An Avril Afternoon at the Mall

It's Thursday afternoon in the Katy Mills Mall food court, and Avril Lavigne's fans are screaming and chanting. They've turned out, a couple of thousand of them, to see the pop-punk sulkstress on her AOL-sponsored Surprise Mall Tour, which has set up shop in this huge overstimulating shopping mecca in the middle of nowhere.

A couple of KRBE DJs are on the small, very low-rise impromptu stage right by the Jody Maroni's "haut dog" franchise, lobbing stuffed animals and T-shirts into the crowd, exhorting the kids to scream louder. The weird thing is that they aren't hollering for Avril.

"Give it up, Katy! Show your love!"

"A!O!L! A!O!L! A!O!L!…"

I knew the last couple of years had been rough on the Internet giant, but is this what AOL has been reduced to? Forcing a bunch of hormone-addled, T-shirt-coveting teens and tweens to pep them up?

To be fair, there were a couple of chants for Avril mixed in here and there as well, and there were several mass shrieks when those nearest the front erroneously thought their 19-year-old champion was taking the stage.

The crowd was composed of several demographically uniform concentric circles. Young teenage girls were nearest the front -- some of them, though surprisingly few, wearing Avril's trademark necktie over a T-shirt. (Hell, maybe it's not so surprising -- Lavigne herself has forsaken the style.)

Behind that ring was a slightly older group of mixed guys and girls. This is where you found the occasional tattoo, the faux hawks, the dyed hair that all mark the tribe that regards Lavigne as too pop, but nevertheless had nothing better to do after school on Thursday afternoon in Katy. Here is where you also found packs of smirking, strutting dudes in Pat Green T-shirts and Abercrombie & Fitch ball caps that came because that was where the chicks were. You could just imagine their lives unfolding before them -- I've seen their types 40 years farther along in life, dragged to Jones Hall or the Hobby Center by their enthralled wives, where they sleep off their Scotch in the plush seats while Buena Vista Social Club or Norah Jones plays on stage.

And behind all those groups was an assortment of intensely bored parents and their (briefly) more interested elementary-school-aged children, mainly girls.

About 30 minutes after the announced start time, a shriek that lasted longer than the false alarms announced the fact that Lavigne had unceremoniously taken the stage, sunburst acoustic guitar in hand, second guitarist in tow. Arms bearing cell-phone cameras rose in the air. Contrary to mall rules, some little girls were hoisted on their fathers' shoulders, while their older fellow fans were lifted onto those of their boyfriends. "How come everyone else can see but me?" one tween girl with no such benefactor demanded of the world. Lavigne said hello, and launched into one of the songs off her new album, Under My Skin, with no further ado.

Geez, this has got to be boring for her. Reading accounts of the twentysomething-show tour in other cities, you get the impression that America is populated by robots. The crowds seem like they're made up of the same people in every town. The malls all look the same. The crowd-inciting pop radio DJs are all the same. The hotels all look the same. Who manages Lavigne? Whose idea was this? Satan himself couldn't think of a less interesting way to tour, and how much good is this doing Lavigne? How many kids who wanted to go couldn't make it to the show? After all, Katy Mills is a fair distance down I-10 from the center of Houston, and if you had to go to school Thursday in Clear Lake or Kingwood or Pearland, and if you could persuade your parents to drive you to Katy Mills, there was simply no way you could have made the show on time. Lavigne could have probably just set up shop at the Katy ISD football stadium, as this show pretty much amounted to a private show for Katy's kids.

She played about half an hour. Roughly three minutes in, the preteen set started to look incredibly bored. And they weren't the only ones. You'd think this would have been a huge deal, but save for the couple of hundred nearest the stage, it just wasn't. It was more a curiosity, wherein Avril was just the latest and greatest commodity in a mall full of late and great commodities, a new franchise you'd been hearing about on TV but that was new in town. Sure, some people sang along as Lavigne dutifully gave them bored renditions of "Sk8ter Boi" and "Complic8ted," but you expected more than the hushed tones they delivered. Lavigne, to put it mildly, is no expert at fanning a crowd's passion, and she gritted her teeth and worked her way through the set like a trouper, as Omarosa from The Apprentice would no doubt put it. And behind me, one girl even had the temerity to holler, "Avril sucks!"

Which is no doubt what many of the guys were thinking when she sang her new pro-virginity single "Don't Tell Me," as lyrics like "Don't think that your charm and the fact that your arm is now around my neck / Will get you into my pants" are anathema to the teenage Casanova. Years ago, when I was in junior high at a so-called Christian school in Nashville, they divided us by gender and had Amy Grant deliver a similarly themed speech to our female classmates. None of us forgave her until we started having our own kids; some of us even chuckled when she was branded a home-wrecker. At any rate, the sing-along factor on Lavigne's "Don't Tell Me" in the Katy Mills food court was exclusively female. After playing a couple more songs, and closing with "Complic8ted," she said thanks and bye, the crowd dispersed quickly, and she was off to another mall in another town.

It was a very strange concert, to put it mildly. There was a surprising lack of involvement -- Lavigne is famously aloof, but you expected her fans to be much more rabid than they were. More people seemed interested in showing off that they were there by beaming the proceedings through their cell-phone cameras than they were in actually being there themselves. And no doubt Lavigne will feel better about this tour once it's done.

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