Complicated life

Avril Lavigne: a teen idol growing up in public

Avril Lavigne talks about false rumors, guy fans, and small-town Ontario

One of the hottest entertainment stories circulating at the moment goes like this: Canadian teen-idol rocker Avril Lavigne recently dyed her hair blond because she's desperately vying for the role of Courtney Love in a planned big-screen Love biopic. This item - picked up by U.S. newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Wilkes-Barre Times Leader and news outlets in Singapore and Australia - quotes Lavigne as saying "it would be an honor to play `Love`," and Love returning the favor by gushing: "Avril rocks and is pretty enough to play me."

There's only one problem with the story. According to Lavigne, it's a complete fabrication. Speaking by phone from a tour stop in Sheffield, England, the 20-year-old tomboy princess sounds both baffled and amused by the potency of such false rumors.

"I so want to know where that came from," Lavigne says. "It's everywhere! My mom fucking called me and asked me. I said, 'Mom, no, that's not even happening.' I hate it, but it's kind of funny."

Lavigne is a polarizing pop-culture figure. She's been lauded as an anti-Britney who doesn't trade on her sexuality and can actually sing. On the other hand, she often comes off as a gum-chewing, syntax-mangling poster child for cultural ignorance (at the 2002 Grammy Awards announcements, she infamously mispronounced David Bowie's last name to rhyme with "Howie") and annoys purists who consider her a poseur selling a skate-punk image to tweeners.

The Saturday Night Live caricature version of Lavigne is a snotty, inarticulate brat, but in conversation she comes off as affable, genuine, and endearingly geeky, if not particularly eloquent. For all the multi-platinum success that she's derived from her first two albums - 2002's blockbuster Let Go and this year's Under My Skin - Lavigne is essentially a small-town Canadian girl with a big voice. A native of Napanee, Ontario (population: 15,000), Lavigne never attended a concert until after she got a record deal at 15. And, as she recounts, she honed her performing skills at churches and fairs, not smoky rock clubs.

"My mom knew I needed to be singing," Lavigne says. "I loved being in front of people singing. She'd have company and I'd be jumping on the couch like singing for everybody.

"I've never taken voice lessons. We just went to church and she asked the music director if I could sing there and the music director said, 'No, she's too young,' and a couple of years later she finally let me sing. And then there was kind of a buzz going around and then everyone was letting me sing everywhere in town."

For a while, Lavigne fronted a cover band, singing "nice wholesome songs" picked out by her parents, by the likes of the Dixie Chicks ("I really do love them"), Sarah McLachlan, and Sixpence None the Richer.

"I kind of reached a point where I thought, 'I don't really want to be singing these songs anymore,' and I kind of just stopped," she says. "I was really lucky 'cause I started writing songs and when I was 15, a producer from New York City saw a videotape of me singing and said, 'I've gotta work with this girl.' I came down and showed him a song I wrote. He worked on it with me and then I got a record deal and stuff."

Avril Lavigne
Butch Walker
Tue, Oct 26
SBC Center
1 SBC Center
224-9600 (Ticketmaster)
From the beginning, Lavigne has demonstrated a knack for hooky, singalong choruses. On Let Go, much of the media credit inevitably went to The Matrix, a song-doctor consortium that went on to reshape Liz Phair's material for radio. Perhaps in response to the attention given to The Matrix, Lavigne chose not to work with them on Under My Skin, collaborating instead with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk. The result is a major improvement over her debut. The catchy choruses remain, but they wear much better over the long haul. Let Go's defining hits, "Sk8er Boi" and "Complicated," quickly grew wearisome and only emphasized the weakness of Lavigne's lyrics: "Uh huh/life's like this/uh huh, uh huh/that's the way it is."

However crudely her words were crafted, though, Lavigne's themes were unmistakable to her adoring adolescent fan base. She consistently tweaked what she saw as pomposity, phoniness and superficiality, be it the preppy-dressing dude in "Complicated" or the girl who dumps the "sk8er boi" because he's perceived as beneath her, then later turns up backstage when he's a star.

With Under My Skin, Lavigne brings a little more dimension to her teen-rebel persona, and while the lyrics are largely formulaic, her music shows real growth. The album's best song, the supercharged "He Wasn't" is a pop-punk anthem the Runaways would have killed for, and both "Nobody's Home" (good girl meets the wrong crowd) and "Slipped Away" (beloved grandfather comes to the end of his life) hit darker keys without sacrificing Lavigne's youthful ebullience.

In an unusual move, Lavigne came off her potentially tiring Let Go tour and immediately jumped into songwriting work for its follow-up.

"I already had a whole bunch of songs on tour that I'd written, including the first single 'Don't Tell Me,'" she says. "I was just really excited. I didn't want to sit down, I didn't want to just take time off. I was like, 'Yeah, right.' I'm excited to start recording and getting my songs down."

Based on the evidence of her recent European dates for Under My Skin, she believes her audience demographic is beginning to broaden. "The thing that's been really cool is that I've gotten to see that I've got more guy fans now and older fans," she says. "There aren't as many little kids. I don't know if it's just like that in Europe, but my other musician friends have said that happened to them on their second record too.

"I love to see the little girls out there, to see how excited they are, jumping up and down and screaming. I'm thinking, 'Aw, how cute.' It's neat. But it's really cool to see older people in the crowd appreciating the music.

I like that a lot."

It might be a sign of Lavigne's growing maturity that she goes out of her way to debunk gossip fodder that she trashed her trailer at a recent New York show to promote Maxim's music issue. While rumors of such hellraising actually enhance her wild-child rep, she prefers to emphasize that she shared the trailer with her band, and hardly spent any time there. But the same naive assurance that allowed Lavigne to make the leap from Napanee to New York has also made her semi-immune to what's written about her.

"If it made me crazy, that would mean I was a weak person, and I'm not going to let it get to me," she says. "It's just funny. It just makes me go, 'What?' and laugh and say, 'God, people are stupid.' People just grab that shit right out of their ass."

By Gilbert Garcia


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