Avril Lavigne seemed to baffle music writers in 2002 when she released her debut single, the infectious mid-tempo banger “Complicated.” rolling stone double she a “little terror” with a “new-punk” sound who could be, among all things, “a beautiful country singer in the making”. Weekly entertainment breathless demand if she was “teenage Bob Dylan”. Eventually, critics decided to compare her to all the other major female artists of the time, calling her “the anti britney“again and again, and frame it as a singer who had popped the artifice of bubblegum pop simply by not being overtly bubblegum-pop-y. rolling stone, in a long profile after Lavigne’s first album, let’s gobecame a blockbuster hit, called her “an icon…who wears baggy pants, plastic bracelets and a scowl — not the skimpy wires and ultra brite smiles of Britney and Mandy and Beyoncé and pre-‘Dirrty ‘ Christina.”
Maybe everyone should have heeded the advice Lavigne gave with indelible spunk in the opening lines of “Complicated”: Relax. Why are you screaming? A 17-year-old from small-town Canada who had been brought from obscurity by mega-producer LA Reid, Lavigne was perhaps by design difficult to define. She looked nothing like the chart-topping R&B artists at the time, but “Complicated” somehow sliced up through the Billboard Hot 100, sandwiching herself comfortably between a pair of Nelly hits. On stage, she often stuffed her hands in his pockets and kept her face half-hidden behind her slicked-back hair, but in music videos she boldly wreaked havoc in public spaces, including a mall and a downtown Los Angeles intersection. It was a jumble of contradictions served in a pint-sized package – in other words, a teenage girl.
let’s go came out 20 years ago today. When I first listened to the album I was 11 – I know, I to know— and contrary to music media predictions about the demise of bubblegum pop, I’ve added April to my rotation of Britney and Mandy and Beyoncé and Christina. let’s go was not, for me, the destruction of an era of Top 40 music. On the contrary, its sassy singles, “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi”, obscured the true power of the album. Lavigne’s jovial, youthful voice had a refreshingly familiar quality to it, as if she were the older sister of a friend who had affixed a To stay outside sign on his bedroom door, but who couldn’t help expressing his thoughts on the other side anyway. In let’s go, Lavigne asserted herself like any teenager, insisting that we leave her alone and be heard at the same time. To speak of the album as simply “anti-Britney” is to miss the charm of her teenage vulnerability, which shone through every provocative and sarcastic verse.
Take “Mobile”, the fifth track. In it, Lavigne ruminates on growing up, equating her angst with being, well, a mobile “hanging from the ceiling… spinning in circles with mixed feelings.” Such lyrics aren’t particularly sophisticated or polished to metaphorical perfection, but that’s the point. Lavigne tells it like it is. “Sometimes I feel like screaming out loud,” she moans on deck, but just as the guitars kick in, ready to allow her that catharsis, she returns to a calmer sound. “Everything changes everywhere I go,” she sings softly, “everything is out of my control.” Despite all her protests, she doesn’t really want to scream. She just wants someone to finally listen.
Again and again, Lavigne plays pretend let’s go, claiming to be wiser than his age as his voice and lyrics betray his naivety. In “My World” she describes the time she “got kicked out by a fried chicken donkey” – a lyric that made me laugh every time I heard it in 2002, because Oh wow, she called her boss a “ass”— but a few verses later, she consciously avoids swearing, singing about lounging “everything whore day.” In “Nobody’s Fool,” she talks-raps several lines, including one in which she declares, to someone trying to wrong her again, “I might have fallen for that when I had 14 years and a little greener, but it’s amazing what a few years can mean. The line is spunky but also hilariously immature, and Lavigne seems to know it. She launches into a series of “la-la-la” in the chorus, as if playfully acknowledging that the difference between 17 and 14 really isn’t that big 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 what I had scribbled in my own journal, thinking I was observing something deep about capital-L Life. It wasn’t until I became a real teenager that I understood, say, the sexual pun of “things I’ll never say”; what to call the toxic relationship Lavigne described in “Too Much to Ask”; or how satisfying it would be to scream the discouraged yeah-ee-yeahis in “I’m With You,” a yodel so powerful Rihanna sampled it for her song “Cheers,” eight years later. As I grew older and Lavigne moved away from her pop-punk roots, I often returned to let’s go, and to the song “Tomorrow”, the track which arrives exactly in the middle of the album. In it, Lavigne reflects on the responsibility she feels she now holds. The melody is soft, but the lyrics begin stubbornly: “I want to believe you, when you tell me it’s ok. Yeah, I’m trying to believe you,” Lavigne sings, before catching her breath and kicking, “But I don’t. As the song progresses, however, it returns. She begs the listener to give her some time to think, eventually building a chorus of 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 unfolds hesitantly, line by line, from petulance to acceptance, much like the experience of adolescence, this journey of self-knowledge, evolves from uncertainty to wisdom.
let’s go still persists, 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 even incorporated “Complicated” into his tour, covering the song as part of his set. I saw her show recently, sort of, when she performed in LA. Perched in Griffith Park above the Greek Theater, I could hear its crowd, their voices singing so loudly over every lyric that they often drowned out Rodrigo. When she started “Complicated,” the audience calmed down, as if they didn’t know the words; many of them were probably born after “Complicated” topped the charts, I realized. I felt a twinge in my heart as Rodrigo continued to bounce around the stage, singing a song that, at over four minutes, was longer than most of his tracks. But then, as Rodrigo continued, his fans began to chime in, picking up the lyrics as easily as if they’d been listening to Lavigne all along. “You to falland you crawland you Pauseand you take what you obtain,” they sang. It sounded flawed, but again, growing too. And as Lavigne so succinctly put it: Uh-huh. It’s like that.