Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff: You Growl, Girls

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Can there be any doubt that in the great Gen Y High School of Life, Hilary Duff is a hall monitor? And that Avril Lavigne is the sort of girl who beats up girls like Hilary Duff?

Both young women are prisoners of their images and their fan bases -- preteen Disney Channel fans and their slightly older sisters, respectively. Both have made albums that feel like sops to their respective demographics.

Most of Lavigne's third disc, "The Best Damn Thing," is given over to short, breezy mall punk tracks that borrow their faux-hawk toughness from Sum 41 and their declamatory pom-pom pop from Gwen Stefani. Throughout, Lavigne, 22, sings in a fake Brit-snarl that should make her sound jaded but really makes her seem touchingly young.

She has two default modes: vehement and sappy. The pop songs sound like they were written in all capital letters. With lots of exclamation points! "Girlfriend," in which Lavigne urges a hapless boy to dump his girl for her ("In a second you'll be wrapped around my finger / 'Cause I can do it better"), is the worst thing here, a nasty and regrettable slice of anti-sisterliness. Sappy is better: Big ballads such as "When You're Gone" at least allow Lavigne to arrange her affectless voice into some facsimile of warmth, however fleeting.

Both Lavigne and Duff are prone to lecture. Lavigne is forever telling boys to come here or go away. Or both. Duff is given to not-unpleasant pep talks in which she comes across as a bit of a scold, as if she's happy to help you but slightly disappointed you couldn't help yourself. "Dignity" employs standard electronic beats and dubious conventions like the dreaded telephoned-vocal-thing to create a virtuous, cleanly scrubbed dance pop album.

As anyone who reads Us Weekly can attest, Duff, 19, recently broke up with singer Joel Madden, lending the whole endeavor a sadder but wiser vibe, and a subtext best described as: Look what you're missing, guy from Good Charlotte who dumped me. The disc lays waste to fakes, players, haters, the elderly and an attention-hungry starlet who sounds an awful lot like current Madden flame Nicole Richie. "Play With Fire" boasts what may be the best kiss-off in months ("I don't have time for this, I'm off to play in Houston"), even if most of Duff's tween audience can't exactly claim it for everyday use.

Both discs are riddled with contradictions. Duff has created a would-be Hollywood club album that sermonizes about the dangers of Hollywood clubs. It's a thankless task, and it sounds like it. Lavigne has made a growly pop album with a sugary center -- it's irretrievably catchy, and insufferably callow and dumb. Both discs seemed rigged. Neither woman ventures an inch from her respective corner. And neither sounds like she's having any fun.

DOWNLOAD THESE: Lavigne: "When You're Gone"; Duff: "Dignity," "No Work, All Play"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company