'It's Not Like We're Dead': The Fascinating Evolution & Non-Linear Maturation of Avril Lavigne, Motherf--king Princess

Avril Lavigne
Jim Cooper/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Avril Lavigne poses on a rooftop in Union Square in New York in 2004.

“Dude, you wanna crash the mall?”

Avril Ramona Lavigne arrived in the early 2000s charts like she was strutting out of a Hot Topic, carrying a credit card borrowed from her parents. It was the golden age of teen pop, and there was accordingly a golden opportunity for a teen-pop star who could claim to be nothing like the meticulously styled phenomena that were Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Lavigne wasn’t the first to notice the opening: early in her career, the similarly confrontational P!nk distanced herself from Spears on her 2001 song “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” while Eminem poked maliciously at Aguilera on his “The Real Slim Shady.” In the days in which pop housed itself in the studio of MTV’s Total Request Live program, its tent remained broad enough to contain its leading lights right alongside their antitheses.

But Avril Lavigne accentuated her apparent remove from the dominant culture via the trappings of punk -- particularly the trappings of punk at a time when the form was exemplified on one hand by the boyish crudities of Blink-182, and on the other by the boyish crudities of MTV’s Jackass. When Lavigne and band do “crash the mall” -- the scene plays out in the video for '02 debut single “Complicated” -- their shenanigans extend only to toying with a retail worker in a hot dog costume, dressing in wacky outfits, and teasing some mall cops. In her casual goofiness, she is both one of the boys, and yet more than them, a focal point and a catalyst.

“Sometimes I get so weird, I freak myself out,” Lavigne sings on “Anything But Ordinary,” a track from the same year's debut LP Let Go; that song was originally going to lend its name to the album. When critics at the time observed that, really, Lavigne was not punk at all, they were both correct and missing the point -- and the fun -- entirely. They were also forgetting that since its very inception, punk has involved opportunistic commercialism, image-conscious posturing, and deliciously simplistic pop riffing.

It did not matter, either, that Lavigne was not necessarily that significant a break musically from the broader pop landscape of the time: fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette had trod a similar path in the ‘90s on Jagged Little Pill, and in the interim, Michelle Branch had demonstrated how a young woman could straddle the line between alternative rock guitars and pop songwriting. For that matter, apart from the fussy structure of the lyric, not much separated Lavigne’s most pop-punk single “Sk8er Boi” from contemporaries like Sum 41, Good Charlotte, or Simple Plan.

But as machined as Lavigne’s punk stylings were, there was something unexpectedly unmediated about her music. A dark reverberating guitar churn opens Let Go; it is a song called “Losing Grip,” and the song’s chorus is a howl. “Why should I care?” Lavigne wails. “We’re not going anywhere.” “Complicated” also steered away from its easy exhortations to stay true to oneself, evincing Lavigne’s knack for disarming honesty. “I like you the way you are/ When we’re driving in your car/ And you’re talking to me one on one,” she sings, the setting echoing “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” by that great avatar of teen miserablism, The Smiths. The narrative’s core conflict, of a nice boy who isn’t self-conscious until he’s in company, is indeed complicated. Manners and social codes are fair ground for frustration.

Lavigne began her career in country music. She grew up in Greater Napanee, a small community in rural Ontario, and started out singing at country fairs. Once, in 1999, she appeared on stage with Shania Twain, thanks to a radio contest. “Never wore cover up/ Always beat the boys up/ Grew up in a five thousand population town,” she sings in “My World,” one of the songs on her debut that showed more overtly the latent country influence on her sound. “Complicated” could have been a country song too; it proceeds from the style’s fondness for careful emotional study (“I see the way you’re acting like somebody else”) and memorable set pieces (“take off all your preppy clothes”).

The same is true, yet even moreso, for “I’m With You.” The ballad and third single from Let Go might be the best song of the album; it is certainly a career highlight. Startling again for its directness, the song positions Avril as a teenage runaway, emotionally and physically adrift. “I’m waiting in the dark,” she says, while the arrangement collapses into gloom around her. “There’s nothing but the rain.” The chorus is a gushing swell and Lavigne allows herself to be battered by the downpour: “It’s a damn cold night,” she unleashes. “Trying to figure out this life.”

Lavigne might have been punk by virtue of marketing and costume, but none of that had anything to do with the intensity of the tangible adolescent feeling that suffused her music. Her dressing up and trying on identities only added to the earnestness; what else, after all, does one do in high school?

Let Go made Lavigne a star. She might not have invented her sound, but she irrevocably placed her stamp on it, and on teen pop as a wider concern. In 2003, when ’90s indie rock icon Liz Phair went looking for a new sound, she engaged The Matrix, the songwriting and production team with whom Lavigne collaborated, to produce a fizzy pop album of her own. In 2004, when Ashlee Simpson recorded Autobiography, her lost classic of a debut, the pop territory she was taking out was defined by Avril’s guitar crunch. In later years, when Disney stars like Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato turned from acting to music, the sound they embraced was not the Euro-mediated R&B of Spears, Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake; they made pop-rock with crisp lyrics and crisper riffs. And when Kelly Clarkson released her influential, indie-rockish “Since U Been Gone" in the middle of the decade, it literally pursued the Lavigne sound: Lavigne had written the American Idol alumna’s previous single, 2004’s “Breakaway.”

Lavigne’s second album, 2004’s Under My Skin, took her penchant for drama and drowned in it. The first single, “Don’t Tell Me,” started off as a fractured and fragile take on romantic uncertainty, but by its chorus it had roared into a blood-red lament of boundaries that should never have been crossed. “Did you think I was gonna give it up to you?” she demands to know, her voice balancing contempt and betrayal.

And if the first single’s structure is too rigid to contain its emotion, the same cannot be said for its successor, “My Happy Ending,” one of the greatest tracks Lavigne would ever record. “Can we please talk this over, it’s not like we’re dead,” she begins, doom-laden and portentous, and accelerating rapidly towards massive emotional crisis. Later, it’s “don’t leave me hanging in a city so dead”; she’s so tangled up inside that she feels it’s clear that something must have perished, and if it’s not the decaying relationship in which she’s caught, it has to be the city.

Under My Skin is the album on which Lavigne found her talent for transforming her syllables into drawn-out, crystalline ornaments, things to be admired in their physicality. She carves up the words in “My Happy Ending” like they’re made of glass, and, in crucial moments, allows them to shatter. While emo crossover acts such as Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance would remain an underground concern for at least another six months, Under My Skin anticipated that scene’s emotional intensity and theatrical aesthetics in the mainstream.

Third single “Nobody’s Home” married the loss of “I’m With You” with the tumult of “Losing Grip,” but it was on “Fall to Pieces,” an ill-fated fourth single that would not even receive a video, that Lavigne’s turn to the abject pointed a clear path forward: “I don’t want to fall to pieces,” she confessed. “I just want to cry in front of you.” This was her most sophisticated effort yet in girding her wilful oversharing with carefully crafted song-structures.

If Under My Skin suggested a grown-up sound for Lavigne -- candid gothic lyricism tempered by carefully crafted country-tinged pop writing -- third album The Best Damn Thing rejected those possibilities entirely. Her 2007 reinvention didn’t make Avril more adult; it made Avril more Avril.

“Hey, hey, you, you/ I don’t like your girlfriend,” she hollered on its opening track over cheerleader chants and bleacher-shaking beats. That song, “Girlfriend,” became ubiquitous, returning Lavigne to superstardom; it remains her sole Billboard Hot 100 No. 1. On the next track: “I can do better than you.” Later, on her most doctrinaire pop-punk recording to date: “I don’t have to try.” And then she gripes on the title cut, “I hate it when a guy doesn’t get the door/ Even though I told him yesterday/ And that looks bad.”

Her hot-pink makeover and mean-girl affectations suggested an undue fondness for regressive gender roles -- the nasty shot at “One of Those Girls” is particularly unbecoming in this regard -- but en masse, The Best Damn Thing sounds like it has absolutely nothing to say about social roles, or anything else in the world outside Lavigne. It is a foot-stomping tantrum of a record, one in which the greatest sin it could imagine would be to dare suggest Avril is anything but the natural center of the universe.

The album was the one Lavigne recorded with producer and songwriter Dr Luke, who has since been accused of emotionally and sexually abusing Kesha Sebert, another performer known for her outsize charisma and pop subversion. Lavigne did not record with Luke after 2007, and contributed a terse affidavit defending Kesha in a defamation suit filed by their former producer.

The Best Damn Thing, like much of the pop of its day, sounds like a Dr Luke album, but that quality is not entirely distinguishable from Lavigne’s own creative impulses of the time. Critic Sean Fennessey observed in 2010 that “Luke seems to be attracted to strong women who are also self-effacing goofballs” -- and Lavigne seemed to find natural accord with a model of femininity that muted overt sexuality and played up tomboyish vivacity.

The best song on The Best Damn Thing is a fantastically peeved break-up tune called “Everything Back But You.” It has a charged rhythm and a preposterous plot about a lover on vacation who sends a careless love letter home. “I wish you were her/ You left out the ‘e’” Lavigne fumes. She gets cattier and the song gets funnier. “It smelled of cheap perfume and it didn’t smell like you.” The chorus is pure rage; it is incandescent. “BITCH! SLUT! PSYCHO BABE! I HATE YOU, WHY ARE GUYS SO LAME?!”

Avril’s decision to intensify her idiosyncrasies was a canny left-field artistic move, and, to date, her last commercially successful one. The Best Damn Thing would be, to date, her final Billboard 200 No. 1 album and her last album to be certified Platinum by the RIAA, though she has found enduring success in other markets, particularly Japan. Goodbye Lullaby, released in 2011, is her most uncertain work, with only occasional hints (“What the Hell”) of the cartoonish Avril whom she perfected on The Best Damn Thing. The more sober balladry on Best Damn Thing’s less characteristic tracks, “Innocence” and “Keep Holding On,” found voice now on songs like “Wish You Were Here” and “Everybody Hurts.” It wasn’t as if this turn towards adult contemporary were a bad move, but it was a retreat from the extravagant excess of feeling and daring garishness of her previous work.

The cover art featured Lavigne in a big white dress on a grand piano, and it might not have helped that it was the first album she released after divorcing Deryck Whibley, the lead singer of Sum 41, who also helped to produce the album. It would also mark her final album with RCA Records, and her first after she had marketed her own clothing label and her own series of perfumes.

Goodbye Lullaby is more serious than sensational, though even in that earnest restraint, it is not a failure. “Push,” for instance, is a wide-eyed loved song built on tinny drum machine and airy acoustic guitar strumming; what makes it exceptional is the way Lavigne makes use of her high-strung high register. “When push comes to shove,” she keens, “It’s gonna take the both of us.” On an album that too rarely allows her to communicate the extraordinary intensity of feeling she is capable of summoning, this is a tune that aches enough to make “Maybe you should just shut up” into a warm expression of steadfast commitment.

Artists who title a late-career album eponymously usually intend to mark a return to first principles, but Avril Lavigne, released in 2013, instead announced the triumphant reawakening of The Best Damn Thing’s Cartoon Avril. That was literally the case with the album’s lead single, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which received a gleefully ridiculous video featuring Lavigne in a comic strip apocalypse where humanity (and rock ‘n’ roll!) was under attack from vicious bear-shark chimeras. Lavigne makes out with The Wonder Years actor Danica McKellar, pays tribute to Slash’s appearance in Guns ‘N’ Roses’s “November Rain,” and inserts gratuitous Sony product placement into the intro while cheekily referencing previous hit “Sk8er Boi.”

She wrote the song with Chad Kroeger, the Nickelback singer whom she had married that year, and it slyly combines his band’s knack for reductive rock buffoonery with her own baroque brattiness. In Lavigne’s new understanding of her niche in the world, rock and roll was a terrain of raised middle fingers, unbridled sass, and a callback to the title she had first claimed on “Girlfriend”: “motherfucking princess.” It was as if the kid who awkwardly suggested “crashing the mall” had absorbed that teen caricature and allowed it to grow up into a living monster, imbibing pop immortality until she had adapted it as her own superpower.

The following single, “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” played Lavigne’s physical age -- she was approaching 30 -- off against her eternal adolescence, turning her into an ill-behaved karaoke queen having too much fun for anyone to dare tell her she’s too old for it. “We’re singing Radiohead at the top of our lungs,” she hollers incongruously in the chorus -- a wink at rock canon credibility from a woman who infamously mispronounced David Bowie’s surname at an award show. Lavigne singing Radiohead sounded like a ruse; she once ended an interview after being asked what her favorite Radiohead track was. She affirmed to Billboard that the song to which she was referring was “Creep,” the uncharacteristic early hit the band had little time for anymore. It was fitting that her anthem to unaccountability revealed no secret fondness for experimental British rock, but only another way to be “running down the street, yelling ‘kiss my ass’.”

Avril Lavigne could never be as great as those two singles, but it has gems nonetheless. A fond reminiscence of free-spirited youth called “17” could have been the country hit Lavigne had always been threatening to record, but she turned it snotty teen-pop, singing it as if she were still a teenager. “Bitchin’ Summer” similarly succeeds by buying completely into a subject matter Lavigne was a decade too mature to record. Elsewhere, the duets with Kroeger and Marilyn Manson are most impressive for averting the trainwreck that could have resulted. “Hello Kitty,” on the other hand, is a song that, even if many of Lavigne’s Japanese fans did not find it offensive, is too willing to traffic in cultural stereotypes.

Lavigne has spent close to five years largely out of the spotlight, likely due at least in part to being diagnosed with Lyme disease. But if her past two albums have signaled her transition towards a fiercer and narrower following, they have also permitted her to remain continuously relevant even without releasing new music, while her early work has endured as an unexpected influence on a younger generation of indie rock performers. The Avril persona she has created -- a woman brash, obnoxious, overly emotive, and eternally adolescent -- is someone she is able to summon even as she matures far beyond the punk pastiche of her youth. The stark narrative beats of her earliest material continue to endure in cultural memory; the intro of “Sk8er Boi,” “He was a boy/ She was a girl/ Can I make it any more obvious,” is approaching folk tale status for a certain segment of her generation, who have embraced its meme potential.

When Lavigne did return this year, it was with a power ballad: Avril in deluge mode. The intensity of “Head Above Water” was not new, but her performance is not at all lurid. Whether a result of her health issues or a reflection of the song’s distinctly religious motifs -- the track has even entered Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart, the first Lavigne single to do so -- the song guards against excess, even as it embraces its size. Lavigne plays straight, giving herself to the material’s emotion without playing into it, as she might have earlier in her career.

Lavigne has promised an album this year, and a tour to follow, and while her return could continue mining this sincerity, it would not be out of character for her to take another turn back towards the preposterous. The Best Damn Thing was, after all, initially preceded by “Keep Holding On.” And there’s a decent chance that, whichever tack she pursues, it could be the best thing she has ever released. Avril Lavigne has become ageless and yet, at the same time, she retains the potential to restore that smart-mouthed fake punk waiting to roll up to us, rock our world, and then maybe get way too real.