For Canada's pop divas -- Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette -- 2002 has been a very good year. Each has had a new album out (Morissette had two), and each did quite respectably. Twain tops the charts even as you read.
But the Canadian woman who had the biggest sales and greatest impact is no diva. In fact, she's a skateboard tomboy from Napanee, Ont., named Avril Lavigne, and her debut album, Let Go, has struck such a chord with North American mallrats that the American music press has already dubbed her "the new Britney Spears."
Which may or may not be a compliment.
Whatever the case, it's clear the kids just can't get enough of her. After nearly a year on the charts, Let Go sits at No. 4 in Canada, No. 6 in the United States, and has sold more than four million copies between the two countries. She has become magazineland's favourite pop starlet, and is currently on the cover of both Seventeen and Teen People (the latter promising beauty tips from Lavigne even though her cover line insists, "I suck at makeup"). Rolling Stone, meanwhile, reports that Lavigne's signature tie-and-a-tank top look was "a big Halloween costume this year."
How did this happen? Just a year ago, Britney Spears was so hot even Madonna was swooning in admiration. Now, such slickly shimmying dance pop seems passé, while hyperkinetic punk pop is all the rage. Do teen trends really change so quickly?
Well, yeah. "Kids grow up," says Craig Marks, editor of the music magazine Blender. "What you liked at 13, at age 15 becomes the uncoolest thing in the world. Avril was in the right place at the right time, with her Rebellion Lite appeal to young girls."
This isn't the first time dance-y, fancy-stepping teen pop was overthrown by something more punk. In the late eighties, when New Kids on the Block ruled the roost, it seemed like their brand of Hip-Hop Lite had an absolute lock on the teen audience. Next thing we knew, the Kids were old news, and junior high schoolers everywhere were hooked on Green Day ditties about anomie in the USA.
"There are cycles," says Craig Halket, a senior music programmer at the MuchMusic empire. "As pop punk became tired, the cycle came around again and allowed for the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Britney and Christina. And so the cycles come around again."
Punk purists, of course, are quick to insist that Avril isn't really punk, that she sang folk rock as a kid (horrors!) and actually likes the idea of selling records. To which the only possible response would be: Well, duh! This current generation -- which, in addition to Lavigne, would also include Sum 41 and Good Charlotte -- sees punk as a sound with a bit of attitude, not as a quasi-anarchistic political statement. To quote Marks, "They're just bratty. Their motto might be, 'You're not the boss of me.' "
Besides, if you listen closely to Let Go, it quickly becomes clear that it was designed to be a pop record, not a punk-rock assault. Sure, the guitars are loud and a bit grungy, but the vocals are front-and-centre, and always carry more weight. Meanwhile, the backing arrangements are sweetened with synths, slyly funky beats and even the odd bit of turntable scratching -- commercial touches every bit as radio-friendly as the ear-candy on a Britney Spears single.
"Avril's music is really no less commercial than Britney's music," agrees Marks. "She's not the anti-Britney who put out grungy records and didn't care about how she looked. Avril cares very deeply about how she looks, and puts out super-commercial records."
But -- and this is the key -- she's not being disingenuous about wanting success. It's one thing to be a 17 year old with a garage band who scrapes up some cash and puts out a CD, quite another to drop out of high school and move to New York because you've landed a major label deal (which is what Lavigne actually did). No one gets to that stage of the game without having a serious jones for success.
So maybe being a rowdy, slightly punky but deeply ambitious and commercial pop star may seem a contradiction on the face of it, but hey -- aren't teenaged girls usually full of contradictions?
"You could say a lot of her image has been manufactured, but I believe this is who she has grown into being," says Halket. "Having met her and spoken with her, it seems legitimate."
Maybe that's why Lavigne's efforts to develop a bad reputation have tended toward typically teenage fare such as goofy stunts and underaged drinking. It's hardly the sort of thing likely to get her splashed across the cover of The National Enquirer; frankly, Marks thinks it's more a "media concotion" than anything else.
"Not that it's untrue," he says. "I'm sure she does drink a little bit and have fun. But it's the media wanting her to be like that. In the same way that the media wanted Britney to be this virginal little girl because in that way her Lolita-ness was more interesting, they want Avril to be a party girl, because they want the rebellion to be not just bubblegum, but beer drinking."
And better a little beer drinking than the belly-baring and nipple-piercing that was part and parcel with the popularity of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. "I think she's a real relief to moms and dads, because the sexuality seems more in keeping with the actual age of the girl practising it," says Marks. "I get the sense that Avril's probably a pretty normal girl, and her normalcy is what's so appealing about her."
Still, there's nothing normal about releasing a multi-platinum album at age 17. Few musicians, no matter how "normal," come through so much fame at so early an age unscathed. And there are those who wonder whether it's only a matter of time before she's caught shoplifting with Winona Ryder or dating Fred Durst.
"Will she end up on Page Six of The New York Post, doing something at the Hudson Hotel?" asks Marks. "Probably. But that won't necessarily be a bad thing for her career."
In some ways, though, perhaps the best thing she could do for her career would be to disappear -- at least for a little while, so that the momentum of her current success doesn't create overwhelming expectations for her next recording.
"It's hard to think of an artist who's had that kind of success, and then when their second album comes out, there's not some sort of backlash," says Halket. He cites Alanis Morissette as an example, pointing out that after Jagged Little Pill sold 14 million copies, the three million in sales that Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie did seemed like a failure -- this despite the fact that a triple-platinum release would have been quite a coup for a lesser-known artist.
"You're only a role model once, and then it goes away," says Marks. "That comes and goes, and what's left is your songs."