What Avril Lavigne Has Always Understood About Growing Up
The pop-punk singer’s debut album, now 20 years old, is a monument to angsty adolescence.
Avril Lavigne seemed to baffle music writers in 2002 when she released her first single, the infectious mid-tempo banger “Complicated.” Rolling Stone dubbed her a “tiny terror” with a “nouveau-punk” sound who could be, of all things, “a fine country singer in the making.” Entertainment Weekly breathlessly wondered whether she was “the teen Bob Dylan.” Eventually, critics settled on comparing her to every other major female artist at the time, calling her “the anti-Britney” over and over, and framing her as the singer who’d burst the artifice of bubblegum pop simply by not being overtly bubblegum-pop-y. Rolling Stone, in a lengthy profile after Lavigne’s debut album, Let Go, became a blockbuster hit, called her “an icon … who wears baggy pants, plastic bracelets and a scowl—not the skimpy threads and Ultra brite smiles of Britney and Mandy and Beyoncé and pre-‘Dirrty’ Christina.”
Maybe everyone should have taken the advice Lavigne doled out with indelible spunk in the opening lines of “Complicated”: Chill out. Whatcha yellin’ for? A 17-year-old from a small town in Canada who’d been plucked out of obscurity by the mega-producer L. A. Reid, Lavigne was perhaps by design hard to define. She sounded nothing like the R&B artists topping the charts at the time, but “Complicated” somehow sliced upward through the Billboard Hot 100, sandwiching itself comfortably between a pair of Nelly hits. Onstage, she often stuffed her hands into her pockets and kept her face half-hidden behind her flat-ironed hair, but in music videos, she boldly wreaked havoc in public spaces, including a mall and a downtown-L.A. intersection. She was a mess of contradictions served in a pint-size package—in other words, a teenager.
Let Go was released 20 years ago today. When I first listened to the album, I was 11 years old—I know, I know—and contrary to music media’s predictions about the demise of bubblegum pop, I giddily added Avril to my rotation of Britney and Mandy and Beyoncé and Christina. Let Go wasn’t, to me, destroying an era of Top 40 music. If anything, its sassy lead singles, “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi,” obscured the album’s true power. Lavigne’s chirpy, youthful voice had a refreshingly familiar quality to it, as if she were a friend’s older sister who’d affixed a Keep Out sign onto her bedroom door but who couldn’t help belting out her thoughts from the other side anyway. In Let Go, Lavigne was asserting herself as any teenager would, insisting on being left alone and being heard at the same time. To discuss the album as simply “anti-Britney” is to miss the charm of its adolescent vulnerability, which peeked out from behind every defiant, snarky verse.
Take “Mobile,” the fifth track. In it, Lavigne ruminates on growing up, equating her angst to being, well, a mobile “hanging from the ceiling … spinnin’ round with mixed feelings.” Such lyrics aren’t particularly sophisticated or polished to metaphorical perfection, but that’s the point. Lavigne is telling it like it is. “Sometimes, I want to scream out loud,” she wails in the bridge—but just as the guitars kick in, poised to allow her that catharsis, she reverts to a quieter sound. “Everything’s changin’ everywhere I go,” she sings softly, “all out of my control.” For all her protesting, she doesn’t really want to scream. She just wants someone to finally listen.
Again and again, Lavigne plays pretend on Let Go, claiming to be wiser than her years while her voice and her words betray her naivete. In “My World,” she describes the time she “got fired by a fried chicken ass”—a lyric that made me giggle every time I heard it back in 2002, because oh wow, she called her boss an “ass”—but a few verses later, she self-consciously shies away from cursing, singing about lounging around “all friggin’ day.” In “Nobody’s Fool,” she speak-raps several lines, including one in which she declares, to someone trying to wrong her again, “I might’ve fallen for that when I was 14 and a little more green, but it’s amazing what a couple of years can mean.” The line is gutsy but also hilariously immature, and Lavigne seems to know it. She launches into a series of “la-la-la”s in the chorus, as if playfully acknowledging that the difference between 17 and 14 really isn’t much at all.
Of course, at 11, I didn’t pick up on all these nuances. Lavigne just sounded like she meant everything she sang, and her lyrics sounded like the stuff I’d scrawled into my own journal, thinking I was observing something profound about capital-L Life. Only when I became a proper teenager did I understand, say, the sexual wordplay of “Things I’ll Never Say”; what to call the toxic relationship Lavigne was describing in “Too Much to Ask”; or how satisfying it would feel to howl the despondent yeah-ee-yeah’s in “I’m With You,” a yodeling so potent that Rihanna would go on to sample it for her song “Cheers” eight years later. As I grew up and Lavigne drifted away from her pop-punk roots, I’d return often to Let Go, and to the song “Tomorrow,” the track that arrives exactly in the middle of the album. In it, Lavigne muses about the responsibility she feels she now holds. The melody is sweet, but the lyrics start out obstinate: “I wanna believe you, when you tell me that it’ll be okay. Yeah, I try to believe you,” Lavigne sings, before she takes a breath and delivers her kicker: “But I don’t.” As the song goes on, however, she comes around. She pleads with the listener to give her some time to think, eventually building to a chorus about how she wishes she knew how to express her thoughts. “I don’t know what to say,” she admits, before reassuring herself: “Tomorrow is a different day.” The song unfurls hesitantly, line by line, from petulance to acceptance—just as the experience of teenagedom, that journey to self-knowledge, evolves from uncertainty to wisdom.
Let Go still lingers, even when Lavigne isn’t the one performing the album’s hits. Gen Z stars such as Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, and Willow Smith have cited Lavigne as an influence on their pop-punk sound. Rodrigo has even incorporated “Complicated” into her tour, covering the song as part of her set. I caught her show recently, sort of, when she performed in Los Angeles. Perched in Griffith Park above the Greek Theatre, I could hear her crowd, their voices singing along to every lyric so loudly that they often drowned Rodrigo out. When she began “Complicated,” the audience quieted down, as if they didn’t know the words; many of them were probably born after “Complicated” dominated the charts, I realized. I felt a pang as Rodrigo continued to bounce across the stage, singing a song that, at more than four minutes, was longer than most of her tracks. But then, as Rodrigo continued, her fans started to chime in, picking up the lyrics as easily as if they’d been listening to Lavigne all along. “You fall, and you crawl, and you break, and you take what you get,” they sang. It sounded imperfect—but then again, so is growing up. And as Lavigne once put it so succinctly: Uh-huh. That’s the way it is.