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10 Years, 100 Songs: #6. “Can I Make it Any More Obvious?…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 22, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

At the outset of the Naughty Oughties, “teen pop” was a term that still had a fairly standardized definition and sound. Generally, it meant one of two things–cleanly-cropped boy bands like Backstreet Boys or N Sync, or demure female starlets like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Moving into the new millennium, and even as the crux of its signature artists looked to age into their 20s (if they weren’t there already), it seemed like they were going to continue to be the standard-bearers for years to come. But as Backstreet mania started to fade, N Sync got a little weirder, Britney started to question her public image and Christina took firm control of hers, a void emerged for a new vixen to come and take the reins for the remainder of the decade. A 17-year-old pop-punk pixie from Ontario, Canada emerged, and with the help of a hit-wrecking production team, she proved to be more than up to the task.

Avril Lavigne. What can you say, really? Was there a bigger slam dunk to be found in pop all this decade? A super-cute, spunky Canadian blonde/occasional not-blonde who emerged amidst claims of being the “anti-Britney,” dressed like a Hot Topic (really, what would the youth culture of the last twenty years have been without this store?) spokesperson and screamed attitude in a moderately calculated, but still impressively enthusiastic way? Yeah, we’ll take one, thanks. Any pop fan in the 00s would only need one look at Avril–hell, even just hearing her name would probably be enough–to know that she was going to be an absolute gold mine this decade, a concoction that was simply boundto sweep the Top 40 landscape sooner or later. You saw one of her early videos, and you just thought. “YES. Yes. Exactly. What the fuck took so long?” And if you didn’t, well, you must have really thought that The Hives were going to be the second coming, huh?

“Complicated” came first, and it’s a fine song, but it was “Sk8er Boi” (which I could swear was originally titled “Sk8ter Boi,” but all traces of that appear to have disappeared from the video or Wiki entry, so fair enough) that really blew the doors open–for me, at least. The first time I heard it marked the final obliteration of my Indie Snob phase of music listening, as I just felt my smile growing wider and wider throughout the entire song, in complete disbelief about how damned adorable I found the whole thing to be. The sheer condensed pop rush of “Sk8er Boi” was like nothing I had heard in ages (with the possible exception of our #72 song, anyway), even making Aqua and the Spice Girls sound about as sedate as the Crash Test Dummies in comparison. Naturally, the song was viewed by many as simpering, ridiculous and incredibly irritating, which is hard to argue with on an objective level. In fact, you could probably say that “Sk8er Boi” can be used as a sort of litmus test for just how high one’s pure pop tolerance is—while it’s understandable if you came up negative and found listening to it to be like suffering an ice cream headache, if if you came up even a little bit positive, you probably loved the shit out of it in time.

And regardless of your opinion of the song, respect must be paid to Avril and The Matrix (the co-writing / producing team behind “Boi”) for reviving that too-long-dormant classic form of pop songwriting–the Story Song. And it’s a story song in a very, very classic sense. In fact, slow it down by about 10x and change skating to motorcycle-riding or leather-jacket-wearing or some other early-60s signifier of Badness and you’ve got a surefire Girl Group classic, equal parts “He’s a Rebel,” “Foolish Little Girl” and “Leader of the Pack,” though wildly devoid of the tragedy of the latter, of course. At times, Avril and company try to go even more old-school with it, especially with that instantly-immortal opening couplet: “He was a boy, she was a girl / Can I make it any more obvious?” I don’t think that line was a direct quote from Romeo & Juliet, per se (though it’s actually pretty close to iambic pentameter, possibly), but it’s hard to get much further back to love-story basics than that, and I guarantee you Zombie Shakespeare was slapping his forehead at not having gotten to it first.

“Sk8er Boi” goes on to tell the story of the titular punk miscreant, an admirer from afar of a ballerina classmate. Said female reciprocates silently, but feels her friends will not approve (his “baggy clothes” being a particular red flag–guess the friends were disciples of Alicia Silverstone’s generational philosophies from Clueless), so she spurns his affections. Mistake, it turns out–five years later, she’s watching MTV at home one day (while “feeding the baby”–trying to figure out the ages of the characters in this song might give you something of a migraine) when she notices SB “rockin’ up” the channel, now apparently a nationwide star. She calls her snobby friends to confirm what she has seen, and find out that they all have tickets to see him play live already (buying through Ticketmaster must have been a significantly less arduous process back in 2002). She joins them, possibly hoping to reconnect with SB, but too late–he already has a love interest that was into him from the beginning, none other than our own Avril, who chastises the (ex-?)ballerina for letting her prejudices get in the way of her possible happiness, and brags that she and SB now “rock each other’s world.”

As is no doubt made clear by my abuse of the sarcastic parenthetical aside in the above plot summary, the song’s lyrics are in fact a little screwy from a storytelling perspective. But that’s certainly OK–pop songs don’t require fact-checking, and the idiosyncracies of the narrative and timeline of “Sk8er Boi” just make the entire package more endearing. And to focus too much on the lyrical faults would be to undermine the genuinely semi-clever things that Avril does here–namely casting herself as a supporting character in the song, not even showing up until the bridge to provide a twist of sorts. Before that bridge, listeners probably assume that Avril will turn out to somehow be the female protagonist, just because that’s always how these songs work, but it works far better for her to subtly slip herself into the conversation towards the end, and then tie everything back together with the song’s final chorus: “I’ll be at the studio, singing the song he wrote / About a girl he used to know.” So the song was actually written by the guy for Avril, to sing about the loser chick who missed out by snubbing him? Not exactly a Keyser Soze-level reveal, perhaps, but a nifty little songwriting trick nonetheless. (In case you haven’t noticed, I love nifty little tricks of all varieties, apparently.)

Now, story songs are all well and good, but the story is only half the equation. For the song part of it, most credit must go to The Matrix, arguably the unsung heroes of 00s pop, especially in the first half, when their thumbprints were all over the Top 40 (Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I,” Hillary Duff’s “So Yesterday,” Jason Mraz’s “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)”). They patented a kind of compact burst of a production style which sounded aggressively pop/rock, but in a completely contained and controlled environment, which occasionally came off as sterile but just as regularly came off as a quick jab of sunshine to the jaw. Their collaborations with Avril weren’t exactly Aaliyah and Timbaland, but it was clearly a fortiutous pairing nonetheless, Avril’s highly-stylized wannabe-rebel rock proving the perfect musical and ideological fit for The Matrix’s pocket-garage-band sound. “Sk8er Boi” was their masterpiece together, popping with synths and streamlined guitars that are so condensed into a single buzz that it’s only a couple layers away from sounding like an Andrew W.K. song, but cleaned up and reined-in enough that it wouldn’t intimidate its Sheryl Crow or Vanessa Carlton peers on the radio.

Avril quickly became one of the biggest musical sensations of the first half of the decade, selling five million copies of Let Go, although doing damage to her underground cred in the meantime with her mispronunciation of David Bowie’s name at the Grammy’s (“David Booo-ee“) and her to-say-the-least-uncalled-for cover of Metallica’s “Fuel” at the across-the-board disastrous MTV Icons: Metallica program.  The punk aspects of Avril’s persona quickly and understandably faded as she stopped doing the tie-and-undershirt thing (too bad) and started singing more treacly ballads, bringing her dangerously close to obselescence before she rebounded with the improbably perfect “Girlfriend,” a song which might actually be a smidge better than “Sk8er Boi,” although from a different pop lineage (Toni Basil/Missy Elliott/Kelly Clarkson, roughly) and probably not as culturally significant.

Meanwhile, “Sk8er Boi” became something close to the norm when it came to young starlets doing their musical thing. As the 00s progressed and “Teen Pop” became “Disney Pop” (I don’t know if there are more than even a handful of semi-talented kids between the ages of 12-18 that that conglomerate hasn’t properly gobbled up yet in some way, possibly making Justin Bieber the Great White Hope of young America moving into the 2010s), and The Matrix passed the pop production torch to Dr. Luke (unsurprisingly, the architect behind Avril’s own “Girlfriend”), the pressurized sugar-high approach of “Boi” set the standard for breakout singles. Songs like Ashlee Simpson’s “La La,” The Veronicas’ “4Ever,” Miley Cyrus’s “See You Again,” Demi Lovato’s “Here We Go Again”–I don’t think any of them sound like they do without “Sk8er Boi” setting that benchmark. Whether any of them have matched its powers of intoxication is an entirely different  matter, but at least they’re smart enough to worship at the throne.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that “Sk8er Boi” received this decade was one that was never officially paid. In 2003, the song was optioned for a movie by MTV films, an adatpation that never actually ended up coming to fruition. The fact that the project fell through is irrelevant for two reasons. One is that the movie would be guaranteed to blow, likely starring Devon Sawa and the Poor-Man’s-Kirsten-Dunst from Bring It On Again and probably not even featuring the song itself, setting new records for bottoming out on RottenTomatoes and MetaCritic in the process. The second and more important is that the movie has already been made in one way or another countless times throughout history, including in the 00s itself (I’m pretty sure this was basically the plot of all three High School Musical movies, and maybe a couple of the Jonas Brothers flicks too), and in Avril Lavigne’s real life as well, where she ended up marrying fellow Ontarian pop-punker Deryck Whibley of Sum 41 (and our #9 single), in a union too unbelievably pitch-perfect even to script. In any event, you never saw anyone trying to make movies out of Michelle Branch songs, did you?

Tragically, and unbeknownedst to me until a few minutes ago, Whibley and Lavigne have recently broken up, Avril filing for divorce this October. Seems to me that only means one thing:  Sequel time!! If so, you’ll be pretty well guaranteed to be finding it on our next list ten years from now.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone
22. Radiohead – “Idioteque
21. Fall Out Boy – “Sugar, We’re Going Down
20. The All-American Rejects – “Move Along
19. OutKast – “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)
18. Interpol – “PDA
17. Justin Timberlake – “Rock Your Body
16. Vanessa Carlton – “A Thousand Miles
15. The Clipse – “Grindin‘”
14. Cam’Ron f/ Juelz Santana & Freekey Zeke – “Hey Ma
13. LCD Soundsystem – “Losing My Edge
12. Soulja Boy – “Crank Dat Soulja Boy
11. StainD f/ Fred Dusrt – “Outside
10. Rihanna f/ Jay-Z – “Umbrella
9. Sum 41- “Fat Lip
8. R. Kelly – “Ignition (Remix)
7. Eminem f/ Dido – “Stan
6. Avril Lavigne – “Sk8er Boi”

8 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #6. “Can I Make it Any More Obvious?…””

  1. Adam said

    In hindsight it’s hysterical to think that Arista turned down the synth-pop remix of Sk8r Boi due to worries she would lose her punk cred.

  2. MBI said

    Even when my perspective on this song was mostly negative, I couldn’t deny: That intro fucking kicks ass.

    What I love about this song is that it’s a song for fifteen-year-old girls by fifteen-year-old girls. This was a genuinely stupid song. Genuinely, sincerely stupid. Avril herself seemed like she outgrew “Sk8er Boi” almost instantly. And because for so many years, we had had INSINCERELY stupid songs, Avril felt like such a breath of fresh air. Avril had a lot of help for her debut CD, but no one but Avril could have written a song about this subject matter. This wasn’t cynical pandering by a marketing team (like Blink-182 were arguably devolving into with “First Date” and “The Rock Show,” and like Simple Fucking Plan definitely were guilty of); this was straight out of Avril’s diary of teen poetry.

  3. ZD said

    This is a definitely memorable cut; I’m currently recalling singing along to it with my nieces seven years back. Good times.

    I’m going to go ahead and assume that I’m With You isn’t one of those treacly ballads to which you alluded up there. Because look, bub, I don’t sing treacly ballads at karaoke, even after six drinks.

  4. Brent said

    I’d assume the ‘treacly’ tag is saved for the likes of “Keep Holding On” or maybe “When You’re Gone”, because “I’m With You” is legitimately great.

    Course my favorite Avril single of the decade is one that went nowhere outside of Canada (and Finland of all places, at least according to some acquaintances up there) so it wasn’t gonna get the nod here, but if haven’t heard “Hot” you really owe it to yourself to seek it out. Easily her best single since that first album – and I say this as a defender of “Girlfriend” as one of the better pop songs of the last 5 years.

  5. intensities said

    Yeah, no, “I’m With You” is fantastic.

  6. MBI said

    Lady Marmalade? Really?

  7. Justin said

    Complicated’s “yeah yeahs” in the last chorus is better than the rest of her singles. Doesn’t mean I don’t like this song though.

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