Gateway artist

lavigne complicated

It’s sad the way we all go through a phase of disowning things that a few short years earlier, we loved wholeheartedly. Around our mid-to-late teens, we suddenly want to be cool above anything else, and so we distance ourselves from the things that make us look anything other than blasé. We get over it eventually – most of us do, anyway, and those who don’t go and write for Vice – and we figure out that there’s actually nothing cooler than an enthusiast. Being around people who are into things? Now that’s cool as fuck.

Avril Lavigne was one of those artists I ostensibly erased from my personal music history for a while. But doing that ignores what a massive impact she had on me and thousands of other girls who were teenagers in the 2000s. And make no mistake: the music you listen to in your teens influences your taste in the long term more than what you listen to at any other time. There’s a reason falling in love with a band or artist feels like everything when you’re a teenager: it is everything.

In 2002, the music channel MTV Hits had little facts about the bands and artists popping up on the screen as the videos played. And I still remember what came up when they played ‘Complicated’ by Avril Lavigne: something along the lines of, ‘Avril sees herself as one of the guys, saying “when people hear my songs, I want them to think of me and my band, rocking out””.

You cringe reading it now, but at the time, it felt curiously disappointing. Here was a tiny teenage girl, playing guitar, dicking around in a shopping centre in her music video, and singing about feeling frustrated with a friend who wasn’t being themselves. Here was a tiny teenage girl with a guitar, singing about her feelings. Did I have to see her as ‘one of the guys’? Could I not have her as a single, whole entity?

It’s important to remember that in the year prior to Lavigne’s arrival on the scene, the female acts dominating the UK charts were Atomic Kitten, Kylie, Destiny’s Child, and a couple of former Spice Girls. Women who at least looked like genuine musicians were not reaching the top ten. The Guardian’s Laura Snapes (one of the best music writers working today; she never puts a phrase wrong) called it correctly when she referred to Lavigne as something of a “gateway artist”. The great thing about seeing a scruffy girl with a guitar go mainstream was that it made you want to go off and find more scruffy girls with guitars. And better yet, it gave you the idea you could be one. I wouldn’t have been in my first band without the existence of Lavigne (we were shit; we were 14). I can still find my way around a guitar and I could still write a song if I had to. Respect the music however it comes to you, I guess is the message.

It’s funny: I hated the opening track of Lavigne’s debut album, ‘Let Go’, when I received the CD for Christmas that year. ‘Losing Grip’ was darker and heavier than I was expecting; naturally, the singles that had been released from the record had much broader appeal. But now, dark and angry is how I love Lavigne best – with its howling refrain of “whyyyyyy should I caaaaaaare”, ‘Losing Grip’ has shades of that other angry girl classic, ‘You Oughta Know’. You cannot be what you cannot see; women need to see other women get angry.

The follow-up to ‘Let Go’, 2004’s ‘Under My Skin’, echoed the darkest moments of its predecessor. It’s an altogether moodier record, and home to some of my favourite Avril songs – the belting opener ‘Take Me Away’, the storming ‘Together’, and the deliciously bitter ‘My Happy Ending’. I mean, who among us hasn’t wanted to hiss “it’s nice to know that you were there, thanks for acting like you care” at an ex-lover, all sarcasm and spite?

I have a soft spot for her tender moments too – the tracks where she’s vulnerable but conflicted about it. ‘Things I’ll Never Say’ from her debut speaks to the scared romantic in all of us: “What use is it to you what’s on my mind? / If it ain’t coming out, we’re not going anywhere / So why can’t I just tell you that I care?” Now there’s a mood if ever I heard one. The album’s closer, ‘Naked’, shimmers with the giddiness of first love and is an ode to feeling really, truly seen by someone. And one of the few gentle moments on ‘Under My Skin’ is perhaps my all-time favourite Avril song. It’s adorable and it’s impossible not to sing along to:

Lavigne has received a fair amount of flak for the quality of her live vocals over the years – and sure enough, you don’t have to go too far down a YouTube rabbit hole to find evidence of her voice sounding a little thin and flat. But she has a knack for a big chorus and has always been able to belt out a tune, and when you consider her workload between the ages of 16 and 21, it’s entirely understandable that at times, she might sound a little strained.

To expand on that: in November 2000, at the age of 16, she auditioned in front of L.A. Reid and was signed on the spot. She spent the next few months trying to write her debut album but failing to gel with any of the co-writers she was assigned, so in spring of 2001, went to L.A. to work with songwriting team The Matrix. ‘Let Go’ was completed by January of the following year and released over the course of the summer in various territories. She was still not yet 18. Then from December 2002 to June 2003, she embarked upon her first world tour. Between summer 2003 and spring 2004, she worked on her second album. In autumn 2004, she went back out on the road for a full year.

She had released two hugely successful albums and completed two world tours by the time she turned 21. That’s insane when you think about it now. Not unusual by pop standards, sure, and maybe the lockdown’s making me even more sentimental than usual, but watching those early live performances makes me feel almost maternal. It’s hard not to put myself in her battered Vans: a scrap of a thing who spent the latter half of her teen years jetting around the world, performing to thousands while being expected to maintain a creative – and crucially, commercially succcessful – output. Of course, having an idea of the financial rewards makes it hard for my heart to bleed too profusely, but we know by now that the people who are driven to perform are also those who are most sensitive to the stresses that living in the spotlight entails.

There have also been a couple of disputes about how much songwriting input she’s actually had. The Matrix were quoted as saying that during the making of ‘Complicated’, “Avril would come in and sing a few melodies, change a word here or there”, and Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, who co-wrote several tracks on ‘Under My Skin’, also suggested that Lavigne had far less creative input than she liked to make out. Kreviazuk later retracted her comments – the two singers were on the same label at the time. One accusation can be written off as sour grapes, two starts to look a bit suspect. Then again, Lauren Christy of The Matrix has co-written several songs on Lavigne’s most recent record, so I guess we’ll never know the whole truth.

I stopped following her career after her patchy third album, ‘The Best Damn Thing’. And though that record felt dramatically unfocused, it still gives us a couple of stunning love songs – straight-up ballad ‘When You’re Gone’ and the fragile, bittersweet ‘Innocence’ – and the ridiculously fun anthem for the lust-struck, ‘Contagious’.

You grow with some artists and away from others, and that’s fine, and as it should be. But keep a place in your heart for the bands and singers who, for a time, felt like they were singing directly for your ears and your ears alone. Feeling understood like that – whether you’re a confused and angry teenager or a less confused but still angry 30-something – is the reason every line gets written, and every song gets sung.

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