Is Avril Lavigne Proof That AI Is Getting Smarter?

Arts, Technology
Illustration by Angharad Neal-Williams.

Illustration by Angharad Neal-Williams.

Words by Craig Hodges
Illustrations by Angharad Neal-Williams

If you were to name one movie that comes to mind when we mention the latest Avril Lavigne record, it probably wouldn't be 'The Terminator' (James Cameron, 1984). But, hear us out.

'Head Above Water' is the latest album from Canadian singer/songwriter Avril Lavigne. Her first full length release since her self-titled album in 2013 and what can only be described as a turbulent point in her career. 'Head Above Water' is the follow up to a time of uncomfortable fan interactions, accusations of cultural appropriation, a marriage to the lead singer of one of the most hated bands in the world and rumours of death and doppelgangers. By this point you probably think that I am going to tear this album to shreds. But, that is not the case. Actually, this album is not that bad. I wouldn’t say it’s fantastic. Given the amount of acoustic guitar and overall BPM, it probably doesn’t pass the Tom Haverford banger test, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Chalk it up to my questionable taste in music, but that’s my stance.

So where does 'The Terminator' come into all this? Well to answer that we have to go back to 2014 when a slew of awkward fan interactions began popping up online where the singer seemed distant, uncomfortable and just generally awkward. This was following a very unexpected engagement and marriage to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger, and some of her more cringe-worthy musical efforts including the widely criticised and somewhat racist song, 'Hello Kitty'. The amalgam of all these unusual behaviours eventually lead to a circulation of rumours that Lavigne was in fact dead and had been replaced with a look-a-like named Melissa. Conspiracy! Conspiracy!

But does this really explain the sudden change in behaviour and musical direction? Wouldn’t a hostile takeover from the record label with a new person be more seamless and less erratic? Doesn’t it make much more sense to believe that Lavigne was usurped by an AI infiltration cyborg unbeknownst to anyone? I mean Lavigne vehemently denied these claims, but isn’t that exactly what a robot would say? And look at those eyes, there are definitely lines and lines of processing code behind them.

“The Terminator is an infiltration unit.” This is how Kyle Reese first describes the Terminator to Sarah Connor and this is what I feel we are dealing with here. First he describes the flaws of the early models. “The 600 series had rubber skin, we spotted them easy.” Maybe these awkward interactions and sudden change of behaviour was the “rubber skin”. The red flag where we should have begun to suspect AI infiltration. In 2012, the first musical piece written by a computer entered the classical music scene. 'Transits – Into An Abyss' a “modernist sounding” orchestral piece created by the computer cluster Iamus, became the first artificially composed piece to be played by eminent musicians. The piece exhibits recognisable patterns of musical composition but overall is harsh, grating and heavily reliant on dissonance and unusual time signatures. It’s not overly pleasurable to the ear, even London Symphony Orchestra chairman Lennox Mackenzie described the piece as a “wall of sound” in an interview with The Guardian.

So here we have two AI’s releasing disagreeable music around the same time. COULD IT BE ANYMORE OBVIOUS!

Illustration by Angharad Neal-Williams.

Illustration by Angharad Neal-Williams.


Fast forward to 2019 where tech giant Huawei has commissioned the English Session Orchestra to complete Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’ with help from their AI software. And, for all intents and purposes the final product sounds very much like it could have been composed by Schubert himself. It is logically the closest we can get Schubert finishing the Symphony, with technology that can precisely recognise patterns within his creative practice and replicate them into the existing composition. Comparatively to the Iamus composition, it is leaps and bounds ahead. They are learning…“these are new. They look human…sweat, bad breath,” (hit songs?) “everything. Very hard to spot.” Maybe 'Head Above Water' is the result of Lavignebot’s infiltration plot; six years of observation and learning.

The title track opens the album. An epic ballad that cements the album firmly in the gaping hole of affirmative, folkish pop which Taylor Swift has left behind in her 'Reputation' phase. Lavignebot reminds us all of her vocal prowess, belting out powerful high notes over swooning strings. A motif that snakes through the whole album like a backbone. At times a little overbearing, luckily this formulaic approach is balanced with a smattering of pop gems that hark back to Canadian folk pop sound that broke in the early 2000’s. A perfect blend of nostalgia, advances in production and the liberal hippie aesthetic of a nation that recently legalised marijuana.

Lyrically the album is on the nose. A continuous string of fairly cliché and tired poetic imagery like this pearler from 'Goddess': "He treats me like a goddess, goddess. He thinks I’m sexy in my pajamas. The more I am a hot mess. The more he goes bananas." It makes sense however that a robot’s poetic imagery would be unoriginal and uninspired, as it comes from a place of observing patterns of success rather than real experience. 'Head Above Water' also sports a wildcard track with a very unexpected guest feature. Nicki Minaj lends her urban panache on 'Dumb Blonde', a track that can only be described as cheerleader pop. Recalling the energy of 2007’s 'The Best Damn Thing', 'Dumb Blonde' is driven by a drumline snare, treated brass stabs and standard pop-rock rhythm guitar. Though bringing some much needed levity to the album it does come across as a bit of shameless attention grab.

Recently, Netflix released a film titled 'Cam' (Daniel Goldhaber, 2018) which follows a cam girl obsessed with building her rank on her broadcasting site. When an AI bot usurps her account the bot begins to engage in unexpected collaborations with top ranking members on the site to build up its profile. Sound familiar? Considering we know very little about how AI learns and develops, should we be turning to art to recognise patterns?


Will human art become a niche?

Illustration by Angharad Neal-Williams.

Illustration by Angharad Neal-Williams.


Conspiracy theories aside, the concrete reality is that AI has become an integral part of our daily life. We have Siri in our pockets, Alexa at home and a smattering of others tying up the loose ends of our creative history. As the internet became more widely accessible it revolutionised the way that we live but it also crippled the arts industries through piracy. When a computer can replicate the works of the most prominent musicians of our time, what does that mean for the human element? The music industry already has a reputation of taking advantage of artists and even using technology to exploit deceased musicians. The struggling artist is a stereotype for a reason and with these advances, how long is it before automation culls the arts workforce the way it has other industries? Will human art become a niche?

AI is growing exponentially and just like the internet, is set to completely transform the way the world works. And while we are probably a long way off murderous infiltration robots, it is important for us to consider exactly what that growth means for us.

“They can’t make things like that yet!”

“Not yet, not for about 40 years.” Kyle Reese told Sarah Connor this about the Terminator in 1984. And as old as it makes us feel, unfortunately we are creeping up to that 40 year mark. Maybe it’s time we started paying attention.

Craig Hodges is a freelance writer from Sydney. Craig specialises in writing about music, film and media cultures.