus.) Why use melisma to indicate promiscuity and the rejection of “good” white girl sexuality? Because melisma reads “black.” Black female sexuality is commonly stereotyped as excessive, uncontrollable, and insatiable. As I have argued elsewhere (see my 2008 article in the Journal of Popular Music Studies), the virgin-whore dichotomy is racialized: “good,” virginal women are white, and “bad” whores are black. So, the song plays on stereotypes about black women’s sexuality to emphasize the narrator’s refusal to be a “good” white girl.
Susan McClary’s chapter on Carmen in Feminine Endings makes a similar, and much more extensively explained, argument about the gendering and racialization of Carmen’s chromatic runs. So, if you wanted to follow through with this idea about the non-whiteness of melisma I’d start there.
Long time lurker, first time commenter. Amazing post, thank you.
Full disclosure, I like the record. It’s interesting too to think about how smart Avril has played it. I always think of her as riding the cresting wave of the dreaded “Blink 182 moment,” but obviously she’s not only survived the apocalyptic end of mainstream care for emo-punk, she’s thrived. Especially interesting that this new record is going to apparently be a bunch of Max Martin / Dr. Luke songs, including “What the Hell.”
I loved Joshua Clover’s recap of pop 2010 on the Lana Turner blog. Writing about a distinction between Max Martin and Dr. Luke, Clover writes, “When there is more of your familiar singing, you know, with notes, as on “Gurls,” we can assume the greater participation of Mr. Martin. But when it is tempo-tossed conversation, heavy on the cheerfully sardonic drawl, one that was perhaps waved near a melody somewhere deep in the production, timbre without pitch strained betimes through Auto-Tune, we are visiting with the Doctor.”
This is in contrast to the lines drawn by Browne in NYT, who elides Katy Perry’s performance with Ke$ha’s chatter. I guess I’m reading their vision for Avril as more towards the Perry end of their work, although that of course provokes a perhaps unsolvable speculation concerning Ke$ha’s ascendancy as a “rapper” despite her work sounding like a temporary death knell for the melismatic.
I think your analysis of melisma in this joint is extremely valuable—I suppose the only thing I’d like to add by way of a “thing that makes you go hm” is that this stuff is being translated through the very specific armature of Swedish pop masterminds who’ve overseen this transition right up close. In fact, one would be hard pressed to say that they haven’t literally orchestrated it.
there’s an interesting take on melisma and soul from Ian Hoare quoted at the History Is Made At Night blog: http://bit.ly/faxW40
I found your thought-provoking post while doing a Google search about the history of melismatic singing. I was watching American Idol (!), which made me wonder yet again just when it was that melisma became so mainstream that even country music has succumbed to the trend. It seems that “good” singing nowadays must be melismatic.
So I must take issue with your premise that melismatic music “nowadays signifies R&B, i.e., black music, i.e., blackness.” It may have started out that way, much as rock and most other forms of contemporary music are rooted in “black” music. But the association is not very strong at all nowadays, a decade after the millenial melismatic madness began. So I think you’re reading too much into Avril’s tiny little melismatic run. I didn’t think she was “acting black.”
And on the issue of perceived promiscuity, I would argue that white female pop/rock musicians as a group are perceived in the culture as being at least as promiscuous as black women as a group. So I’m not sure that the dichotomy of ‘good’ virginal white women and ‘bad’ black whores holds true–at least not in this case.
I appreciate your comments. However, if you reread the section immediately under the video, you’ll notice that I’m not making sweeping claims about the music industry as a whole. Rather, I’m actually focusing pretty narrowly on AL’s history and her presentation in relation to other white female artists. So I would say that your observations are more or less on target, but only as generalizations. –rmj
Brandon–I think your observations about the Luke/Martinification of AL is really interesting! I haven’t heard anything else on her new album, just this single, but what stands out to me about this single is its pop-punk structure. It’s a very 4/4, verse-chorus-verse, short rhyming couplets type of track. Sooo, L/M are changing some things, perhaps vocally, but at least in this track, not so much formally/structurally.
The possibility that your point is correct specifically with regard to Avril is bolstered by the presence of–and Avril’s flirtation with–black basketball players in the video. In any event, I’m glad someone is thinking about these issues. I avoided critical race theory courses in law school back in the day, but am now interested in evaluating its utility as an explanatory, positive (in the philosophical sense) theory. Please keep writing. Thanks,
I don’t think this song exemplifies the melisma ‘style’ at all. It’s just a punchy pop sound and “I-I-I_I” just goes with the strong beat. Surely there’d be a better song to base your theory on?