B-Sides: “What the Hell” Do You Make of This?

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A lot has gone on in the pop landscape since Avril Lavigne skateboarded into the public eye in 2002. She’s been endlessly lambasted for calling herself a “punk” while sounding sooo Top 40. More seriously, she has drawn deserved criticism from feminist circles for slut-shaming and depicting other women as enemies.

And yet, I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m pro-Avril. I purchased Let Go in its first week, and The Best Damn Thing remains one of my favorite albums of all time. I would never call Lavigne innovative musically, but I’ve consistently appreciated her tunes’ energy and escapism, and her skillful way of capturing common experiences that don’t get a lot of play on the radio (like warding off the grumps on a bad day or feeling like your sweetie smokes too much pot).

What the Hell single cover

Adventures in the wonderland of dating.

The first single off Lavigne’s new Goodbye Lullaby didn’t disappoint. Perhaps inspired by her recent divorce from Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley, “What the Hell” is about kissing various people and blowing off societal expectations about monogamy. The song’s not without its problems. There’s the “crazy” issue, and the lyrics are addressed to an unhappy main squeeze, which begs the question of how consensual their non-monogamy really is. Still, as with the Lou Christie classic “Lightnin’ Strikes,” I hear it as an exploration of dating around rather than a glorification of infidelity. “What the Hell” gave me the same flutter as Cher’s 1998 smash “Believe,” which burst onto the radio between songs about miserable devotion with the revelation “Maybe I’m too good for you.” Yes, Avril’s latest got my stamp of approval.

But then I saw the video.

I’m such a free spirit, I’m not sure if I’m singing lead or back-up!

Playing the field has been replaced by other rebellions, namely carjacking, shoplifting and, um, product placement. Yes, “What the Hell“ ‘s about doing what you want, but is anyone else totally confused by this vid? Somehow, unambiguous lyrics about dating and kissing multiple people have become a story about being followed by your lover while you goof around before returning to his bed. There’s no non-monogamy or infidelity to speak of, unless you count seconds of flirtation with strangers over a basketball. The brief scene even ends with Lavigne identifying her pursuer to the other men by mouthing “My boyfriend.”

Then, there’s the fact that this boyfriend is following her. At best, Avril and friend are playing a game that disrupts bystanders; at worst, this is a stellar example of poor communication and rather frightening possessiveness. If, as it seems, Lavigne wants some time away from her beau, why can’t she just take it? Either way, a man chasing a fleeing woman doesn’t sit right with me.

Addicted to Love

Don’t worry: love still has an off-the-shoulder hold on me.

There are other maddening elements to this video, but frankly, they’re not surprising. Gratuitous matching-undie shots? Check. Waking up in full, flawless makeup; promoting one’s own clothes and perfume; inundation of brand names to rival “Telephone?” Checks all around. I’m more interested in the fact that even as she mouths the joys of non-commitment, she offsets the message with a (literal) label on her chest that says “Addicted to Love.” Is suggested polyamory more threatening to the mainstream than auto theft?

by Deb Jannerson
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14 Comments Have Been Posted

"I hear it as an exploration

"I hear it as an exploration of dating around rather than a glorification of infidelity."

Its sad that I need to ask this, but have you actually read the lyrics? It is so clearly the other way around and no amount of Avrils super awesome grrl power is going to change that.

You say that I'm messing with your head
(yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
All 'cause I was making out with your friend
(yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
Love hurts, whether it's right or wrong
(yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
I can't stop 'cause I'm having too much fun
(yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)

You're on your knees,
beggin' please
'stay with me'
But honestly,
I just need to be a little crazy

**Her boyfriend is obviously not down with what she is doing.**

So what if I go out on a million dates
(yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
You never call or listen to me anyway
(yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
I'd rather rage than sit around and wait all day
(yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
Don't get me wrong,
I just need some time to play (yeah)

**She doesn't think he pays enough attention to her, but instead of breaking up with him and then hitting the dating scene she's going to string him along while she dates/possibly sleeps with other people.**

You say that I'm messing with your head
Boy, I like messing in your bed
Yeah, I am messing with your head
When I'm messing with you in bed

**She even admits that she is screwing with his head.**

This is not nonmonogamy. This is assholish behavior. Would this song make you feel so "fluttery" if it were a male singer treating his girlfriend this way?

And yes, I do hate this song. I liked her first two CD's but the stuff she's been coming out with lately is just awful.

Lyrics from http://www.metrolyrics.com/what-the-hell-lyrics-avril-lavigne.html


<i>Would this song make you feel so "fluttery" if it were a male singer treating his girlfriend this way?</i>

This describes the aforementioned "Lightnin' Strikes," and like I said, I do love that one as well while also recognizing ways in which it's problematic.

<i>Its sad that I need to ask this, but have you actually read the lyrics?</i>

Yes. I have. It's fine that we disagree, and I don't think we "need" to ask each other this to prove our points.


No where in Lou Christies song does he say he likes screwing around with his girlfriends head or that she is begging him to stop what he is doing.

The only comparable thing I see is that Avril disguises her bad behavior with her super awesome grrl powerness and Christie tries to play the old 'this is the way men are,' trick.

clever, but off topic

A couple of things:

1) My main issue was the OPs statement, "I hear it as an exploration of dating around rather than a glorification of infidelity."

If Avril wants to write a song about a woman who is an asshole to her boyfriend she is more than welcome to. What I don't want to see is anyone, the OP for example, trying to portray obvious cheating and assholish behavior as any sort of nonmonogamy. Cheating is not nonmonogamy.

2) With the way the narrators act in each song I don't think they are very comparable. "Lightnin' Strikes" has less of an asshole factor and could really be about nonmonogamy, which is why it is more interesting. The narrator wants to sleep around but he doesn't sing about how much he enjoys tormenting his "baby". If he did I don't think the OP would like it as much. "What the hell" is definitly about the narrator cheating on and tormenting her boyfriend, AND also commits the sin of being more annoying than "Girlfriend". I did not think that was possible.

3) And as for the disguise vs reveling question, it may add another dimension to the songs but it is not relevant as to whether the singers are cheating on their partner or are nonmonogamous. I'm only arguing that cheating is not nonmonogamy and the two should not be confused. This is a pet peeve of mine.

but guys behave like this

All the time. In fact, often they are encouraged in a way hey hey hey manner. My favorite example of this double standard is found in the Odyssey. Odysseus travels the world over fighting monsters and jumping into the sacks of exotic women. That's what makes him a man's man. But when he gets back home we find that his wife is the best woman a woman could ever be.. a man's wife. 20 years without ever giving up on Odysseus and in all this time she's never even thought of any other man. The Greeks ate that up and it has been the standard expectation for more than two thousand years since.

Odysseus was never an asshole for sleeping around. It's expected because that's a male prerogative. Of all the shows I've seen with men 'it doesn't mean anything cause i never loved her honey' tv shows /movies that I've seen vs all the examples of how women are shamed for ever having had an impure thought.. i think I could care less if Avril makes a song of a woman doing exactly they same thing men have been doing for centuries (and being congratulated for)

This! I thought I had totally

This! I thought I had totally misunderstood the lyrics, but seeing them in black and white confirms that this isn't a song about a woman finding herself or exploring alternatives to monogamy - it's just a song about a jerk being a jerk. It seems like she's going out with other guys in order to make her boyfriend jealous / pay attention.

Based on her previous songs and on various interviews with her that I've seen / read, I don't get the impression that Avril is self-aware or sophisticated enough to explore polyamory in a song.


But it's okay to make art about being a jerk, isn't it?

Sure! Sometimes it's

Sure! Sometimes it's cathartic. I'm not an Avril fan and I wouldn't want to hang out with the character she portrays in this song / video, but I see the value of her song as a form of escapism. Plus it HAS been stuck in my head since I first read this post...

poly sci

This blog and its comments are being a little liberal with the term "polyamory" where it isn't strictly appropriate.

Just a semantic quibble, but I think it's worth trying to bring some precision to discussions on this topic - "polyamory" has a fairly established parlance whereby it refers to a network of committed relationships (whether one-on-one or multiplicitous) involving more than two partners in total. It isn't polyamorous to go on an indiscriminate tear - it is, without making any warrant as to whether infidelity is implied in the narrative - non-monogamous. Let's stick to that one!


I'm surprised at the question of the song's position on fidelity being addressed as politically (?) problematic. It seems more the province of different moralities. I don't think it's anti-feminist to cheat on a partner, is it? It's not oppressive behaviour, it's just lousy. Unless you don't care, in which case it's no-one's problem.

Lyrics are literature. Certainly some morality play is permissible in that realm, especially when it comes to things which are of no consequence outside of the members of a specific relationship, right?

I fear that it may be fall-out from our celebrities'-personal-lives-obsessed culture of judgement that we might feel a need to police the relationship ethics of an artist, or the protagonist in an artist's narrative. You might be mad at her if this song were about something going on between some friends of yours... but these people are not your friends.

Getting back to the original question...

Whether you interpret the subject of the song as a wronged boyfriend or someone the narrator never agreed to exclusively date, what does everyone make of the video? What does it mean that Avril is only shown with one partner?

Honestly, I think the video

Honestly, I think the video is irritating because it shows stereotypical and problematic behavior on everyone's part. Car theft (and damage) aside, Avril's character here is not so much glorifying infidelity or exploring dating, but reveling in a fantasy of irresponsibility that allows her to act "crazy" and still have a man to support her and desire to be in her company. Like, notice how even as she's "fleeing" from him, she still somehow manages to get BoyToy to buy her stuff. (And another problem? I don't think Abbey Dawn counts as vintage clothing. Just sayin'.) I also take issue with the whole urban-African-American-guys-playing-basketball scene, as it seems to suggest that flirting with non-white dudes is on par with auto theft in the "craziness" regard. Stylistically, it reminds me of an even-more commercial version of the video for "Tik Tok" by Kesha. I think a lot of speculation can be made about the two character's relationship, the implications of the man following Avril, but really I can't get past the cheap and overused music video memes and the hideous product placement.

I guess I feel the same way

I guess I feel the same way about the product placement--if it's the artist's own product, then it makes more sense to me for that product to be in their music video (which is really a "product" of theirs as well). But, yeah, the quick cut to the Vaio TV and the phone in the audience was pretty jarring.

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