Friday, September 28, 2018

Avril Lavigne: "God Keep My Head Above Water"

Still shot from her new music video released on Thursday.
Canadian pop-rocker Avril Lavigne shot to stardom in the first decade of the 21st century, becoming a familiar voice in the lives of late millennials all over the world. In 11 years, she recorded five studio albums with numerous hit songs. She toured relentlessly and became a mainstay of popular culture.

Then, in 2014, she disappeared. Toward the end of the year, she tweeted to her fans that she was ill. Nothing more was known until April 2015, when Avril Lavigne revealed in an interview that she was suffering from Lyme Disease.

I knew very little about Avril in 2015, except that she was a music celebrity who had the same disease I had (indeed, all too many of us have it). I wanted to learn more about her story, so I read some interviews and watched some videos.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I knew this story only too well. The systemic pain and exhaustion, the collection of other peculiar symptoms, the incomprehension of doctors, finally finding the right doctor, getting the right diagnosis, going through an extensive treatment, becoming virtually an invalid, starting to improve, having good and bad days, and so on. And so on. ...

Poor kid.

Actually, she just turned 34. She's not a "kid" anymore. Especially considering how hard her past five years have been. Lyme Disease can make people feel "old before their time."

I also checked out her music and her career in greater depth. My reaction to her whole catalog of songs was "mixed," but some things I liked very much. It was clear that she was very different from (and more talented than) the slick combination of heavy makeup, skimpy attire, and autotune that was (and still is) the sad template of the "entertainment industry" for a female pop star.

Indeed, Avril Lavigne became "iconic" (in the media sense of the term) for a different style. It is said that she took the "rebellious punk" vibe and reinvented it for the 21st Century. Recall her classic "look":

There was something real about her "in-your-face" presentation (even if it did spin a bit out of control). It resonated with lots of young people who were formed within the confusion, the pressures, the manipulative expectations and unglamorous reality, the questions, impulses, and combustibility of ordinary adolescence in a time of massive technological expansion and confusing social change.

Not only that, the kid put out some good rock 'n roll songs -- the kind that engage basic emotions and tell stories that everyone can relate to. There is a genuine creative intuition involved in the art of crafting a song that goes beyond passing trends and presents perennial themes in an original way. Avril's best music will be around for a long time.

Her image in those days was "alternative" to the overall pop style, but it had (or developed) its own ambivalent and disturbing elements. Like many artists, Avril mirrored the troubles and excesses of the times and struggled with them herself. Nevertheless I think that (notwithstanding these problems or the gratuitous "f-bombs" she sometimes threw around in her lyrics) there was in some of her songs a measure of artful, ironic questioning that challenged the shallow inadequacy and cheap rip-offs that mainstream cultural trends offered (and still offer) to adolescents and young people who are trying to figure out the value of life.

Sometimes in her songs she's a rebel who wants something different, who wants to break out of the constraints of what-other-people-think of her, to be free to find all the beauty of the world, to "taste" the deep fascination of persons and things, even to control it or grab onto it with desperation and prevent it from the inevitable slipping away in time that brings so much bitter disappointment.

In other songs, she gives voice to a persona who seems to want to ride high on the waves of the trends, or just have some reckless fun, mess around, even be shallow.

I don't find this "shallow Avril" very convincing. Perhaps she's not meant to be convincing; the words of these songs (at some level) often have elements of their own critique built into them.

Maybe I'm just overanalyzing, as I so often do. But I won't grant this point so easily this time. I do not think that Avril was just a music-industry-manufactured "counter-trend" of the past decade. Quite the contrary: in her there is just the sort of convergence of talent, quirkiness, conflicts, limitations, and aspirations that can only be found in a real human person.

She has always fiercely "owned" her art, and I intend to take her seriously as an artist.

Avril Lavigne in 2018: older, wiser, and recovering her health

It's clear that Avril is a very skilled singer, songwriter, and musician. And in the past she has also shown a deeper and more intense side in certain places in her songs and music, a capacity to probe the complex texture of real human experience, to express the tenderness of relationships, to feel wonder, and to pour out sorrow and pain. She also has a sense of humor, and an intuitive feel for satire and parody that (I think) inclines her to spoof herself, and to exaggerate in song the role that life has thrust upon her (and which, in part, she enjoys) as the "pop-punk princess" who insists on cutting loose and getting what she wants "'cause she's a big shot."

But I'm not being naive. Creativity cannot avoid grappling with the tensions of worldwide pop superstardom. The twists and turns can get wild and bizarre. It's very hard on a person's humanity.

In any case, Avril had lots of success over the course of a decade, selling tens of millions of records, making more music, building a huge fan base, expanding her brand, and (apparently) "letting the good times roll."

But sometime late in the year 2014 Avril Lavigne's fast-moving rock star life ran into a "wall"—the debilitating wall of Lyme Disease. I have written about my own experience of "running into this wall" as some length (see, for example, my book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy HERE ). Needless to say, I empathize with Avril's agonizing struggle with Lyme Disease. I really appreciate her tenacity and courage here, and I understand the health challenges she continues to face.

What is Lyme Disease? I'll just note a few things in this post (click here for extensive information). It's a notoriously tricky disease. Lyme varies in symptomology and degree of severity, but it can be truly frightening, especially during the (often extended) period of time in which doctors are fumbling around trying to figure out what's wrong with you, or misdiagnosing and inadequately treating you, while you keep feeling worse and nobody knows why.

Lyme Disease is transmitted by several common species of ticks who carry its bacteria and a variety of co-infections. These ticks frequently attach to humans in ways that can transmit the disease, and there are some places where they are very common. (It's important for people to be aware of ticks and take appropriate preventative measures.) Lyme is a significant and much misunderstood health problem, and I often wonder why it isn't even worse than it is. Surely there are more tick bites than anyone can count; still it seems that many people don't become ill (at least, not in any noticeable way) even in endemic areas.

Those areas are not limited to New England (where the disease was first identified in Lyme, Connecticut), New York State, Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia and my own lovely Shenandoah Valley, although they remain places with a particularly large concentration of reported cases. Lyme Disease has been reported in all fifty of the United States, and the amount of real cases may be as much as 10 times what is reported.

Eastern Ontario across the border from New York, where Avril Lavigne comes from, surely has its share. As does the rest of Canada, no doubt, especially in its southeastern part. Lyme Disease is also a problem in many countries in Europe and throughout the world.

These ticks can easily go unnoticed. So why isn't everyone sick? I don't know. Scientific research will, hopefully, increase our understanding of this complex phenomenon. For example, there may be factors of the immune system that enable some (perhaps many) people to fight off the infection, but that are lacking or inadequate in those who get ill and need treatment. Meanwhile, we should not panic, but educate ourselves, be vigilant about checking for and removing ticks (especially after extensive outdoor excursions), and seek medical treatment if early warning signs appear. My speculations about the immune system are just an uneducated guess, offered as an illustration. No one should presume they are "immune" or be reckless about ticks and tick bites, especially in their habitats and in Lyme endemic areas.

Lyme Disease can be treated most successfully with antibiotics if the infection is identified in its early stages. It becomes more complicated if left untreated for a longer period, but options remain for managing the disease and its effects. There is a lot of argument among medical practitioners in the United States about the details of late-stage Lyme Disease, approaches to treatment, and long term effects (I don't know how things stand in Canada).

Everyone agrees, however, that there is much we don't understand. Too many patients fall through the cracks in the system, and must endure not only the strange, painful, energy-draining symptoms of Lyme, but also the often terrifying experience of not knowing the nature of their illness or where it's all going.

Can Lyme Disease be fatal in itself? There are reports of the infection bringing about heart failure and doing damage to vital organs. Experts can argue the technicalities regarding "cause of death," but from time to time we do hear, in laypeople's terms, that someone "died from Lyme Disease." I'm not surprised. Still, I have heard very few reports like this and I don't know the medical details behind them. Thus I'm inclined to think that direct "death by Lyme Disease" is probably rare. But no one really knows the degree to which it might contribute to or exacerbate other potentially fatal health problems. It certainly doesn't do any good.

Most of us who have fought the long and often obscure battle with Lyme, however, will agree that there are times when you feel like you are dying or going to die. If you don't know what's wrong with you, that only makes things worse.

That's_how bad things got for Avril Lavigne. At one point, she says, she was convinced that she was dying.

I'm quite sure that this is no melodramatic overstatement. As she lay helplessly in bed, held in the arms of her mother (who had moved into her home to care for her), Avril tells us that she prayed to God.

She felt like she was drowning. (And, yeah, I can really appreciate the descriptive vividness of this metaphor. How often I have used it myself!)

Avril felt like she was being suffocated, like she was drowning. So she cried out to God. She begged, "God keep my head above water!" She says she felt the mysterious closeness of God in that moment. That prayer and the sustenance she received in that dire moment also became the inspiration for a new song, and a new album.

Already in 2015 she was speaking about new songs and new music. Now we know that the album will soon appear. She says that many of its songs were written and even recorded from her bed. (With regard to the latter, it's wonderful what technology makes possible for people with disabilities or lengthy illness; this is something I have been very grateful to experience myself.)

Thanks to a long period of treatment and convalescence and her own wellness regimen, Avril has been feeling a lot better recently. She made the music video below to accompany her new single, "Head Above Water." When the song was released last week, there was a flurry of excitement among folks in some circles that Avril Lavigne--whom they thought of as a cussing, hard-partying, weirdly dressed rock chick with an attitude--had undergone a conversion experience.

I think she has had a kind of conversion, a very real conversion to a profound awareness of her need for God. But people who are expecting instant religious coherence from her now that she has sung about God are going to be disappointed. Much less should they think she will suddenly fall into "conventional patterns of behavior." She is an artist, and artists are often gifted with peculiar insights and broken in peculiar ways. It's not that God judges artists by a different standard (judgment, in any case, is His business); rather it's that we should seek to understand what they're trying to say and do, even when they're flawed, or just seem odd to us.

Avril is also a human being. We really know practically nothing about her personally, her deepest issues, or her problems. The celebrity world is a weird aristocracy. I don't envy those who have had it thrust upon them, nor those who have striven to obtain its rank only to find that it doesn't give them the enduring glory they were looking for.

I am grateful to Avril Lavigne, however, for her willingness to talk publicly about her fight with Lyme Disease. Before she got sick personally, she already had a project devoted to people with serious health problems: the "Avril Lavigne Foundation." Now her foundation includes a special dedication to research on Lyme and assistance for those who suffer from it. Check out Avril's information and resources about Lyme Disease HERE.

I am grateful to her also for letting the vulnerability of her own suffering shape her musical art. Suffering might be inspiring and dramatic in the abstract. But real suffering is banal, unattractive, humiliating, and strange. When we feel better, there's a natural desire to try to forget it ever happened. Instead, Avril has chosen to give voice to her own suffering through her music, and thereby to give us all a little more courage for whatever suffering we endure.

"Head Above Water" is not a complicated song. It is simple, brief, and powerful. It is a compelling song that grows on me a little more every time I hear it. Avril was raised in an Evangelical Christian home, and, while the song never mentions Jesus by name, it contains biblical images and Christian themes. It is a genuine prayer, full of desperation and hope. It is a prayer that articulates my own cry to God, both in physical sickness and in the darkness of Depression. It is a prayer that will help many people.

Listen to the song and watch the music video below.
So pull me up from down below / 'Cause I'm underneath the undertow / Come dry me off and hold me close / I need you now I need you most // God keep my head above water / Don't let me drown / It gets harder / I'll meet you there at the altar / As I fall down to my knees / Don't let me drown ... God keep my head above water / I lose my breath at the bottom / Come rescue me / I'll be waiting / I'm too young to fall asleep ...