- 23 Apr 03
Is she a manufactured pop act made to look like a rock chick? is she a rock chick who sells records like a manufactured pop act? or is she something else entirely? Why’d Avril Lavigne have to go and make things so complicated?
There’s something about Avril Lavigne – rural teen, pop-rock starlet, smasher of guitars on MTV, 18-year-old millionaire, Grammy nominee and the defining mainstream-fashion icon of 2002 – that gets right up people’s noses. But none of those people are here today. Outside the Point Theatre, around 30 girls have been queuing to nab precious front-row seats to tonight’s show since 10.00 this morning. “At least,” says a security guard. “They were here when I got here.”
“Avril has introduced people to punk rock,” a 13-year-old girl among them explains in sombre tones appropriate to a Joe Strummer obituary. “And that’s important.”
“She’s not all sexy and dressey-uppy,” adds another girl, wiggling, to indicate, possibly, pop choreography. “Yeah, she’s cool. She seems like she’d be laid back,” adds her mate. “She does whatever she wants.”
“Yeah, I do listen to a lot more punk now, after her,” the first girl’s friend considers. “A lot more, like, loud music with guitars. It’s much better than pop.” Do you play guitar yourself? “No,” she says. “But I want to.”
In the broadsheets and the music press, Avril Lavigne has been accused of being a music industry stooge, of being a hand-picked-and-styled, indifferently talented cipher masquerading as something real, of being just the latest marketing tool an ailing music industry is using to sell teen pop to kids who thought they were through with teen pop. She’s been accused of dishonesty and hypocrisy, of misappropriating the good name of ‘punk rock’ and its iconography and of dragging it through the mainstream-culture mud. But as we say, none of those people is here. Nor are they at the gig tonight.
They’d be surprised, if they were. 9 pm, and when the Point curtain rises to reveal Avril at the top of a huge riser, one fist aloft, it’s something of a shock. She is so tiny – can this slip of a thing really be the person this rammed and screaming theatre are here to see? The second jolt comes when she runs down a ramp, jumps off to a height of six feet, lands just at the stage’s edge, launches without missing a beat into ‘Sk8er Boi’ and within one lyric dispatches any questions about her abilities as a vocalist. Processed to strangulated near-unlistenability on record for some reason, her voice tonight is tough, unadorned and bereft of any traditional female prettiness, but huge, exuberant and bang-on.
And yes, she does play guitar – although she’s very clearly new at it, tends to stop playing when she has to sing anything a bit intricate or demanding, and hands it back to a guitar tech after three songs. But even given that fact, and even if you’re not particularly into this sort of music in the first place, the gig is indisputably brilliant.
So can she sing? Can she play? Absolutely; and not yet, not really. But the real story, as you watch her lead the band through a much heavier set than you’d have predicted from debut album Let Go, using every corner of the stage as naturally as if she’s been walking the Point floorboards all her life, is that her stage presence is certainly not that of some lucked-up Pop Icon newbie meticulously coached for TRL. If anything, her total physical authority, and the overwhelming sense you get of an adult temperament in a girl’s body, puts you in mind less of skater punks and new metallers, and less of the choreography-locked Christinas and Britneys, and more of Madonna. You either have what Avril has, or else you don’t and you attend shows like this to see it. Which reminds us: Bryan out of Westlife, as it happens, is in the audience tonight, signing autographs for squealing girls – and paying grave attention.
Afternoon, backstage. Avril Lavigne is gazing at several copies of hotpress: the one with Johnny Knoxville on the cover, and more significantly, the one with the Reader’s Poll in it, where thousands of pop kids roughly her own age have awarded her ‘Best Debut Album 2002’, ‘Most Promising Act 2002’, ‘No. 2 Single Of The Year’ for her debut single ‘Complicated’ (pipped by Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’), ‘No. 3 Female Singer of The Year’ and seventh highest-polling act overall. She is in black combats, black runners, no makeup except for a slick of Vaseline on her lips, and a green T-shirt that reads Cheers Dublin – the same outfit she will wear tonight onstage. Her eyes are huge, very blue, and red-rimmed with exhaustion; her famously ironed-straight, honey-coloured hair hangs lankly, doesn’t look like it has necessarily seen water yet this morning. She just got off the ferry, from a gig in Glasgow last night, 45 minutes ago.
“Cool,” she says, tentatively, as I point to the various award categories. “That’s cool.” She grabs it, curls herself back up on the couch, studies it from behind her hair. She has one hand at her mouth, which is noticeably shaking slightly. After a while, she looks up. “Can I keep this?” Of course. “Thanks! That’s for my scrapbook.”
Avril is a curious combination of precociousness and extreme youth; of tremendous bashfulness and the borderline arrogance of the inarguably successful. Her accent reflects this duality: shifting, depending on the conversation, from a sweet, soft rural-Canadian twang (she is from Napanee, Ontario, population 5000) to the Americanised idiom and upward-inflected phrases of the Global Teen. It’s extremely charming. What’s more, what Avril Lavigne does not already know about the music industry at the age of eighteen is probably not worth knowing.
“Is it what I imagined it would be?” Avril Lavigne is considering her own headspinningly rapid ascent. “Well, it’s what I wanted it to be. When I started, I’d dream about having my own crowd, people who wanted to come see me sing, and it’s happened. I used to want that so badly when I was little. And now I have it. Right now, I’m living it.”
She has an almost unsettling candour about her lifelong desire for stardom. This is probably no different to what any singer or frontwoman wants: they just don’t speak of it this directly, it’s as if ambition is gauche, dirty somehow. There’s that shade of Madonna again, that determined, absolute, steely self-belief.
“I was just a boring little town,” she says of Napanee. “I don’t think I knew how fun the world actually could be. I’ll never live in a place like that again, after experiencing all I’ve experienced,” she says matter-of-factly. “But I guess it was kind of a good thing. When I was in school, I’d always either be really bored or be getting grounded, so I’d just kind of sit in my room and play guitar.”
What would you get grounded for?
“Oh, I dunno,” she says vaguely. “I’d always be doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. My parents were totally strict.”
Lavigne has none of that teenagerish reluctance to admit her parents might just have known what they were doing, however.
“Yeah. Totally. They’re the whole reason I’m here,” she says without hesitation. “They were the ones that when I was younger, saw that I had something, and they wanted me to make sure and use it. And they worked really hard, and they got me gigs, and they took me to things, and they are so supportive, and I definitely owe them everything that’s happened.”
Her parents may have kickstarted the lifelong process that ultimately led to a Canadian label rep sending a homemade video of a 14-year-old Avril to a New York producer, who in turn got her signed to Arista Records, but Lavigne is no urban stage-school brat, as her early life attests. For a start, she’s been singing since she was two.
“The first thing my mom did was she did her best to keep bugging the choir lady at church to let me get onstage and sing a song,” Avril recalls. “And for years, they kept saying no. And finally, when I was ten, I got to do my first ever solo. And I’d sing at singing contests, and I’d sing at county fairs…”
What kind of people go to county fairs?
“Country people,” she says, a pained smile stealing across her face. “It’s really great now, actually being able to sing in front of people my own age.” She giggles helplessly. “And if you wanna rock out, you can. But basically, I would sing anywhere. Just anywhere,” Avril says, the soft country twang stealing back into her voice. “I’d sing to people in the street. I’d sing in parks... There’d be like ten old people in like their lawnchairs, and um… people who probably didn’t really care to listen to a little girl sing country songs, but…”
What kind of country songs?
“Trisha Yearwood, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan,” she says. “Those are the songs that my parents went out and bought soundtracks for, karaoke tapes, that I could put in the tape player and through the sound system with a microphone, and that I could sing. Those were just the ones available.”
When did you get your first guitar?
“My very own? Well, we had a guitar around the house, that I had to share with my brother and my sister. But I never got my own guitar, to myself, until like within the last year.”
It was an electric, I assume.
“It was a Les Paul special,” she whispers, beaming, a million-watt smile illuminating her huge blue eyes. “Gibson gave it to me.”
Evening. The queue into the Point has finally begun to move; the 10am girls have, finally, headed inside. A little girl, about nine, accompanied by her father, is just entering the gates. She wears a huge, shapeless Liam-esque cagoule, trainers, sunglasses and a New York Yankees baseball cap with a ponytail sticking out of the back of it. She looks like a tiny, miniaturised film director.
“Dad, look!” she giggles, with a knowing amusement quite beyond her years, tugging on her father’s hand. “Everyone’s dressed up like her!”
Dad (absently): “Is that so?”
Girl: “Yeah, look! They’ve got the big trousers and the neckties and the long hair and the wrist things! They’re even wearing the black eyeshadow!”
Dad (smiling): “It’ll be a good gig, so.”
Inside, there are certainly some studied Avrilites in force – with poker-straight centre-parted hair, kohl-smudged eyes, neckties, sweatbands – but on the whole, it’s not the identikit Stepford-fan creepiness you’d be forgiven for expecting. What you do see is hundreds and hundreds of girls who are wearing trousers, slouchy tops, runners, and little or no makeup – as distinct from the lipglossed, miniskirted teenage raciness, a Point doorman tells me, usually in evidence here (“for your Boyzones and your Westlifes”).
This, ultimately, is the fashion cue The Kids have taken from Avril – more so than the neckties and the parted hair, and more so than the official tour merchandise, with its post-Osbournes ‘metal’ sloganeering (‘AVRIL ROCKS!’ proclaims one) and ‘punk rock’ typography lifted straight from The Clash – though that’s all flying off the shelves too. It’s the idea that girls can wear trousers and no makeup and still be girly, that they can have the total freedom to look, dress and act however they want that teenage boys have had for years. Interestingly, the only style subculture conspicuous by its absence tonight, if you don’t count the missing totter-heeled West-lifers, are actual Sk8er Bois: that is, the diehard Nirvana-worshipping black-wearers who swoop around Dublin’s Curved Street of a Saturday like teenage bats. Well, it is still a pop gig.
“I used to listen to boy bands and girl bands, yeah. But you do, when you’re younger,” a sixteen-year-old girl (crochet jumper; strappy top; jeans) is telling me. She also likes Ashanti and Christina Aguilera (“Her piercings, especially,” she says, showing me her own). “I just got sick of boy and girl bands, being so perfect and pretty and happy all the time. It’s so boring. So cheesy.”
Does the fact that Avril writes her own songs also make a difference?
“Definitely. It’s like you listen to her, and it’s actually her, singing about herself, not some cheesy cover version. It’s for real.”
But is it? It depends who you ask. Lauren Christy of songwriting team The Matrix – who co-wrote Avril’s hat trick of massive singles, ‘Complicated’, ‘Sk8er Boi’ and ‘I’m With You’ – told Rolling Stone that she and her two Matrix partners “conceived the [song] ideas on guitar and piano” and subsequently “Avril would come in and sing a few melodies” and “change a word here or there.” Elsewhere in the same article, Avril says she came up with the lyrics, melodies and guitars of all the Matrix co-writes on her own, and that “none of those songs aren’t from me”.
Whichever it is, it takes your reporter ten minutes to even locate any mention of writing, playing or production credits on the album sleeve: aha, there they are, under the clear plastic CD tray itself, in writing so small it’s nearly unreadable. Arduous squinting reveals that the players on Let Go do not include the three blokes in Avril’s band, and that, although Avril is co-credited on every song, she only plays guitar on one album track, and is one of three guitarists at that.
On the other hand, Let Go’s lyrics – particularly those of its album tracks – certainly sound like a teenager wrote them. Boredom, alienation, rejection, the longing for a bloke who’s sound for a change, the desire to grow up quick, get some excitement, begin your life: it’s all here, presented via tumbling, high-spirited ponderings as full of candour and charmingly teenagerish self-absorption as diary entries. Whatever about the disappointingly watered down rock-lite production: whoever wrote these words certainly knows (or remembers) what it is to be a teenage girl.
Tell us about your songwriting process, we suggest, sidling up to the topic as gingerly as possible. Avril sees it coming. “I play around on the guitar, write out the lyrics, and then start singing to it,” she says shortly, as if the answer is obvious.
So at what point do you sit down with, say, The Matrix?
“I don’t always co-write, and I only co-wrote with them for … you know, one period of my life,” Avril says, her voice hardening slightly. “When I go to co-write a song, I either… start, or else… we start from scratch together. I dunno. Sometimes I’ll write a song and go pitch it to someone if I want them to help me out with it. I’ve done that before. But usually if I’m writing a song I’ll just start off with the lyrics.” And she won’t be drawn much further than that.
Here’s a funny thing. Pop singers of all stripes, from Michael Jackson to J-Lo to Justin Timberlake, have always shared writing credits with professional writers and producers, always allowed themselves to be styled sonically as well as sartorially. But the minute a pop singer moves out of the traditional r’n’b/radio-pop realm, or not to put too fine a point on it, has a guitar in her hand, the yardstick changes, and the pop singer is regarded with anything from suspicion to bitterness to outright loathing.
Is it because Avril, with her production teams and her co-writers both visible and invisible, thinks of herself – and is being marketed as – a ‘singer-songwriter’: heretofore a term so hallowed and untouchable it is only applicable to callous-fingered bedsit postulants, people on Songs From A Room and Van Morrison?
Or is it that Avril has dared to start her career now – without waiting to be a proper guitarist, a proper songwriter – thus allowing us to watch as she turns herself into what she wants to be? Maybe it’s that we’re so jaded and angry over the corporate homogenisation of pop culture, that any fraternisation with The Man – say, using a record company to hook you up with songwriters and a band – is now unacceptable?
Or could it just be that, with her skater style, rockist production and old-punk graphic design, Avril is the first popstar, for lack of a term that hasn’t been invented yet, to borrow sonically and symbolically from, as it were, supposed “real music”?
Surely such petty larceny shouldn’t matter: pop eats itself like this (the underground bubbles overground; gets simplified, sanitised and absorbed by the mainstream; ends up in Top Shop) all the time. And whether or not she ever comes clean about who wrote what, Avril’s presence in the upper echelons of pop has already made the Top 30 more interesting, changed the way young women dress, listen to music and view themselves, and to a great extent, blown the whistle on glossy, smiley, empty teenybopper pop as we know it. Isn’t this what we wanted?
Following in the grand tradition of countless songwriters (or, if you like, co-songwriters) before her, a lot of Avril’s newies at the moment, it transpires, are about how crap the opposite sex are.
“It’s just about an ex-boyfriend,” she says of album opener ‘Losing Grip’. “He’d have his arm around me, and he’d be kinda like, (affects stoner voice) Yeah, this is my girl… but he wouldn’t actually act like it… I dunno. Just – guys,” she says meaningfully. “Every time I’m in a relationship with a guy, they piss me off so bad. I’ve just had it up to here, you know, I have had it. They are so dumb. They never grow up. And they just hold back, it’s just so – they just amaze me,” she says with some sadness, “how they’re so stupid. I could write loads of songs, hundreds and hundreds of songs, about guys and how they are.”
‘Losing Grip’ is an interesting example of where Avril the pop singer diverges from Avril the aspiring rock frontwoman who blasted through that Point set. Lyrically more oblique, sonically much darker and heavier than Let Go’s largely Alanis-lite arrangements, it’s the best song on the album: a tune you wouldn’t overly mind hearing on Phantom FM from time to time. It was written in collaboration not with The Matrix, of Lavigne’s three massive singles, but with producer/multi-instrumentalist Clif Magness, of the heavier, and better – if less poptastic – songs on Let Go.
“That’s my favourite song too,” Avril says immediately. “I feel like that song, and ‘Unwanted’, they’re the songs that feel the most personal, and they describe me the best, musically, and where I’m gonna be going for the next record.
“There was a point where, immediately after I’d finished writing ‘Unwanted’ (also co-written with Magness, she readily explains), where I knew I could write anything, any rock songs that I wanted, with Clif,” Avril says with quiet passion, suddenly sounding a lot older. “I knew he could get that heavy rock production properly done. And I was like, Fuck. I want my whole record to sound like this! And then I realised that, you know what?” She claps her hands. “It’s not gonna work. It’s not gonna work if I go and come out with this full-on rock record.”
She smiles wistfully.
“Radio won’t play it. Pop music is what gets played, and what goes on TV, and radio and in magazines and all that. So, this next record,” says Avril, “will be more of what I want, but even then I have to make sure I at least (giggles, rolls eyes) have those three pop singles on it. That’s just how it works.
“Pretty stupid, right?” she says, her interviewer rendered momentarily speechless. “But you can think of it like: it’s kinda like a game. And you just have to be smart about it,” she concludes crisply. “It’s a business.”
What about people like Nickelback? I don’t like them myself, but they got there with ‘How You Remind Me’ without ‘being pop’.
“Well, the song that broke them is just… a really, really good song,” Avril says, sounding slightly hurt. “And anyway,” she finishes, quite correctly, “it is a pop song.”
Are you happy with the pop culture that we get, when we read magazines and watch MTV and listen to the radio? Is the stuff that you wanna hear and see and read being given to you?
(Immediately, somewhat angrily) “No. Manufactured pop acts are just – are bullshit, and I hate the sound of it and I hate everything about it. I like rock music. Or, more pop-rock, actually,” she corrects herself. “I’m talking about bubblegum pop, I hate it. It doesn’t move me, it doesn’t feel very creative…”
“I dunno.” Her face says: like I pay attention to who these people are? “You know, all the stuff that you hear. All these bubblegum pop bands, all these bands that are put together. Boy bands, and all the little girl bands, with all their outfits and their background dancers and all that shit. It’s bullshit. And their managers, givin’ them little pop songs to do, to try to break them…” She suddenly sits up, rearranging her legs beneath her on the couch. “But now, like – there’re like bubblegum pop bands that are trying to be all punk, and very – the other day on MTV,” she says with huge teenagerish horror, “I saw this boy band? With like really low guitars that they weren’t even playing, and they had strapped on microphones. And it was the cheesiest thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
What kinds of bands do you listen to then? Instantly, her bullishness wanes.
“I listen to… I’ve been listening to a lot of older stuff latelyish,” she murmurs tentatively. “I bought a bunch of CDs… Like… I mean… (pause) The newer stuff I listen to is Green Day, System Of A Down… (claps hands) I dunno. I’m all over the place. At the moment I’m into The Distillers… Hole… I like Alanis…”
Female frontpeople like Courtney Love and Alanis Morrissette must have been a huge deal for you when you were younger, we suggest.
“Well, I didn’t start listening to Hole until recently,” says Avril, “so y’know, I only recently really know who she is, but I listened to Alanis quite a lot. She was really inspiring.” Why Alanis? “She says whatever she wants,” she replies, listing on her fingers. “She does whatever she wants. She’s totally brave. She curses. She says ‘I’d go down on you in a theatre’,” Avril titters, eyes boggling. “Her lyrics are just right out there.”
If things hadn’t happened the way they did, would you have entered a popstar competition in order to get discovered?
“No,” she exclaims, as if addressing a lunatic. “Fuck no. They’re totally put together by other people. They’re told what to wear, they’re told what to sing. They don’t have freedom of speech. They can’t show off their indiv… what’s the word.”
“Yeah. They can’t show off their individuality. They’re just – you know, they gotta be all Barbied up, and they gotta look all glammy and glittery and pretty, and (sarcastically) ooh, they gotta learn all their little dance moves. They can’t just walk around onstage, and just stand there and deliver their songs. Everything they do is what their management is telling them to do. Or their ‘people’,” she leers. “They’re totally plastic. And their whole career is gonna be like that. They can’t break like that and then start doing songs.”
What about Justin Timberlake? His new album is awesome.
Avril considers. “I dunno. He’s cool. I met him, so I like him as a person. I’ve heard the singles, and…” She starts grinning despite herself. “And when you start hearing ’em over and over they start growin’ on you too… For pop songs…” She can’t quite bring herself to say the words ‘they’re good’. Then, she breaks off abruptly, and says, “I like your hair.” What? Thanks! It’s kinda filthy at the moment.
Avril Lavigne giggles abundantly. She touches her own famous, famous ’do, and grins. “Oh, I never wash mine.”