How Avril Lavigne's bravado taught a gener8tion to Let Go and embrace emotion
Underneath the power chords and spike belts was genuine vulnerability — and that sent an impactful message
One afternoon in the summer of 2002, I was in my friend's van when "Sk8r Boi" began to play. The radio was turned down because we were in the McDonalds drive-thru, but after the chorus, my crush sincerely and angrily declared from the backseat, "I'm not a skater boy!" We laughed because he was holding his skateboard on his lap and absolutely was a skater, but he was right: dude was more than the subject of a song about a boy and a ballerina. Especially since both subjects seemed so two-dimensional, and part of being a teen is to prove how complex and original you are.
Of course, before Avril Lavigne released Let Go, it was easier to assume my friends and I dressed in skate clothes and listened to punk because we had arrived to those choices independently. Many of us spent our early teens in all-ages club dresses or the Gap, but with the discovery of stores like West 49 came the realization that we could dress in the image of the boys we liked (which wasn't cool — honestly, so much of growing up isn't). So while I personally couldn't skateboard to save my life, my wardrobe of Dickies pants and Volcom hoodies created a crucial costume I used to disguise myself. I could finally be "one of the guys" (in order to make them fall in love with me). And I was one of the only young women to ever think that way!
Except I obviously wasn't. Not then, not in history, and certainly not when Avril Lavigne dropped "Complicated" and became the poster child for poserdom. This was an important thing: it was a milestone for those of us who weren't cool enough to be professional skateboarders and those of us who'd taken solace in logo t-shirts and hoodies. Because with the emergence of Avril and her ties, spike belts and zest for rock and/or roll, a path I believed belonged to only my friends and I was revealed to be the opposite. And while I was initially angry that she dared infringe on what I believed was "our" or "my" scene, I was quickly inspired by this overconfident teenager from Napanee, Ont. who lured us in with bravado, only to win us over with vulnerability.
Let Go (and its follow-up Under My Skin) doesn't actually musically align with the image Lavigne and her team cultivated. Based on the video for "Complicated," Avril seemed like a girl only hell-bent on releasing music that hinged on rebellion. We see her creating a ruckus at a shopping centre and performing in the middle of a skatepark (skaters be damned) — but she's singing about the two-faced nature of her romantic interest and how much it hurts her. She articulates the frustration more than a few of us have felt, and she doesn't apologize for confronting him. I may have pretended to be angry about Avril's take on a trend I mistakenly laid claim to, but I was relieved for a pop anthem that delivered the emotions my own crush stoked constantly.
Not that I said admitted as much. At 17 and sitting in that van, I was desperate to impress the boy I liked, so I went with it. I agreed that he wasn't a skater boy. I agreed that "Sk8er Boi" was a terrible song. (I mean, it is — even now I'll admit that it's anchored in outdated and embarrassing gender norms that end with the myth that not ending up with your high school boyfriend will leave you empty and alone.) And I agreed that Avril Lavigne was the absolute worst. He and everyone present didn't need to know that I knew every one of her songs by heart, or that I insisted we play her album on repeat at work. Fittingly, I did my best Avril impression and used a false sense of confidence to mask the way I really felt.
Avril acted tough and then let us into a world of insecurities and betrayal and realizations and feelings. And I, as a wee baby teen, came to relate to the need to sometimes hide softness behind bravado.- Anne T. Donahue
This got easier to lean into the older I got. As Avril evolved from her Let Go persona into a woman who appropriated Japanese culture throughout the 2000s, I listened to and supported her less, and then not at all — especially as I grew up and my tastes changed. (Alas, I just don't want to rock out to lyrics like, "I don't like your girlfriend." Woof.) But another part of growing up comes with the realization that artists you were embarrassed to like or relate to weren't nearly as bad as you told yourself they were once — or, in my case, as bad as my own skater boy decided she was upon hearing only two singles. Avril acted tough and then let us into a world of insecurities and betrayal and realizations and feelings. And I, as a wee baby teen, came to relate to the need to sometimes hide softness behind bravado. Sometimes you have to go bananas in a mall while secretly thinking, "I honestly hate this, I just want to shop."
So now, 15 years after Let Go, Avril Lavigne is releasing her sixth album, Head Above Water. And obviously, we've both come a long way from the versions of ourselves who dressed up in skate gear to seem cooler and better and less "girly" (as though dressing and looking that way might seem weak). But I'd like to think that she's learned from her questionable trajectory and come to be comfortable in her own, grown-ass skin in the way most of us tend to. Pop culture has already taught us that you can't go home again — but maybe there's still a part of that conflicted teen ready to merge with the person she's grown into.