The late ’90s and early ’00s were a blur of bright colors and bubblegum. Pop culture felt shiny and good, like the entire world was on the up-and-up. Slick, “corporate” teen pop dominated the radio; Max Martin began making his mark on our collective psyche by working with Britney, Lou Pearlman ran the two biggest boy bands in the world, and music was almost mathematically calculated to be as catchy as possible. With the dawn of the new millennium, everything was silver and chrome, and it seemed impossible that anyone would break that aesthetic. Then a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl stormed in and changed everything.
Avril Lavigne’s early aesthetic proudly screamed “not like other girls,” a calculated effort to attract a different kind of audience. Unlike her peers, she didn’t wear skin-tight jumpsuits or elaborately arranged body gems; she eschewed traditional feminine fashion for skate-park-inspired tank tops, ties, and baggy cargo pants. Her videos showed her hanging out with the guys, terrorizing malls or leading rowdy flash mobs. But in some ways, Lavigne became an everygirl in a way that Britney or Christina could never emulate. Here was a teenage girl, singing about relatable problems (fake friends, unbelonging, standing up for yourself), with passion and angst that couldn’t be faked. Her music hit an unusual sweet spot for folks who wanted to rebel against the norm, but who also wanted the sharp jagged edges shaved off of ’90s female artists like Alanis Morrissette. Catchy as hell without being overly sexualized, somehow risque while remaining totally safe at the same time — it was a lot to put on the shoulders of a teenager, especially with her first album, but somehow Avril spun it into gold.
It helped that the singles were absolute smashes. “Complicated,” “Sk8er Boi,” and “I’m with You” all sported co-writes from songwriting team The Matrix, and were meant to show off different sides of Lavigne’s personality: the girl seeking honest friends, the punk-pop princess, and the more soulful balladeer. The goal was to target parents and kids separately to increase sales, but “Complicated” transcended age brackets and became a hit across generation, gender, and genre. Impressively, it espoused a message of “just be yourself” while sounding actually cool and edgy, avoiding any semblance of saccharine platitude. “Sk8er Boi” became an instant classic from its opening lines: “He was a boy, she was a girl / can I make it any more obvious?” It was simple and sticky, impossible to forget, and remains part of our cultural lexicon twenty years later. Finally, there’s “I’m with You,” which showed that Lavigne wasn’t merely a punky novelty; she could hold her own with a more serious song, and that versatility meant that she had staying power.
Lavigne co-wrote every song on Let Go, a boon for the record, allowing her youthfulness to shine through. “I might’ve fallen for that when I was fourteen and a little more green / but it’s amazing what a couple of years can mean,” she sings on “Nobody’s Fool,” with all the wisdom of an older teen imparting advice to middle schoolers. On “My World,” she gleefully recounts how she “was fired by a fried chicken ass.” Elsewhere, she wonders “is it enough to love? Is it enough to breathe?”, her own personal twist on “To be, or not to be.” Which is to say, the lyrics may not always be graceful, but they’re exuberant and honest — there’s no way anyone could accuse Lavigne of being a corporate plant. She doesn’t play-act as a sex kitten or try to appear overly mature; she’s just a kid, piping her thoughts into song. And as for legacy, her approach to songwriting arguably helped pave the way for future stars like Lorde, Billie Eilish, and Olivia Rodrigo, who have all added their own distinctive voices to the teen experience, branching off from the path that Avril blazed.
Let Go turned Avril Lavigne into a cultural icon, kicking off a career plump with hits; it’s strange to consider that that songs like pop canon like “Girlfriend” or “What the Hell” might not even exist if not for this first album’s massive success. That’s not to say it was a perfect album, but it’s difficult to come up with many that are as entertaining front-to-back listens. So here we are, 20 years later, and whether you’re seeking a quick hit of nostalgia or one of music’s best snapshots into the mind of a teenage girl, Let Go delivers, still.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.