Not So Complic8ted

By all measures, Avril Lavigne had a great 2002. She sold millions of copies of Let Go, a clearly Canadian collection of mildly peeved kiss-offs that goes down like Alanis's little pills without the jagged edges. Her slightly warped tours with her band of spiky-haired "sk8er bois" drew capacity crowds largely composed of punky teenage girls, like a Lilith Fair sponsored by Hot Topic. She inspired countless young women to raid their fathers' tie racks and, more important, to pick up guitars and strum their own G-chords. Yet at every photo shoot, her expressions come in three flavors: tight-lipped rage, wide-mouthed mania and teeth-baring rabidity. Why can't she chill out -- what's she yelling for? The answer is, well, kind of complicated.

On stage, Lavigne confidently riffs and shouts, a self-assured rock star playing simple but strikingly catchy songs she's proud to have written herself. In interviews, though, she can seem meek. On VH1's list of the top 20 women that rocked in 2002, she made the top five, but seemed ill at ease during the accompanying interview segment. She made little eye contact, mumbled her replies and seemed remarkably uncomfortable, as if she were being forced to recount a steamy sex scene to her grandparents. Despite all her facial contortions and magazine-article F-bombs, she's still an 18-year-old from a small town whose rise to superstardom was astonishingly quick. Unlike Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Lavigne wasn't raised from Mouseketeer age to be ready for her close-up -- when the lens gets too close, she defensively shows her fangs or shrinks from its glare.

But just because her erratic composure and tomboy fashion separate her from Spears doesn't mean she's the "Anti- Britney," a dubious tag that, to her credit, she shrugs off vigorously. "It's stupid," she told Entertainment Weekly, who nonetheless used the label incessantly in its Lavigne cover story. "She's a human being. God, leave her alone!" Later in the same piece, Lavigne shows peculiarly parental concern for Aguilera, four years her senior. "Poor girl," she confides after expressing her uniquely precocious so-that's-how-babies-are-made-yuck! disgust at Christina's "Dirrty" video.

Lavigne doesn't bare nearly as much flesh as the pop peers for which she shows such compassion, but she regularly displays the plumbers' plenty -- "My butt crack showing is like my trademark," she told an reporter. In her case, this isn't a flash for the boys' benefit, though plenty of pubescent punks surely got their jollies from seeing Lavigne's half-mast pants at the MuchMusic Awards. She just wears asexual baggy jeans, which immediately sag past her wispy waist and balance precariously on her hips. As for the rest of her uniform, white tank tops have become the upper-half attire of choice for assertive front women -- Garbage's Shirley Manson, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, Pink and now Lavigne. The ties aren't a complex, highly sexualized statement, like some of Madonna's gender-bender antics, but rather a defiant, anything-boys-can-wear-girls-can-wear-better gesture. Lavigne explains her look in characteristic kid-speak to Rolling Stone: "I want people to watch my video and not be staring at my girl parts."

Lavigne's say-anything verve brings to mind Courtney Love, but there's an important distinction between these quote-mines: Love's "candid" quips are often coldly calculated. And while Love displays a Dennis Miller-ish knack for flaunting her intelligence with obscure references, the bratty, chatty Lavigne pleads ignorance regularly. Over the past few months, she's admitted that feminism is a foreign concept, told Rolling Stone, "I don't like thinking," requested a definition for "inferiority complex" and dismissed the Sex Pistols thus: "Why would I know that stuff? That stuff's old, right?" That quote, mixed with the fact that Lavigne is often called a "punk," has prickled a few Mohawks, but the problem is one of definition. Lavigne is a punk like Judd Nelson's Breakfast Club character; a smart-mouthed, too-cool-for-school rebel who baits preps and jocks, not like the T.R. kids in Suburbia, for whom punk is a music form and a lifestyle intertwined.

Lavigne's music isn't punk by any stretch of the imagination. At its most vibrant, as on "Sk8r Boi," it's propelled at a perky pace, sounding like a less dangerous Elastica or a spayed, neutered outtake from the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack. For the most part, Let Go feels like a teen playing dress-up with adult-contemporary compositions. Lavigne combines jangling guitars and politely insistent choruses with coming-of-age expressions of confusion and outrage -- she's Sheryl Crow without the crow's feet. A decent singer, serviceable guitarist and often goofy lyricist ("I'm not the milk and Cheerios in your spoon," she raps memorably), Lavigne has plenty of potential, but she'll probably never sound like her pictures look: angry and out of control. Instead, she might become the rare singer-songwriter with a built-in fan base, penning power ballads for an unusual mix of screaming teens and content chaperones.

With Lavigne, Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton all breaking through in 2002, the question becomes this: Are teenage tomboys singing often mediocre gentle rock tunes of their own making preferable to lusty Lolitas performing top-of-the-assembly-line dance-pop tunes? Well, songwriting and a sense of style are the only prerequisites for inclusion in the new class; becoming Britney requires a winning genetic lottery ticket and, possibly, some additional under-the-knife enhancement. And no amount of test marketing can allow middle-aged men to speak fluent teen talk as well as actual 18-year-old girls. What sounds like a more natural statement from a high school student in 2002: "See you later, skater boy" or "I'm a genie in a bottle"; "This sucks" or "Oops, I did it again"?

Lavigne might not be even a skid-row resident's Aimee Mann, but she speaks to her listeners as directly as Mann reaches music critics and art-film buffs. Concertgoers who've checked out Lavigne observe something strange: pop fans who really believe their idol is "one of us." And on stage, they'll see something you can witness only in person, when she's completely in her element: Lavigne's rare yet winning smile.

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Andrew Miller