“Every time you go away/ it actually kinda makes my day.” And with that snarky 2001 declaration, Avril Lavigne, a teenaged pop-punk poet, crashed the Canadian music industry and changed — well, everything.
From the beginning, attitude has been essential to the Avril Lavigne brand. The aforementioned quote is the opening line of “I Don’t Give,” the first song on Lavigne’s first record, B-Sides. This promotional album preceded her Juno Award-winning 2002 breakthrough debut, Let Go, by a year, and just a glimpse at the 17-song tracklist alone — “All You Will Never Know,” “Move Your Little Self On,” “Let Go” — is indicative of how unapologetically Avril she’s always been.
Lavigne’s writing style was a one-two punch of brash and willful, and in the post-Lilith Fair landscape of 2001 Can-rock, hers was a voice desperately missing from the mainstream. She was a teenage girl who was opinionated, defiant, and perpetually OVER IT. Hers was a typical rejection of “girlishness” and glossy, male-gaze femininity, but we hadn’t much seen it modelled in pop music since Alanis Morissette’s 1995 worldwide debut, Jagged Little Pill. Whereas Morissette and her Jagged Little Pill characters ultimately identified the patriarchy as the enemy, Lavigne’s characters were a little younger and more reactive in their rebellion and rejection of authority.
Lavigne herself provided a compelling and necessary self-portrait of suburban teen ennui — a mall rat in thick, black eyeliner, who looked exactly like millions of other bored, stifled, stranded young girls longing for something more than the same shopping complexes and skateboard parks and small-town boys.
There’s great emotional dexterity and depth in many of Lavigne’s ballads, and it’s another aspect of her artistry for which she gets very little credit. The heightened solitude of youth is real and valid, but it’s too often erased or minimized by adult power holders who dismiss, exploit, punish and/or patronize teens’ vulnerability and loneliness.
As Lavigne has grown up, so too have the characters in her songs, and this has manifested in multiple ways. She was just 17 years old when Let Go catapulted her to stardom, and 19 when she followed up that record with 2004’s Under My Skin. The overall sound of the album skews darker and louder, but it’s still packed with monster pop-punk jams that speak with lived authority about major life decisions facing teens and young adults. Consider “Don’t Tell Me,” a glorious track that could be read as an abstinence anthem or just a powerful statement of agency from a young woman articulating her boundaries — and most importantly, having the confidence to clearly express those boundaries and arrive at her own conclusion: “I’m better off alone anyway.”
It’s a testament to Lavigne and her co-writers/producers that her songs can move seamlessly from karaoke belt-alongs to mosh pits to solo sads in a dark room. Lavigne knows that aging sometimes means getting wiser and/or getting bitter, but it can also mean doubling down in your ignorance or naiveté. It might mean a lower threshold for nonsense or it might mean that you’re finally free to give into silliness in a way you never could as your younger, performative self. If you’re lucky, your 20s can be a space of exploration and interrogation and confrontation, and it can be both the hardest time of your life and the very best.
It’s also almost impossible to imagine navigating growing up as an artist in the public eye, balancing the demands of industry executives, fans, your own “brand” and your own evolving interests. That struggle is particularly evident on songs like “Girlfriend” and “The Best Damn Thing.” Though catchy, they don’t possess a lot of staying power and have a more narrow perspective than much of her previous work. But Lavigne continued to explore vulnerability and spectacle, proving particularly adept at delivering epic ballads.
This year marks Lavigne’s first new album in six years. Head Above Water is due for release on Feb. 15, and its second single, “Tell Me It’s Over,” showcases a thoroughly contemporary sound — soulful, piano-driven pop — that’s markedly different from anything Lavigne has done before. Here her character joins the great ranks of jilted lovers being jerked around by an almost-ex. It’s easy to imagine an earlier Lavigne character would have pushed this guy into a wall by the video’s end (a repeated action in many of her music videos). But the track also proves that Lavigne’s voice is one we need back in our lives. This song makes space for the stinging realness of relationships that have a stubbornly slow fade, and it also reminds us of the timelessness of a good break-up ballad — something that every Avril Lavigne fan can appreciate, no matter if they’re 15 or 52.
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