Friday, September 2, 2022

Twenty Years Ago: Avril Lavigne, the Millennial Teenage “Rebel”

At the beginning of Summer 2002, a diminutive 17-year-old Canadian singer named Avril Lavigne released her first album, Let Go.

[Yes, my dear “Millennial” friends, it was twenty years ago. You are just beginning to discover that life really is “short,” and that youth is just a blink-of-an-eye in a normal human lifespan.]

Readers of this blog know that Avril Lavigne holds a special place in my heart because of her openness about her harrowing experience with Lyme Disease. I don’t endorse her lifestyle (which, as rock stars go, is “relatively tame”) or her views (whatever they are) or her preoccupation with using the “eff-word” in so many songs and in practically every “effing” interview she gives (nearly always as an emphatic term rather than as an obscenity, but still…). I have come to appreciate her unique qualities as a singer and songwriter, an artist who gives compelling vocal shape to a wide range of raw human emotions. She has been amazingly resilient in grappling with the problems of adolescent fame and ongoing success, as well as the fickle attention of the spotlight, the notorious unfairness of music critics, and a lot of personal problems and suffering.

Avril is one of those people who are artists because they can’t help being artists, who communicate through their craft the good, the bad, and the ugly inside themselves and all around them. Their talents are relentless natural forces that push them in contrary directions, provoke attention (and crave it), and invariably tend to express the “mood of the moment.” They can inspire others or drag them down, and technological media has the power to amplify them into generational (or multi-generational) “icons” in ways we still don’t much understand, ways that are fascinating and disturbing and dangerous.

I’ve gotta love Avril Lavigne. Her life is (and was) hard enough even without Lyme Disease. She’s one of the artists I especially pray for (n.b. I have long had a practice of “spiritually adopting” artists, especially musicians who have troubles that I can relate to - it’s not something I take lightly, either). Avril has a lot of struggles. She’s also kinda crazy, and plunges recklessly through certain things in life without caring who’s watching. At the same time, she has some kind of “compass” (artistic? moral? religious? a combination of all of them?) that guides her and keeps her from moving completely “off the map” as she continues to search for her identity and purpose. Most importantly, she’s a human being. She's a mess but doesn't pretend to be coherent. 

Avril is also on the threshold of dramatic and perplexing human changes that everyone must undergo if they live to the age of 40. The tricks used to evade, postpone, or ignore middle age don’t really work - not even for rich people or rock stars. This is not ultimately a problem, because the passage of time is one of the great mercies granted to human beings that provoke us to face reality, which can allow us to rediscover reality as a gift and grow along the directions it indicates. Avril can still dream of her future, but she’ll never be young again. I hope she doesn't get tangled up in trying to preserve something that is not meant to last. There are plenty of people who are willing to take advantage of that kind of desperation, making money by fostering illusions that only engender more desperation and greater difficulties moving forward in life. Celebrities are especially prone to being made fools of in this way. The rest of us are prone to follow them.

In the year 2022, Avril Lavigne is an established member of the celebritocracy. Just last week, she got her “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Even though she is not yet 38 years old, she is generally referred to in the past tense, though she has many facets to her artistry, and I hope she will be able to develop some of them, especially those that stretch her beyond her vast natural talent and her still-irrepressible charisma. Lyme Disease took several years out of her career, but it also inspired her creativity in new ways. Lately, however, she hasn't said much about her illness. I can't blame her for that; when Lyme is in remission, you don't want to think about it. You feel fabulous. You want to put the nightmare behind you. Still, you know it could come back. I understand what this whole experience is like.

But we are looking back twenty years, to a time when Avril's life was less "complicated," back before Lyme Disease and the crazy decade of global superstardom that preceded it, back to the first album, where Avril didn't use any cuss words (even if it was only to please her mom) and acted like the kid she sang songs about: the small-town girl from Napanee, Ontario who played hockey, mowed lawns, fussed with her hair, hung out at the local pizza joint, felt out of place in high school and awkward with boys, sang all the time, and struggled to find words for the large intuitions that resonated within her. 

The result was an album that catapulted her to massive pop star heights in 2002-2003. Nobody saw her coming at the beginning of 2002. Here was this teenager wearing baggy pants, some “punk” accessories (because they looked “rock-n-roll”), and then whatever tee-shirt she happened to pull out of her bag, and—of course—a loose-hanging necktie that looked like she stole it from her dad… which she probably wore just because it clashed with everything else. But she was a terrific singer, who also had heaps of natural charisma. And she was in “right place at the right time.” Teenagers went crazy for her all over the world.

Suddenly, Avril was a celebrity. But in those days, she didn’t seem fazed by it. She remained remarkably free of the protocols of celebrity-dom, sticking her sneakers on Jay Leno's chair, sitting cross-legged on Oprah's stool, and not caring that she looked 17-years-old during an interview, which included looking bored or perplexed sometimes. She was unselfconsciously surprised by the insane level of fame that rained down on her in a single year. She never dreamed that her album would sell upwards of seventeen million copies (and counting). Let Go remains the biggest selling album by a Canadian artist in the 21st century, and there are a lot of Canadians in the business these days (Justin Bieber, Drake, etcetera). 

Of course, what it means to "sell an album" has completely changed since 2002. Back then, we're talking millions of CDs that sold all over the world. Clearly, a chord was struck that resonated with lots of people (and not just kids, by the way). I think the explanation for this phenomenon is the simplest one: Let Go is a pop music masterpiece, and the main reason is that Avril sings every song like a boss! She makes even the corny tracks sound convincing and earnest, because she meant them to express her honest self: she aspired to be cool, but she was not afraid to lay on the table her growing up as a Canuck redneck, a dreamer, an old-fashioned romantic girl, a gritty troublemaker, a kid who really liked skateboarding, who was driven to make music, and who was searching for something really awesome in life and was determined to find that awesomeness even though she didn’t know what it was or whether she should grasp it like a conquest or let it lead her to “somewhere new.”

Just listen to this album. Yes, there are the signature hits that everyone still associates with Avril: “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” (“ouch!” says the English language to this funky spelling, not realizing that English is gonna take a huge beating over the next 20 years at the hands of texting and Twitter). But every song on the album is a keeper, and Avril displays mastery over a whole range of song styles: there’s plenty of straight-up rock (starting with “Losing Grip,” the roaring guitars and soaring vocals of the first track), but also beautiful ballads, slow, reflective pop songs, and even one song that has a kind of rap (by 2002, everyone was rapping, or trying to). Avril makes it work in “Nobody’s Fool,” playing the rhythmic diction off against her now famous melodious “la-la-la-la-la-la” (if you know her music, you know what I’m talking about). The whole album is just a blast. It brought the fun of rock-and-roll back into pop music.

The songs are meaningful too. I’m not a big “lyrics” person. I’m a guitarist, and when I was young I composed some “songs” for acoustic guitar, but they were all instrumentals. I performed them many times in public. They are not written down (I read music and had nine years of classical training for cello, but I have always played guitar by ear only). Alas, I can’t remember how to play any of those songs. Long ago, I recorded all my songs on a cassette tape. It was about a half hour of music. Unfortunately, I don’t know where the tape is. Anyway… growing up in the 1970s, we generally trained ourselves to try to “ignore the lyrics” which were either “not edifying” or else - in the case of a band like Yes - just basically meaningless. Since those days, unfortunately, many lyrics have become even less edifying and also more difficult to ignore. But on Avril Lavigne’s first album, she had a lot of interesting things to say. Critics called it “teenage drama,” basically dismissing her words. But they were missing a critical factor: adolescent “drama” is human drama - it is the dawning of self-awareness and of the need to engage the complexities of life, to ask big questions, to experience wonder. Avril, through her creative intuition, expressed the connection between being a teenage girl in 2002 and being human at any time, in any place, at any age. For example, “Anything But Ordinary” is a remarkable song. What is it about?

Um, wow! The whole world provokes this “weird” desire for… what? Something not mundane, something beyond “common sense,” something amazing, something worth dying for, but also not an alienating abstraction; something we long for and that we seek through the mysterious promise of the world and our lives. What is the urgency of this “desire” she is trying to describe? It is a desire: “I wanna taste it” even if I have to “rip my heart out.” What is this deep need for something I can’t name? I can only throw adjectives at it until I arrive at “permanent, no way.”

Avril doesn’t know what her desire is, but she feels its urgency (and you really have to hear her sing these words - they hit you in the gut). She tries to follow this desire by living dangerously, but that’s not the answer. She’s desperately attempting to resist becoming numb to the fascination of reality which she can only describe as “anything but ordinary.” The song becomes an effort to dialogue with “somebody” (who?) and she’s asking, begging: “c’mon now give it to me / anything to make me feel alive” - then more words addressed to “somebody” in the refrain above, “rip my heart out… save my life… I’d rather be anything but ordinary, please…” Please.

Our dominant culture wants us to believe that teenagers don’t have this desire. They just want sex and parties and stuff that costs money (and that turns into profits). But at the turn of the millennium, the “iconic” teenager - Avril Lavigne - cries out, “is it enough?” She uses “kid” terminology: “to walk within the lines / would make my life so boring.” Hmmm… what are “the lines” and who draws those lines for kids in the twenty-first century? 

And, yes, “boring…” The ultimate complaint of the adolescent, which we are so easily inclined to dismiss as simply immature (and often it is - as I know well, having raised four young adults and currently still raising one pretty extraordinary teenager). But we don’t ask ourselves, “Why are adolescents ‘bored’ all the time?” It’s not “natural” for them to be bored. What’s natural is for them to be passionately engaged in human life in all its facets, which they are in the process of discovering for the first time. Their boredom is a sign of something missing. The dominant culture draws the lines and we - their parents and teachers - walk within them, distracting ourselves, spending money, forgetting our own desire for life, for greatness, for the “permanent, no way” that would draw us out of our comfortable apathy, provoke us, “freak us out” indeed, because it is a strange and dramatic thing to be a human being. “I freak myself out,” confesses Avril.

The magnificent ballad, “I’m With You,” raises the same powerful intuition that being human is a need, and that we have no course except to search for someone. Avril doesn’t know who this “someone” is, but she hopes they know who she is, and can take her ‘home’ - “it’s a damn cold night / tryin’ to figure out this life / Won’t you take me by the hand / Take me somewhere new? / I don’t know who you are / but I / I’m with you.” But you have to hear how she sings these words, and where she takes them vocally at the end of the song. I’m still “shaken up” every time I hear it.

Here is a collage of 2002 teenage Avril:

Here she shows the face of her generation, the much-maligned Millennials who have grown up blowing in the wind, and who long to find some solid ground. Avril proves that the Millennial kids should not be reduced in the minds of their elders to a bunch of over-privileged, whiney deadbeats. She expresses their starving, searching human hearts.

How are all of you today, my Millennial friends? I had many of you as students 20 years ago. I wish I had understood you better. You now know that your hearts never stop crying out. And now, age forty is approaching and it’s been a bumpy ride through life, with an exhausting array of experiences but not much to hold on to, and not much direction for what comes next. What do you do with all the brokenness and wasted years of your youth? Where do you place your hope? As you approach middle age, you can continue to put off these questions, but it becomes harder

As she grew up and became a superstar, Avril made many efforts to play on the surface of life, but she’s too good of an artist to hide the humanity underneath, the aching, longing human heart. Her best songs over the years have touched on this theme in various ways. She may party too hard and too wild, but she hasn’t forgotten that longing - even when she’s driven to anger, frustration, or resentment. This is at least part of the reason why she has always been underestimated by critics while being appreciated and accessible to all kinds of people.

When Let Go came out in June of 2002, it was a historic moment for popular music. Today it’s still a great record, and it will never get “old,” precisely because of the fact that it presents the diverse yet invariable collection of adolescent emotions, questions, and aspirations in one album. 

As the millennium turned, pop culture seemed fixated on the hypersexualization of adolescence. Easy, hedonistic sex was being served up by the entertainment industry in enormous portions. Let Go was an album that refused to walk within those lines. It has plenty of songs about relationships between boys and girls (“He was a boy, she was a girl / Can I make it any more obvious?”), but the album also dares to show the awkwardness, the tension, and even something of the spontaneous modesty involved with the experiences of “coming of age.” And it also addresses other aspects of human life that awaken in adolescence: fumbling through so many perplexing changes, wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to be understood, wanting to do great things, discovering a sky full of stars and wanting to touch the sky, searching for role models and mentors who can take one by the hand and lead one to new places. 

It wasn’t the gimmicks, the punk-pop aesthetic, or any of the packaging that made Let Go a great album. It was “rebellion,” but at its core it was rebellion against the dead end that teenagers had been driven into at the end of the twentieth century; it was Avril Lavigne vocalizing and making music out of the authentic experience of being a kid. And she actually was a kid, which was transparent even in the postures of wearing weird clothes and black eyeliner and trying so hard not to look like a normal kid. There was a kind of raw genius to it all, which made many critics insist that the whole thing was fabricated by adults as a new scheme, a new sales pitch. 

There was a fair share of scheming going on, as well as lots of (excellent) adult contribution to the long and convoluted process of making the album, but it was the kid who kept pushing for what she wanted, and who took ownership of the whole project. Avril was ultimately able to make things go her way because she wanted her art to express a passionate desire for something immense and wonderful in her life. Also, she was a ridiculously talented natural singer. She played some guitar and could write songs too (although Let Go - especially with its hit songs - had a lot more adult “help” than the CD packaging implies). But Avril could sing, undeniably, and it was because of this that her overall artistic vision prevailed. She wanted to sing about her life, her searching, her hopes, her “world.” The Millennial generation found a new voice in her.

A lot has happened since Avril threw the pop music checkerboard off the table and scattered the pieces everywhere in 2002.

Avril’s beautiful voice, her intuitive artistry (along with lots of hard work), and her “iconic face” have blazed some new trails. Of particular interest to me is the fact that she is one of the first Western artists to break through and sustain the interest of audiences in Japan, China, and other East Asian countries. She has her own thing going in these countries that are themselves generating so much of their own media and impacting the West in recent years. There are no known statistics for measuring the depth of her influence there. East Asian pop culture remains enigmatic to me, but it will only grow more pervasive in the future. 

Meanwhile, Avril’s appeal across cultures comes from her being attuned to certain core human experiences that consistently find their way into her music. I think it’s beyond anything she has done to build an image as a rebel, a rocker, a tough chick, an “I-do-whatever-I-want” person, a pink-and-black, skulls-and-roses fashionista. Avril has a disarming “lack-of-filters” that makes it hard for her to hide her basic human need to figure things out, to find real love, to keep kicking things until she finds “something new,” the answer from beyond that “permanent, no way” - the answer that heals the wounds and responds to the “need” of her heart, and that doesn’t end in disappointment.