The Anniversary

Let Go Turns 20


Avril Lavigne is standing inside a Subway in Toronto ordering a six-inch veggie on wheat bread when the twangy guitars from “Complicated” start blaring out of the in-restaurant speakers. It’s been almost a year since her debut album Let Go was released, and the song has reached the stage of its life cycle where it’s omnipresent — in fast-food establishments and grocery stores and at the mall. “I get really excited when I hear ‘Complicated’ on the radio because that was my first single,” Lavigne says in a talking head after the fact, self-effacing and earnest. “It’s really cool to know that it’s still playing.”

There’s an abundance of footage like this of Lavigne in the early days of her career. Most of it is meticulously archived on YouTube. There’s a bare-bones making-of the “Complicated” video that borders on proto-ASMR; a two-hour collection of voyeuristic B-roll from the “I’m With You” shoot; 45 minutes of Lavigne driving around Los Angeles in late 2002. There are also more polished affairs: an ABC Family special, an episode of the Canadian music show Egos & Icons, an episode of something called Exposed. There’s a behind-the-scenes look at the “Losing Grip” video that aired before its world television premiere on MTV. The Subway scene is from a different MTV show, Diary, which offered up a day-by-day account of a stretch during Lavigne’s first headlining tour.

I’ve spent the past week watching a lot of these, and they all feature largely the same beats: interviews conducted in the van as Lavigne travels somewhere else, goofy banter with her hired backing band, long silences where the exhaustion of a non-stop press cycle is palpable. The media blitz in the wake of Let Go — Lavigne’s debut album that came out 20 years ago this Saturday — was inescapable. Lavigne very quickly became the next big thing. The tweens-and-teens pop market was at a crest in 2002: Britney Spears was a year away from In The Zone and evolving past her bubblegum era. *NSYNC were about to go on hiatus. The Backstreet Boys well had dried up. The runway was open for something new, which meant that it was time for something old to be repackaged.

Lavigne was an unlikely pop star. She hailed from the population-5,000 town of Napanee, Ontario, the middle of three children in a religious family. She did what kids who have a decent voice and like to be in the spotlight usually do: She sang at the local church. But she didn’t stop there. Lavigne started performing around Ontario, at county fairs and corporate events and talent shows, singing songs by Faith Hill and the then-Dixie Chicks. In 1999, she entered a radio contest to sing with Shania Twain at the Corel Centre in Ottawa. She won. She continued on the hometown circuit. Her first manager signed her after hearing her play at a Napanee bookstore. Lavigne went on a series of scouting trips to New York City, where she was pitched as “Sheryl Crow meets Fiona Apple.” At the last of them, she auditioned for Antonio “L.A.” Reid, the president of Arista Records. He signed her immediately.

Lavigne proceeded to drop out of high school at 16 and move to Los Angeles to start meeting with songwriters. It was rough going at first. Arista’s plan was to mold her in the image of country-pop stars like Hill or Twain, but Lavigne had other thoughts. She wanted to make rock music, punk by way of bands like Blink-182 and Green Day. (Other acts cited by a young Lavigne: Goo Goo Dolls, System Of A Down, Matchbox 20, Sum 41.) Her first fruitful collaboration was with Clif Magness — together, they made a pair of squelching, guitar-heavy songs, “Losing Grip” and “Unwanted,” both of which would end up on Let Go. Lavigne was happy with them, but the label was worried that this sound wouldn’t be commercial enough.

Arista set her up with a fledgling production trio who were calling themselves the Matrix. “We’d been listening to the kind of stuff she had been doing — it had a Faith Hill kind of vibe,” the Matrix’s Lauren Christy said in a 2006 interview. “As soon as she walked in the door we knew this was just wrong. The kid had melted toothbrushes up her arm, her hair was in braids and she wore black boots. She didn’t seem like the Faith Hill type.” The Matrix were involved with Let Go’s most enduring hits: “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” and the swelling ballad “I’m WIth You.”

But the relationship between Lavigne and the Matrix was combative. Even as “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” were setting the charts on fire, Lavigne was distancing herself from them. She said that the songs she wrote with Magness — which included “Losing Grip,” “Unwanted,” and three other songs on Lavigne’s debut — were the true embodiment of her songwriting abilities. “Arista was drop-dead shit afraid that I would come out with a whole album that sounded like ‘Unwanted’ and ‘Losing Grip,'” she told Rolling Stone in a 2003 profile. “I swear they wanted to drop me or something. I don’t feel like ‘Complicated’ represents me and my ability to write. But without ‘Complicated,’ I bet you anything I wouldn’t have even sold a million records. The songs I did with the Matrix, yeah, they were good for my first record, but I don’t want to be that pop anymore.”

Part of the breakdown in their partnership probably had to do with how the Matrix poked holes in the label-approved narrative that Lavigne wrote all the songs herself. Sparks flew in that Rolling Stone feature: Lavigne contended that she wrote “Complicated” in “maybe two hours.” “Songwriting is like that for me,” she said. “Someone can say, ‘Go write a song,’ and I can do it. I can write a song a day.” The Matrix’s Lauren Christy told it differently, saying that the production trio wrote Let Go’s biggest hits after meeting with Lavigne for the first time. “With those songs, we conceived the ideas on guitar and piano,” Christy said. “Avril would come in and sing a few melodies, change a word here or there. She came up with a couple of things in ‘Complicated,’ like, instead of ‘Take off your stupid clothes,’ she wanted it to say ‘preppy clothes.'” The Matrix never worked with Lavigne again.

(After Lavigne’s rise in popularity, the Matrix churned out similarly-minded songs like Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” and Hilary Duff’s “So Yesterday,” and they worked with all the big names: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin. They were briefly floated as a pop band in their own right: They recorded a debut album with a young Katy Perry on vocals, but it was scrapped by their label.)

Notions of authorship set aside, “Complicated” and “Sk8r Boi” are indelible pop hits. And though they both present Lavigne as disaffected and wise beyond her years, they’re quite different from one another. The former has gurgling production and those twangy guitars that sound like a vestige of Lavigne’s country possibilities but land more like Alanis Morissette. “Sk8er Boi” is a rip-roaring pop-punk song, with a rags-to-riches rock story that tracks with Lavigne’s own and had enough twists and turns that it was at one point in development to become a feature film. What the songs have in common is a lack of overt sexuality — despite lines like “take off all your preppy clothes” and “Sk8er Boi”’s boy-crazy narrative, Lavigne’s music was marketed as a correction to a teen-pop industry that had become, to some, overly sexualized.

She was heralded as the “anti-Britney” by practically every publication. At the beginning, at least, Lavigne and her team leaned into that image — the idea of a relatable everyteen who is more chaste but no less fun. She didn’t look or act much differently than someone you’d see hanging outside the local mall with a skateboard under their arm, the girl-next-door who occasionally breaks curfew. “There’s these people who say I’m made up by my label,” Lavigne told Newsweek. “It’s like, no I’m not. If I was made up by the record label, I’d have bleached-blond hair and I’d probably be wearing a bra for a shirt. I hate sex-object music. It’s not real, and I’d never be able to sit in my room and listen to that kind of stuff. I have moms come up to me all the time and say thank you for wearing clothes, thank you for not being a Britney Spears. I’m like, ‘Puleeaase, no worries there.'”

One such mom was interviewed outside of one of Lavigne’s shows in Baltimore for a MacLean’s profile: “There’s not much you can bring them to these days,” she said. “But Avril you can. She doesn’t have all the trashy lyrics.” There’s a streak of conservatism in the rebellion that Lavigne provided. It was a sanitized version of teenage angst that might look familiar to suburban parents: dark clothes and heavy eyeliner and an irreverent attitude not far removed from goth or grunge, trends that were only just in the rearview.

As someone who was in Lavigne’s target demographic when Let Go was released, I didn’t know any of the context but I did recognize something in her music that I couldn’t get enough of. It was down-to-earth and funny and its anxieties felt familiar, or at least as familiar as they could be to a kid who was 10 at the time. I vividly remember a road trip where I sang along to all of Let Go on repeat in the backseat through my Discman headphones because our car didn’t have a CD player yet. I’m sure my parents were, besides being supremely annoyed at me singing out-loud for five straight hours, at least a little relieved that I wasn’t singing along to “I’m A Slave 4 U,” though of course I was doing that too. I was far from alone in my Avril Lavigne devotion: Let Go did big business. It pushed 4.1 million copies in the United States in six months, making it the third best-selling album of 2002 after The Eminem Show and Nellyville.

As far as pop albums go, Let Go is something of a mixed bag, quality-wise. With nostalgia goggles on, I think it’s pretty perfect. As an adult, I can certainly spot how juvenile some of it is. But it’s still pretty damn solid — especially considering that it was (depending on who you ask) written by a 17-year-old who was just about to skyrocket to fame. And some of Let Go’s best moments happen when that youthfulness is apparent. There’s a lot of personality in the deep cuts, especially for a major-label debut. Take the swirling “My World,” which recounts Lavigne’s origin story in silly detail: “Grew up in a five thousand population town/ Made my money by cutting grass/ Got fired by a fried chicken ass/ All in a small town, Napanee.” She sounds like your typical teenager on “Too Much To Ask,” the ache of early heartbreak deflated by a punchline: “It’s the first time I ever felt this lonely/ Wish someone would cure this pain/ It’s funny when you think it’s gonna work out/ ‘Til you chose weed over me, you’re so lame.” And I’ve always had a soft spot for “Nobody’s Fool,” where Lavigne speak-raps about maintaining her individuality: “If you’re tryin’ to turn me into someone else/ It’s easy to see I’m not down with that/ I’m not nobody’s fool.” Lavigne’s songs were about small towns with small-scale stakes, about what it was like to feel like you didn’t belong.

Let Go is sparklingly produced, with both the Matrix and Magness applying an expansive and expensive-sounding sheen to Lavigne’s alt-rock and punk-pop touchstones. Lavigne makes the most of these songs. She turns “I’m With You” into a show-stopper, a gloomy and rain-streaked ballad with a low-key troubling chorus: “It’s a damn cold night/ Trying to figure out this life/ Won’t you take me by the hand?/ Take me somewhere new/ I don’t know who you are, but I’m with you.” “Mobile” and “Anything But Ordinary” soar to bubbling, crystalline guitar-driven choruses. Songs like the strummy “Tomorrow” and sweeping “Things I’ll Never Say” are more in line what Lavigne was initially pitched as, in the country-pop lineage of Sheryl Crow and Faith Hill. She rocks out on the grungy “Unwanted,” one of the tracks that helped guide Lavigne to the sonic palette of her debut in the first place. And “Losing Grip” is perhaps Lavigne’s most underrated single; it opens the album with a tempestuous howl, a fittingly passionate introduction to a pop star that would inspire a whole lot of passion in others throughout the next two decades.

Let Go’s success inevitably set off a search for the next Avril. No one ever really panned out, but there were plenty that tried. There was fellow Canadian Fefe Dobson, who was lumped in with the post-Avril wave but never managed to capitalize on it in the same way. Michelle Branch, who made a name for herself with crackling folk-pop songs on her album The Spirit Room in 2001, tried to be more Lavigne-esque on her 2003 follow-up Hotel Paper. Clive Davis had Avril in mind when he recruited Max Martin to record “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes” with Kelly Clarkson in 2004, a big change in attitude for the recent American Idol winner. (Max Martin protégée Dr. Luke would end up working with Lavigne on 2007’s “Girlfriend,” her first and so far only Billboard Hot 100 #1.)

By the fall of 2002, after Lavigne had already proven herself to be commercially viable, she started to push back against some of the competitive characterizations that defined her early career. “I don’t like that term — ‘the anti-Britney.’ It’s stupid,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I don’t believe in that. She’s a human being. God, leave her alone!” She was also eager to leave the sound of her debut album’s biggest songs behind. Even as the Let Go promotional cycle was in full swing, she was downplaying “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi”’s importance to her legacy. The next album would be less pop, more authentically rock, she said. Her 2004 follow-up Under My Skin had its fair share of hit songs, propelled by her immense popularity — “My Happy Ending” particularly goes off — but it also didn’t leave the same lasting impression as Let Go. Lavigne has often returned to sneering pop-punk princess mode after her previous pivot turned out less than successful. See the arrival of “Girlfriend” after that sophomore album, and this latest round of Travis Barker-fied nostalgia bait after her Christian-rock album didn’t take off.

Lavigne, at least, has come around on the impact of her early hits. “That younger generations are discovering my stuff and that Billie, Olivia, and Willow go out into the world and continue to shatter the mold like I did 20 years ago is super-inspiring,” she said in a recent retrospective piece about Let Go in The Guardian. “All these people around me are like: ‘Oh my God, I’m a huge fan, I listened to you growing up, you inspired me!’ It’s really trippy.” Lavigne’s fans are not limited to the pop world. A few years ago, Billboard talked to a then-rising crop of indie rock artists, including Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy, that were inspired by Lavigne.

The shadow of Let Go looms large. As someone who was deeply obsessed with this album when it came out, it’s heartening to see how many others have also considered Lavigne a formative influence. Whether wholly original or not, her songs registered with myself and the world at large. Lavigne didn’t so much act in opposition to the pop industry’s status quo as she offered up an anodyne but comforting alternative. On her first big single, released when she was 17, Lavigne already sounded world-weary, asking why things couldn’t be just a little bit simpler. If it wasn’t particularly revelatory, at least it was honest — a feeling that a whole lot of people connected with, especially during those adolescent years when things can feel way too overwhelming and complex. Lavigne was just a teenager herself, after all, not too far removed from the audience she would soon reach.

There’s a moment during the behind-the-scenes video for “Complicated” when Lavigne takes a break from rotely running through the song for the camera to talk to a different camera, doing some odd promotional material for I don’t even think she knows what. She’s still in the video’s iconic outfit: a white tank-top adorned by three red stars, a skinny black tie draped loosely around her neck. “Hi, we’re here in LA. Hollywood — the Hollywood sign is somewhere over there. We’re shooting my first music video ever … and it’s very, very hot. It’s time to have lunch.” She lets loose a cheesy smile. “We’re going to go pig out now.”

Even in that brief flash, she’s magnetic — captured when she’s still just a teen and not yet famous. There’s something to be said for just how normal Avril Lavigne seemed. She felt like an individual rather than a corporation, something that the music industry has taken to heart as it has spun out new stars in the age of social media. I have a feeling that Lavigne’s music will continue to resonate beyond any cyclical resurgence on the charts. Let Go is a solid album, with a baseline of durable songwriting that a lot of pop records just don’t have nowadays. And it also has Lavigne at the center: a new brand of relatable pop star. It’s not that complicated.

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