The latent rock in Madonna’s act was extracted by Avril Lavigne and P!nk, who fused it with their own polished pop looks and debuted at the turn of the millennium. (As a child, P!nk in her own words ‘didn’t speak to [her] mother for a year, because [she] was sure [Madonna had] adopted [her]’.) Kelly Clarkson, who debuted in 2003, was apparently more influenced by soul than pop but created a similar sound and is part of the same picture. Of these three women Lavigne’s act is the most complete. A glance at her early persona might invite comparisons to the charmless Taylor Swift – both started their careers as teenagers, appeal primarily to that demographic and are somewhat obnoxious and vocally-challenged. But when Lavigne performs I believe her act nears greatness. Her image flirts with normality, but its pop sheen – bright blue eyes, porcelain fangs, an injection of colour – lifts her above mortals. She is almost that offbeat girl in your class, but celestial. During the phenomenally successful Let Go (2002-3) era she was undeniably a young, overwhelmed girl, almost as much a product of her label as Britney Spears, which just makes the dark melancholy of her music all the more enigmatic. The Best Damn Thing (2007-8), an enchanting, major pop era, revived hopes in a career which had risked becoming anodyne with Under My Skin (2004-5). Unfortunately, while her recent work is radio-friendly, the act is tired. The “Let Me Go” video is a step towards maturity, immediately reversed by the risible “Hello Kitty”.
Despite missteps and missed opportunities, Lavigne’s influence – evident in Swift, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Kesha among others – exceeds that of P!nk or Clarkson. P!nk, although one of pop’s most impressive entertainers, has never closed in on pop greatness due to her artistic complacency, lack of charisma and her monotone, raspy voice. Had she the natural flair of Annie Lennox or her idol Janis Joplin, she’d be an extremely important artist – she doesn’t. She attempts to conceal her insecurity about her status as a pop star (seen in the contempt-filled “Stupid Girls” video) with a sexless goofiness that is untrue to both pop and rock. Her best pieces in my view are the piercing ballads “Glitter in the Air” – the live performances of which are glorious – “I Don’t Believe You”, and “Who Knew”. Her strongest era is undoubtedly Funhouse (2008-10), with its sparks of innovation in an otherwise static career. (None of this is to say that she isn’t eminently likable as an entertainer.)
Clarkson, although unexciting, shouldn’t be completely overlooked. Numerous Clarkson songs – “Miss Independent”, “Since U’ Been Gone”, “Because of You”, “I Do Not Hook Up”, “Mr. Know It All” – contain the effortless, searing power which mostly eludes P!nk, and her songs’ progressive messages have a genuine avuncular charm. While it’s difficult to take seriously a pop star who eschews so many of the visual and performative components of her craft, Clarkson’s album covers – with the exception of the recent Meaning of Life – are attractive, and successfully frame each of her eras. I suspect that Clarkson, because her music is simply better than P!nk’s, has a better shot at a legacy, but neither reach the heights of Lavigne, whose unique creation played a role in the internal narratives of so many.