Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Twenty Years of Avril Lavigne’s “Under My Skin”

I wish I had the energy to write a really long analytical and appreciative article on Avril Lavigne's second album, Under My Skin, which was released 20 years ago this week (on May 25, 2004).

As I have said before, I have a special place in my heart and in my prayers for Avril—a global superstar in popular music in the first decade of the twentieth century who seemed to "disappear" at the end of her fifth world tour in 2014. I knew nothing about her before she agreed to be interviewed in 2015 on Good Morning America and was reduced to serious tears as she tried to describe her ongoing battle with Lyme Disease. 

Three years later, she released her first new music: a prayer to God called "Head Above Water" that was raw and moving and beautiful in a way that—I would eventually learn—was characteristic of the kind of power ballad that only Avril Lavigne could make. She is so much more than just the “pop-punk princess,” more than the angry, weird, chaotic perpetual teenager that critics would like to dismiss. She not only has the chops to “rock out” (or “rock ouwt,” as the Canadians would say) in solid and “classical” style; she is also capable of putting into her songs a sense of her vulnerable, “needy” humanity, her wounds, and her desire—her plea—for something more in life.

There are lots of things about Avril's career that I don't understand or recommend, but she is an enormously talented singer, songwriter, and performance artist who can express special joys and touch dramatic human depths in some of her songs. I wrote about this at some length in my article in 2022 marking the 20th anniversary of her extraordinary debut album Let Go (see HERE). The simplicity of her lyrics takes on a surprising vitality through her unique (and critically under-appreciated) singing voice and stylized vocalization.

With Under My Skin, Avril got to make an entire album of hard-driving rock as the setting for her clear and agile voice. Musically, old-timers from my generation can find much in this album that resonates with the best sounds of our era. And, contrary to its reputation as a “dark” album, there are many moods here, including life-affirming bangers like “Who Knows” and “Freak Out.” There is boy-bashing, but it’s solidly aimed at boys who—frankly—deserve to be bashed. The song “Don’t Tell Me” is Avril-style rebellion at its finest: it’s a teenage girl saying an unambiguous “NO!” to her date when he starts putting on some slick moves to manipulate the girl into having sex. He tries sweetness and sympathy. He tries charm. He tries guilt-tripping her. (As Avril sings, “Guys are so hard to trust”—and, unfortunately, she’s right.) The girl’s response, however, is firm: “Did I not tell you / that I’m not like that girl— / the one who gives it all away?” One doesn’t often hear rock-n-roll anthems like this. In “He Wasn’t,” Avril complains about another guy, “He wouldn’t even open up the door. / He never made me feel like I was special.” Here’s Avril the “millennial rebel” again, breaking “modern conventions” by expecting the guy to open the door for her. Avril insists on being old-fashioned on this point. In any case, it’s clear that this guy is a deadbeat.

There are “heartbreak” songs, but they keep up the edgy sound of the album as a whole. “Take Me Away” is an existential rocker. It’s usually dismissed as “teen angst,” but—I don’t know—it seems an accurate description of my angst. It’s also a cry for help: “I can’t handle this confusion / I’m unable, come and take me away.

Then there’s “Nobody’s Home,” which attempts to look with empathy on a person suffering from depression. Avril doesn’t really succeed in understanding what depression is, but the song expresses a sincere effort, and a depressed person can appreciate that. Most people don’t want to make an effort; it’s much easier to ignore such things and marginalize those who suffer from them.

It’s clear that I love this album. It’s not “sad.” It’s deep.

The ballads, however, carry the most depth, with "How Does It Feel," "Fall To Pieces," and "Slipped Away" being three of my personal favorites. Here simple words meet brilliant vocal artistry, innovative pronunciation, and freeform syllable extension (Avril adds "ah-ah-aah-ah" to the "yeah, yeah,"  "la-la-la" and "na-na-na-na" that worked so well for her in the first album). 

But I can't explain this on the written page. It has to be heard—and moreover it should be heard by a sympathetic ear and not by a hypercritical one looking for something else to use as a reason to put down Avril as unsophisticated, immature, simplistic, overrated, etc. In certain times and places (and songs) she can give the impression of just being superficial and irresponsible. But her artistry—and I think her heart—have depths from which she can still articulate powerful and timeless music.

As my millennial friends know well, Avril is still “young.” She’s not even 40 yet!😉 Her voice is very versatile, as she has demonstrated not only by the stylistic diversity of her own work, but also in collaborations such as at several recent Country Music Awards events. Avril grew up singing gospel and country music. I would like to see her expand and diversify her vocals, and bring forth new musical creations from her wounded, searching, and magnanimous soul. I do pray for her a lot, for her to grow in the great desire of her heart (“I think there’s something more / life’s worth living for”), and I hope she stays healthy. Avril, please take care of yourself!

Under My Skin came out back at the beginning of the summer of 2004, when Avril was only 19 years old, and already one of the biggest rock stars of the decade. The album was another huge success that reached number 1 on the US Billboard 200 album charts and in many places around the world. Perhaps I'll have more to say later in the year about some of the songs. But I didn’t want to let the present time go by without at least a shout out to the 20th anniversary of this great album.