On June 4, 2020, Avril Lavigne’s debut album Let Go turned 18. The album that soundtracked the formative years of teenage girls across the globe is now an adult. Louise Bruton looks back on her first encounter with Lavigne and how this new pop star sent her and her friends on different paths…
The first time I saw Avril Lavigne, I was in my friend Niamh’s* house and we were devouring the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. At this time in my life, any MTV Awards show felt like a very big deal because it took so much effort to gain direct access to American television; I either had to be in a friend’s house or beg my family to let me watch when it finally arrived on terrestrial telly weeks later. Lavigne released her debut single Complicated that May and her debut album Let Go in June and because I was culturally behind anyone with a satellite dish in Ireland, my first introduction to her was on August 30, 2002, the day after the show aired in the US.
The VMAs were an especially big deal that year. Justin Timberlake performed his debut solo single Like I Love You for the very first time, shedding his boyband skin and starting the new era of Trousersnake. Britney Spears presented Michael Jackson with a birthday cake, which he interpreted as an award for being the “artist of the millennium”. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen presented the Breakthrough Video award to The White Stripes for Fell in Love with a Girl, Anthony Kiedis and Brittany Murphy presented the MTV2 Award to Dashboard Confessional and, thanks to the success of their own MTV shows, both the Osbournes and the Jackass boys featured prominently.
Before the cameras even moved inside to award Eminem, Pink and No Doubt for videos of the year, Avril Lavigne – all 18 years of her – performed Complicated and Sk8r Boi on the rooftop of Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Wearing studded bracelets, smudged eyeliner, baggy trousers, iron-straightened hair – the GHD wouldn’t be a public commodity until 2004 – and a loosened necktie over her white vest, she sang about how ridiculous it is to pretend to be somebody you’re not and if you judge someone on their scruffy looks, you could miss out on falling in love with a rock star in the making. You know, usual teen stuff.
Winning the award for Best New Artist in a Video for Complicated (“Dude, you wanna crash the mall?”), Lavigne was the star of the night and with the spotlight on her, she presented an entirely new version of girlhood that I didn’t realise was on offer to me. While the generations before me had Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Alanis Morrisette, Courtney Love, Bikini Kill, Tracy Chapman, Skunk Anansie and Garbage to lead the way in smashing the patriarchy, Lavigne was my introduction to rebellion.
Niamh and I had the kind of friendship that was encouraged by our parents. Sleepovers would be arranged on their schedule and we’d happily comply, staying up all night talking about boys, renting out movies from XtraVision and eating too many sweets. Before we had any notions of fashion or beauty, we would do each other’s hair and try on each other’s clothes, our stark difference in height being the only thing that would challenge us.
In 2002, I was 14 turning on 15. When you’re 14, you are still very much a child and time with friends is still playtime but when you’re 15, you begin to test out what kind of adult you want to become. This is when interests vary and paths divide, causing childhood friendships to come under pressure. When Niamh and I returned to school in September as third years, the pressure was on.
Our first day back was a non-uniform day and the popular girls saw this as an opportunity to flaunt the new labels that they accrued over the summer. The Burberry print appeared on bandanas and those useless armpit clutch bags, and the select few had Abercrombie jumpers from weekend shopping trips to New York. This was peak Celtic Tiger time in Ireland and my year was full of cubs. Looking back with my 2020 glasses on, the decadence displayed by a bunch of teenage girls in 2002 is a worrying glitch in a generation that lives
As the cubs compared price tags, in walked Leah*, my bubbly blonde friend who had undergone a makeover that summer. Wearing smudged eyeliner, baggy trousers and a tie over her white Red Hot Chili Peppers vest, she was a bolt of lightning amidst the Burberry. It’s not often that my breath is taken away but Leah took mine that day. I was so envious that she felt no fear in being different, even if I know now that it was just consumerism in different packaging.
Niamh didn’t sit beside me that day, as she normally would have done. She walked by me and joined the group comparing Buffalo runners. Noticing the hurt in my face, Leah asked if I wanted to sit with her. It was that small act of compassion that saved me. I was pulled from the cubs and initiated into a new pack. As the school year went on, sharper identities and friendship groups formed. The popular majority dominated locker rooms, hallways and benches in the PE hall while the minority sought out quiet spaces on stairwells and in the less used toilets for sanctuary. I sat on the stairwell, along with Leah and six others, as Niamh held court in the locker room with what Janis Ian in the 2004 movie Mean Girls would deem “the Plastics”.
Tribal flags were waved in the form of fake tan and blonde highlights or black nail polish and eyeliner, except it was only the girls who wore the latter that were punished for breaking the uniform code. While not everyone in my gang worshipped Lavigne – Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins were other chosen deities – but her mainstream success helped the underdogs find each other.
To love Lavigne was an aesthetic choice but it was also an emotional awakening. Let Go is an album full of angst and it magnifies the moments of exclusion created at the hands of our classmates, a crush or a childhood friend who’s becoming distant. As we move away from playtime and into adult role play as teenagers, we live through certain emotions for the very first time and Let Go validates these experiences. Losing Grip, the album’s opening song is a blurry, angry masterpiece in teen rejection.
“I was left to cry there, waiting outside there, grinning, with a lost stare,” she sings, swimming in self-pity, before diving into that explosive chorus, “That’s when I decided… Why should I care?” The push and pull of being a teenager can often be captured in one scene; you’re standing on the street and your friends ask “…are you coming?”, testing how comfortable you are with bending the rules your parents enforce.
To go with them is to prove your bravery, your boldness, your ‘teenness’, but to stay is to remain a goody-two-shoes. A child. Apart from the hormones and physical growing pains, the hurt of being a teenager comes down to what feels like life-changing choices. This scene plays out time and time again as you break your first curfew or lie about where you’re staying so that you have your first drink, your first smoke, your first joint or your first kiss with boys who dress like they are in Blink 182.
The phrase “sitting on the fence” has always felt like a very literal description of teenage life. With nowhere to be, you sit on walls, fences and footpaths. And when you finally find somewhere to go, it’s courtesy of a fake ID, a free gaff or courage… but what happens if you don’t have those things? I’m With You echoes that conundrum. “Isn’t anyone trying to find me? Won’t somebody come take me home?” she asks as the rain slaps down on the grey pavement.
In order to find your place in the world as a teenager, it sometimes feels like you have to get lost to be found. However, I wish that someone told me back in 2002 that storming off just to see who would follows you says more about you than the people around you. And yet, the storm rages on.
While it’s easy to isolate moments of Lavigne’s breakthrough as performative brattiness – this interview is trolling in its finest form – she is one of the first teen stars to actually voice the complications of teendom by having a co-writing credit on every track. The bursts of frustration on Unwanted (“If you had your way, you'd just shut me up, make me go away”) and the confusion on Tomorrow (“And I wanna believe you when you tell me that it’ll be okay”) are accurate accounts of not just surviving your teen years but surviving your teens in an all girls secondary school.
Words like slut, whore, dyke and bitch become commonplace in the locker room and, sadly, a teenage girl’s first experience of misogyny and homophobia can be from classmates parroting what they’ve heard elsewhere. A school year can feel like a prison sentence when rules and hierarchies discourage individuality. When lunch breaks are a battlefield, it’s hard to believe that teenagers actually have to study for exams on top of all of this.
Even though sexuality is barely touched upon on Let Go (Lavigne saves most of that energy for her incredible 2004 album Under My Skin), the otherness that Lavigne expresses is refuge for the sidelined. In the teen tribe wars, one team imposes normality and the other team runs from it. Anything But Ordinary captures the dramatics of conforming: “Is it enough to love? Is it enough to breathe? Somebody rip my heart out and leave me here to bleed. Is it enough to die? Somebody save my life. I’d rather be anything but ordinary, please”.
It’s no wonder that queer indie-pop acts like Mitski, Marika Hackman, Snail Mail and Pillow Queens cite Lavigne as an influence on their work. However, when you are a teenager, queerness is still explored with caution, even if you are sitting with the misfits on the stairs. And in 2002, the discussions around mental health were kept to a minimum, so singing these lyrics out loud was the closest thing some of us had to having an honest conversation. Before My Chemical Romance gave us I’m Not Okay (I Promise) in 2004, this was how we performed that very sentiment.
Lavigne was a gateway to other music – emo, metal, dance, indie, hip-hop – but more importantly, she was a gateway to another life. Through her, we found friends and our voice, even if it was a low grumble at times. Even though my band of misfits didn’t stay together past graduation, we know that we saved each other. Just like Leah did for me on that first day back in school, we asked if people wanted to sit with us if they were shut out from the pack. That’s all it takes to save a life sometimes.
Being a teenager is extremely difficult. In our adult lives, we can often forget the darkness, making it hard to relate when the teenager in your world is living through it. By channelling that darkness, Let Go proves that the light comes eventually. Everything I felt when I was 14 turning on 15 comes flooding back when I hit play. Things seem to be easier now, the tribes less severe, the conversations honest and smarter but being a teenager will be an eternal, hormonal and emotional struggle, conflicting against or conforming with normality. If you can’t find the words to vent these frustrations, with 18 years of glowing references, Avril Lavigne is there to help you Let Go.
Leah is still the most remarkable human I know, always wearing her heart on her sleeve and finding ways to make the world a brighter place. She’s sensitive, creative and, in her adult years, she’s had to show strength in ways that I can only imagine. I don’t think she knows of the warmth or hope she inspires in others. Niamh would continue to lead a glamorous life, eventually marrying an American man and hosting an all-white engagement party that served only lobster. Although side-tracked by the popularity contest in school, she has a wild sense of humour and is admirably ambitious. And me… well, you’re just as likely to see me necking back a naggin of gin beside a skip now as you were back then.
Main photo from @avrillavigne on Instagram.
*Names have been changed