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Music

How Avril Lavigne shaped a generation

@notmyyaztattoo

Avril Lavigne went from being a regular sixteen-year-old girl from Ontario to the voice of an entire generation of teen girls nearly overnight. It might sound a little dramatic, but it’s the simplicity of such an ascent that makes it so special. 

Quite literally, Avril’s tumble upwards to fame was as authentic as it gets. She was a tomboy who performed her songs at country fairs and played for the boys’ hockey team, but when she won a singing competition and landed her record deal, it was a combination of image, timing, and talent that sparked the bleeding subculture of girl-pop-punk-rock.

Here’s the thing most girls growing up in the 2000s in North America will likely not need to be explained to them: everyone loved Avril Lavigne. Her debut album came out in 2002, and it featured songs like ‘Sk8er Boi’ and ‘Complicated’. They still had a feminine, pop-friendly fun that was missing in a lot of rock and alternative of the time period, but her music was still potently pop-punk and robustly punk rock-inspired. 

When I say everyone loved Lavigne, that’s exactly what I mean. A balance in her sound and subject matter meant that she was many girls’ first introduction to pop-punk, emo, or outright punk music. Additionally, the pop music-loving girls who knew where they stood on their tastes often bumped Lavigne on their stereos as the heaviest artist they were willing to listen to. My little sister loved Lavigne because it was her little taste of rock music, while I loved the singer-songwriter as a gateway to my eventual foray into the punk scene. Oh, yeah, and our mom was pretty into her, too.

The thing about Lavigne as an artist is that her exact brand of female-fronted pop-punk hardly existed when she got her start. She paved the way for Paramore, Tonight Alive, and Hey Monday (hell, even Katy Perry’s first album was clearly influenced by Lavigne’s somewhat snotty sound). Even more sophisticated female-fronted alternative rock seems to have blossomed following her introduction to the scene, with Metric and Yeah Yeah Yeahs both dropping debut albums the very next year. While it would be a little rich to suggest that either Karen O or Metric’s Emily Haines sought out the tie-wearing miscreant as a source of intrinsic inspiration, it would be equally poor form to suggest she didn’t open up the mainstream to the furious frontwoman once more.

Although Lavigne’s wide reach and marketability may have had some degree of intention behind it, it’s doubtful that she, or her team, could have predicted the breadth of her success. One notable piece of this is her popularity with extremely young girls—I’m talking some as young as eight or nine. Her music was clearly not marketed to the Disney Channel crowd. In America, her first album came with the same parental advisory sticker they slapped on Wu-Tang Clan and Dead Kennedys. 

However, the Canadian tapped into something that, as it seems, had been latent for so long: the angst of the average, mainstream teen girl. Sure, women had been breaking their way into the punk and rock scenes since the very beginning, many of them leading it in fact. For those willing to take a dive into a stringent subculture, finding that angst and fire was a part of the adventure. But newsflash: regular girls also want the chance to rock out. And what Lavigne did was bring the subculture to them.

This, I believe, is how Lavigne dominated her niche and shaped an entire generation, both of teen girls and of musicians to fill the void that so many never even knew was there. Soccer moms, cheerleaders, pop-punk emo girls, MySpace scene kids, bratty little sisters, and people on their way to the “real punk” show all loved her just the same.

Of course, the years ebb and flow with music trends and what comes up must always come down. For a while, Lavigne evolved and grew as an artist, bringing us the Best Damn Thing era to usher in the 2010s. But as she’d done so much of the work to break down the barriers to subculture, it also meant that she was to share the stage and that the pop elements of her music that had made the transition possible weren’t as necessary as they once had been. That, in combination with physical health challenges and personal circumstances, saw Lavigne take a step back from music towards the mid-late 2010s.

But perhaps when we least expected it, her relevance began to inch its way back into the cultural consciousness. The 2020s have seen a revival of pop musicians utilising elements of subculture and alternative rock in their sound again, as well as less mainstream artists embracing the authenticity (and dare I say, slight kitsch of youthful nostalgia) in loving the pop-rock blend. Artists like Willow, Princess Nokia, Olivia Rodrigo, and Billie Eilish have not only embraced the sound, but explicitly named Lavigne as an inspiration.

Oddly enough, we seem to have come full circle, and so has Avril Lavigne. It’s both an evolution and a return to her earliest days—telling her not to change a thing. Maybe we’ve always known, or maybe some are just starting to realise now, but this one teenage tomboy from Ontario was capable of changing the music industry, and that’s exactly what she did.