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.