Olivia Rodrigo – the 19-year-old recently crowned Best New Artist at the Grammys – had been covering Avril Lavigne’s biggest hit, Complicated, throughout her spring tour. So it was nearly no surprise when Rodrigo asked the sold-out crowd at Massey Hall to “please give it up for Avril Lavigne!” Out came the pride of Napanee, Ont., to lead a singalong of her debut single from 2002, with a roomful of teenage fans – including Rodrigo herself – who were not even born when the video first dominated MuchMusic and MTV.
To a new generation of female artists, from the top of the charts to breakthrough indie acts, Lavigne is the sisterly Canadian north star. Her appearance at this year’s Juno Awards was one of the ceremony’s buzziest performances. And she just wrapped her first cross-Canada tour since 2011, a celebration of both her endurance (a seventh album, Love Sux) and her enduring legacy: the 20th anniversary of her debut album Let Go.
But to hear it from many critics who are neither women nor teens, Lavigne’s decades-long influence on pop music comes with an asterisk. Take this scathing 2014 Globe and Mail review of her EDM-tinged song Hello Kitty: “Take a genre that’s past its peak appeal … strip it of character, pen vaguely suggestive lyrics about young love, release a No. 1 hit.” It was written by … me. I was wrong, and it’s time to correct the record. Lavigne should be held up as one of the most important Canadians of the last 20 years.
To soundtrack the childhood of an entire generation is to earn a level of cultural relevance that, for most artists, is the stuff of dreams. “THANK YOU FOR MAKING ME WHAT I AM” was Billie Eilish’s Instagram caption when today’s biggest pop star got to meet Lavigne, who attended one of her shows. On YouTube, dedicated fans compiled a video titled “billie eilish being OBSESSED with avril lavigne for 10 minutes straight,” as if, without blunt visual evidence, unbelievers would never consider the straight line from the oft-maligned Let Go to the 2020 Grammy Album of the Year winner.
The Grammy-nominated Phoebe Bridgers is another acknowledged Lavigne devotee. While the singer-songwriter is most often associated with widely credible emo artists such as Elliott Smith and Connor Oberst, she admits to Billboard that “I probably wouldn’t have made it to Elliott Smith without Avril Lavigne.” Soccer Mommy, another critically approved indie-rock act, lauded Let Go and Under My Skin from 2004, telling Billboard that “you can just put those [first two albums] on in the car and every track – boom. Hit, hit, hit, hit.”
Yet there remains an air of incredulity that such acclaimed and serious musicians would sing the praises of undeniably catchy – but unserious – hits such as Complicated or Sk8er Boi. Instead, Lavigne’s songwriting garners begrudging respect and concessions of nostalgia.
A Vulture critique contends that after her first two albums, “Lavigne’s discography since has represented a conscious rejection of the persona and sound that [Soccer Mommy] and [Snail Mail, another female indie rocker] consider near and dear, from more Girlfriend retreads and questionably offensive EDM singles to treacly duets.” A retrospective look at Let Go from Pitchfork, the Rolling Stone of the digital era, is equally dismissive of her trajectory: “Listening to later singles … feels like chewing pieces of dime-store bubblegum when you’re old enough to make your own appointments at the dentist.”
There is in fact a certain uncool to Lavigne, who has never veered too far from the pop-punk-princess aesthetic that kicked off her career 20 years ago. Time has proven that despite her many forays into other genres, her on-message lyrics and steady persona are key to her influence with the Olivia Rodrigos of the world. Lavigne does not shapeshift from album to album, as many modern musicians do, so much as try on different shades of eyeliner and coloured highlights. But the artistic immaturity I thought I saw in the past was actually me, her male contemporary born in the same year, missing the most important part of her artistry: her audience.
Teenage girls can sniff out a fake faster than anyone, making it no small feat to connect with them across decades. Taylor Swift – who declared herself a “forever fan” of Lavigne – has been praised for growing alongside her audience, from teen crushes to adult romance. Lavigne’s music takes the inverse approach: a constancy of teen angst that always finds its way to the intended listener. She wants to be taken seriously at the heights of her ennui. She doesn’t need to imagine the protagonist who would ask, “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?” Lavigne is true to her own youthful preoccupations, whether she is writing in her LiveJournal in 2002 or in her Instagram feelings in 2022 (close friends only).
In the long game, the list of Lavigne detractors pales in comparison to the teenage tastemakers who are finally old enough to claim her as they discover the crunchy, cathartic chords of 2000s pop-punk. Also discovered was how male-dominated these genres were not that long ago, a time when Lavigne topped a short list of women (including fellow Canadian Fefe Dobson and Paramore’s Hayley Williams) who were able to make space, play guitar and rock out about boys and breakups. That she did not have many contemporaries should make us appreciate her even more, not less.
Today, critical reconsideration is a hallmark of pop culture (you’ve read this far, right?). Many of us spent years deriding the music of artists like Britney Spears. At the time, Lavigne was even positioned as the rockist anti-Spears, a questionable move that we’ve, yes, reconsidered and called out for pitting women against each other.
We now recognize Spears as a pioneering pop star even if professional listeners still contend that her later output never reaches her early highs (sound familiar?). We’ve reclaimed many artists of the same vintage, from Christina Aguilera to the Backstreet Boys. Why haven’t we agreed on Lavigne’s place in those ranks?
It comes down to positively anachronistic ideas about pop versus rock. In presenting herself as a singer-songwriter first, Lavigne invites suffocating critiques of her authenticity. Her first two albums were needlessly marred by songwriting controversies with co-writers the Matrix and Chantal Kreviazuk. There are questions of how a modest churchgoing teenager from small-town Canada came to cultural prominence as a fully-realized pop-punk idol – questions hardly asked of Stratford’s own Justin Bieber.
I’m asking readers to learn from my mistakes, to revere Lavigne the pop-punk icon the same way we do, say, Shania Twain, her own childhood idol. As Lavigne believers like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish continue to dominate the charts, and wear their influences on their sleeves, hopefully more of us let go of our complicated relationship with her music. That would be a happy ending.
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