The year was 2002. Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” was just minutes away from its reign of radio overplay that would last at least a decade. Britney Spears had worn matching denim outfits with Justin Timberlake, performed with a snake around her neck, and released her rebellious yet still submissive self-titled third album the year prior. Labels worked overtime to create and market their versions of a millennium pop princess. But when 17-year-old Canadian singer Avril Lavigne declared, “Chill out, whatcha yellin’ for?” on the opening lines of her debut single “Complicated”, it marked the arrival of the pop princess’ antithesis that continues to this day and a bold statement of a young woman demanding entry on her terms.
Of course, naysayers immediately declared Lavigne to be a poseur. After all, the eclectic mix of post-grunge, alternative pop-rock found on her debut studio album, Let Go, was undoubtedly a nod to the existing angry (white) female singer/songwriters of the 1990s but was not her original musical direction. Lavigne’s original ambitions leaned more towards country after winning a radio contest to perform on stage with Shania Twain in 1999, whom she informed she would one day be a famous singer. A 15-minute audition with L.A. Reid the following year so impressed him he immediately signed her to a two-record deal with Arista worth over a million dollars. But by that time, Lavigne found her artistic inspirations gravitating more towards her high school’s skater clique, an image she used to shield herself from schoolyard insecurities.
Relocating to Los Angeles, Lavigne began collaborating with several producers and songwriters, but Arista wasn’t pleased with the angsty, guitar-heavy material she’d been developing. Two years after signing her record deal and still unknown, the singer came to the attention of the production team The Matrix, who had previously concocted creations for Heather Nova and Christina Aguilera. Listening to her earlier work, the team felt Lavigne was conjuring a vibe similar to Faith Hill and began showcasing songs to fit that aesthetic per the label’s request. But the singer made clear to them immediately that wasn’t the image she was interested in, sticking to her pop-rock aspirations. The next day, Lavigne and The Matrix wrote both “Complicated” and “Falling Down” (a track that didn’t make the cut on Let Go but would later appear in the film Sweet Home Alabama), which solidified a musical and artistic direction that seemed to satisfy all involved.
Originally titled Anything But Ordinary but ultimately renamed Let Go after an unreleased demo from a 2001 release, Lavigne’s debut album would catapult her to the forefront of popular culture in a trajectory not necessarily enjoyed by the female angst-rock before her. Indeed, in a youth culture dominated by “Irresistible” or “I’m Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman)”, a rebellious teen girl in her tank top, tie, and Vans skater shoes asking her friends if they wanted to go crash the mall felt both refreshing and apropos for the post-Y2K generation. It was easy for mostly male critics to question the validity of Lavigne’s punk image and artistry, as it was already evident with just one album that she wanted things her way. Her mainstream success was radical for male-dominated genres like alternative rock and punk in the early aughts.
But there was more to Lavigne than the angsty skater chick heard on “Complicated”, “Sk8er Boi”, or “Losing Grip”. Her real talent was not only songwriting but vulnerability, which makes it no surprise that she once used her skater image to appear more confident at school. “Isn’t anyone trying to find me?” she asks in “I’m With You”, Let Go’s seminal classic and timeless young-adult anthem. “In retrospect, the album’s legacy wasn’t just in pushing alt-rock further into the pop space,” observed Apple Music. “It’s the way Lavigne balanced her angsty side with the drama and sensitivity of a conventional singer-songwriter … Like Alanis Morissette before her, Lavigne’s triumph wasn’t that she was a mess—it’s that she had the guts to admit it.”
Lavigne would utilize her ability to balance both sides of her persona on her follow-up albums. The even grungier Under My Skin and the pop-focused The Best Damn Thing maintained her status as a dominant force in youth culture with the rise of MySpace, YouTube, and increasingly digital music. Or, to use the label the singer reclaimed and repurposed as her own, “the motherfucking princess”. Although Damn Thing had attempted to establish Lavigne with a bridge to adult contemporary Top 40 with “When You’re Gone” or “Keep Holding On”, it seemed like the only Avril the mainstream wanted was angsty sk8er girl. While Rihanna or Katy Perry were climbing the pop charts with any number of flexible hits, Lavigne was relegated to sticking to what she knew. See also: 2011’s “What the Hell” and 2013’s “Here’s to Never Growing Up”.
Never growing up, indeed, until a draining battle with Lyme disease in the mid-2010s left the singer reflecting on life’s grand purpose and her inner strength. Such inspiration brought us her only comeback album, 2019’s Head Above Water, an ode to the drama and sensitivity she so aptly handled in the early days of her career, just with fewer headbangers. Although it performed modestly on charts and some critics complimented her matured outlook, the album would be almost forgotten with the arrival of Love Sux this winter, billed by many as Lavigne’s comeback—just because it’s composed entirely of pop-punk offerings.
Whether the massive success of Let Go set Lavigne on a course for never maturing past her punk skater image feels somewhat irrelevant now, given all she has accomplished in just two decades. But in 2022, most fans seek from Lavigne what they sought from her in 2002: a place to air their angst and grievances with life, no longer teenagers but likely now disillusioned millennials looking to relive the so-called simplicity of their youth. “Avril Lavigne is back, and so is pop-punk,” declared CBC last month. The truth is that Lavigne never left, and for the legions of teens who still discover and embrace their rebellion by listening to her music, that couldn’t be more true.