Like a lot of people, my memories are linked to music. To this day I associate preschool with the Spice Girls. My mom (begrudgingly) let me listen to “Wannabe” on cassette every day in the car there and back. I associate my 2013 trip to Japan with the Lost in Translation soundtrack, which I (for obvious reasons) listened to on the train ride from Osaka to Kyoto. Rainy days go with Elliott Smith, and middle-school dances with Fall Out Boy. But most of all, I associate puberty with Avril Lavigne.
Avril’s debut album, Let Go, was released in 2002. One year later, my older brother burned a copy, stuck a low-quality computer printout of the album cover in a jewel case, and gifted it to me. I was 10 years old, and Let Go was the first CD I’d ever owned. It was also the only CD I owned for the next two years.
Needless to say, I listened to it a lot. I mean, a lot, until I was 12 or 13. And boy, did it ever do a number on me.
To tweenage me, Avril seemed cool as hell. She wore baggy pants and men’s neckties instead of conforming to Hollywood’s pressure for female musicians to sexualize and objectify. Later she totally sold out—jump-cut to the 2014 Hello Kitty corset/tutu/stocking hell—but that’s off-topic. To me, she was not afraid to be herself—and act tough while doing it. And I wanted to be just like her.
In Avril’s defence, she was only 18 years old when Let Go was released, and presumably younger when the songs were written. Maybe I should be blaming her team of producers and collaborators instead. But regardless of who the culprit is, looking back, I firmly believe that idolizing Avril Lavigne at that vulnerable age negatively shaped my perceptions of men, companionship, and dating.
Let Go romanticizes the bad-boy archetype
Think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby, and the unnamed male lead in Avril’s “Sk8er Boi.” A musician is the ultimate bad boy. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, baby. Her lyrics “Now he’s a superstar, slamming on his guitar, does your pretty face see what he’s worth?” makes it sound as if this guy’s most alluring asset is that he’s famous. At no point in this song does she say anything about his personality, ambitions, or even his reasons for success.
The ending, “I’ll be at the studio, singing the song we wrote, about a girl you used to know,” is disturbing. She’s supporting this guy who’s bitterly writing an exploitive song about the girl who dared reject him. Sounds like a real catch!
Now, this was my favourite song from the album. I memorized all the words and absorbed the message that I was supposed to fall for some rock star asshole. And guess what? I did. In Grade 5 I fell for my first crush, a boy who wore a Sex Pistols t-shirt every other day, had a studded belt, and gelled his hair into a faux-hawk. I’d taken dance classes throughout my childhood, so the lyrics “He was a punk / She did ballet” hit close to home. Opposites attract, right? When he asked to borrow a paper clip in class to pierce the web of his tongue, I thought it was flirting. I’ve had a habit of dating pseudo-punk musicians ever since. After all, nothing is sexier than using touring as an excuse for commitment issues!
Avril needed male attention to feel worthwhile
“Unwanted,” “Losing Grip,” and “Things I’ll Never Say” all demonstrate how the singer’s low self-esteem is the direct result of her feeling ignored and unwanted by men. I mean, there is nothing wrong with being bummed out after a breakup. It happens to the best of us. But it’s something entirely different for songs about poor self-esteem to be produced and targeted to a market of young, impressionable girls.
In “Unwanted,” the lyrics “It hurts that I’m so unwanted for nothing” and “I’ll write this song, if that’s what it takes” are particularly troublesome because they signal unfair treatment from a male partner, while written from a passive perspective. The same with “Right now I feel invisible to you, like I’m not real” in “Losing Grip,” and “What use is it to you, what’s on my mind” in “Things I’ll Never Say.” These songs are written like diary entries, presenting problems without offering any solutions.
Avril was one of the queens of the mainstream era of 2000s emo. She made it cool, which would have been fine if she hadn’t done so by portraying herself lyrically as a weak, submissive woman reliant on positive male attention to make her happy. I thought that she was tough based on her appearance, but I was too young to understand that her lyrics reflected otherwise.
It created unrealistic dating expectations
OK, so the lyrics for “Complicated” aren’t overly concerning, but its infamous mall-crashing music video is a whole different story. At the time I didn’t have boy “friends,” and I didn’t understand that the guys in the video were actually her bandmates. Kids think in literal terms. It all looked like one big date to me, especially with those lyrics playing overtop. I mean, one girl out on a date with three dudes at once would be pretty complicated, after all.
The video undoubtedly created unrealistic expectations for me in terms of dating, as well what having male friends in general would be like in high school. Was that really how teenagers act? And more importantly: Would I too have to break the law in order to impress them? In the video the group isn’t really trashing the mall together, but instead she does everything while her male friends watch and cheer her on. Avril is the one who pushes over a employee wearing a hot dog costume, punches out a mannequin, and steals food from a security guard.
Let Go was once like the big sister I never had. Now I view it as a disappointing child. I hope she’s OK and learns to love herself. It bums me out because she had really potential – and now we’re all stuck with that “Girlfriend” earworm.