Last week, NOW Toronto had an absolutely dreadful interview with Avril Lavigne - one of those puff pieces that avoids asking the star any tough questions, but is coy and ironic in its exposition, as if it wants to be highly critical or mocking but fears some sort of punishment. It's a painful read.
A substantial section was devoted to perhaps my biggest pet peeve - the 'artist' who feigns ignorance or denies responsibility when pressed about their content being sexist, racist, etc.* The interviewer notes that Lavigne's lyrics on her new album are incredibly antagonistic toward other women, and even misogynistic at points - as in the highly clever descriptor "bitch slut psycho babe". Lavigne, though, is dismissive of the criticisms, as if her intention trumps reception: "I didn't really think about it that way. It's not serious to me."
Intention comes back later in the interview: "I've done a really good job of focusing on who it is I am and what it is I want, and that has always been my message to my fans: don't worry about what other people think; do what you want to do; be yourself and be strong." Unfortunately, this is a banal and probably even idiotic recommendation: our freedom to 'be yourself' and 'do what you want to do' is constrained by social and economic limits and necessities, just as Lavigne needs to admit that her songs participate in a conventional and semiotic exchange that is far larger than her intentionality. It doesn't matter if she doesn't 'think about it that way' - a responsible writer should anticipate what others will think, how they will receive a message, and what they will do with it. It is a serious matter if you're easily misinterpreted, especially if you have any kind of genuine commitment to your audience. (And even more especially if that audience is largely teenaged or preteen.)
But then, Avril Lavigne and disingenuousness seem a very apt pair.
*My favorite example of this sort of maneuver was performed by Matt Stone and Trey Parker after Team America - which I despise, despite liking South Park - was released. When they were asked, reasonably, about their film being homophobic and pro-imperialist, they resorted to the classical response of blaming the viewers - it was they who were reading too much into the film, assigning it their own biases, and these observations were not indicative of Stone and Parker's intentions and so invalid. They claimed to have criticized people of all political stances and favored none - like Lavigne, they denied any responsibility so far as interpretation goes.
Admittedly, it's difficult to tell whether Stone and Parker were being insincere or were actually ignorant of what they were doing. What is clear, though, is that some critiques are more ambivalent and more desirable than others. In the film, they describe three types of people: dicks, assholes, and pussies. In the end, the hero decides that if he has to be one, then he chooses to be the dick. (Since, as we've been told through the film, the dick keeps the asshole from shitting on the pussy and sticks it to both of them.) Americans may be dicks, Stone and Parker are clearly telling us, but we ostensibly need them to be dicks for so long as there are assholes that harass pussies. This is also saying something about American masculinity, but I won't go there - this time, anyway.
Sure, none of the three offer altogether wonderful positions, but only an Avril Lavigne (evidently) would be unable to see that one is clearly being promoted over the others.