Queen of the Scene: The cultural significance of Avril Lavigne
The year is 2002. Low rise jeans lurk around every corner, Paris Hilton is the height of social status, and teenagers everywhere grip tightly onto their beloved Motorola flip phones. Enter: Avril Lavigne.
Donning smudged eyeliner, oversized cargo pants, and a defiant attitude, the 17 year old tomboy stood out amongst the crowd of bleach-blonde industry-puppeteered pop sensations revered by the media mammoths of the time. A new type of teen idol was born.
It’s one thing to dominate the era in which you came up in, but the pop punk singer’s music to date remains a reference point in mainstream culture, now over two decades later.
It leads to one big question: to what does Avril owe her ongoing success?
That one weird girl
When you search ‘early 2000s’ (Y2K) on Google, you’re presented with pages upon pages not unlike the below montages. Women adorned in pink, low-cut, low-rise outfits accessorised with feathers, sequins, jewels, and everything else you’re not supposed to keep within 3 feet of children under 4. Propelled and reinforced by media stereotypes of girls and femininity at the time, these images scream “I’m the hot but innocent girl next door who dots her ‘i’s with hearts. Treat me badly and I’ll go home and write about you in my diary later”.
Whilst the hyper feminine Y2K aesthetic in itself is not an issue, in an age where MTV was the driving force behind teen trends, pushing the above typecasts onto young girls as the be-all-and-end-all of popularity, Avril Lavigne offered an alternative to societal convention.
Starting from the early 90s onwards, pop punk had already gained huge momentum, arguably reaching the pinnacle of its traction by the turn of the century. Some of the bands at the forefront of this included Blink-182, Simple Plan, Green Day, and Good Charlotte. All great bands, with great discographies, but comprised exclusively of men.
Pop punk has always been defined by its playful, fun, angsty nature. You could sing about your parents divorcing and the woes of youth whilst simultaneously mooning the camera in your music video. Inspired by the emergence of Jackass around the same time, boyish immaturity became aspirational and almost synonymous with the pop punk genre of the time, and its desire to lean into youth and the lack of responsibilities it affords. But the playing field wasn’t level.
Male-dominated record labels seemed intent on maintaining a strict order: American sweetheart commercialised pop for the girls (with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera most notably pushed to fulfil this agenda), and a free-for-all for boys. A notion that seems centred in the idea that men are profitable from any angle, but women only when manufactured to be a certain way.
So, when in the music video for her 2002 single ‘Complicated’ Lavigne asks her friends, “dude, you wanna crash a mall?”, it was refreshing to see a girl depicted as just being ‘one of the guys’. Her presence in pop punk alone served to break the mould and prove that girls, too, are multi-dimensional. She’s a rockstar uninterested in confirming to the ideals of the ‘good girl pop star’ trope, nor pandering to parental audiences.
Trading the school girl uniform for cargo pants, a vest top, and Converses, Avril Lavigne epitomised teen angst. The commercial success that followed not only defied industry standards for women in a male-dominated genre, but proved that representation is key as Lavigne’s style and attitude resonated with teenage girls across the globe.
Of course, it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, with the Rolling Stones claiming, “she’s hardly punk, but you gotta start somewhere.” But I would argue that the Canada-native’s career was never about taking punk to new heights, nor claiming to be the first woman to pioneer it. It was about being that one weird girl in a crowd full of boys, acting as a gateway for young girls to enter the scene, as the mainstream watched on.
Soundtracking the early 2000s and beyond
Despite Avril’s debut album, ‘Let Go’, being released 20 years ago this year, the themes and lyrics ring as true today as they did for teens of yonder years. One of its most popular singles, ’Sk8er Boi’, became an almost immediate household hit and remains an anthemic classic, offering an alternative narrative to the ‘jock’ being front and centre stage. This time, the greebo skater kid is the hero, fulfilling his dream of becoming a rockstar as the girl who turned him down looks on. The punk rocker protagonist is the underdog you root for, and skate culture firmly takes its place at the forefront of mainstream culture. Intertwining angst, catchy lyrics, and even a ballad or two, at its core, the record’s popularity stems, quite simply, from depicting what it’s like to be a teenager, and the recklessness and heartbreaks that come with it.
‘Let Go’ made Avril the youngest female solo artist to reach no.1 in the UK, with her sophomore album ‘Under My Skin’ peaking at no.1 on the US Billboard 200, and follow-up 3rd album ‘The Best Damn Thing’ regaining no. 1 in the UK albums chart, thanks to the success of hit single ‘Girlfriend’. To date, the songstress has sold more than 50 million singles and 40 million albums worldwide.
Whilst commercial triumph is one measure of success, the test of time comes from the longer standing cultural impact of the music, of which Lavigne once again passed with flying colours. In the years post 2002, pop punk continued to hover on the front line of commerciality, with Avril’s influence becoming apparent in the new era of pop stars emerging in the later 2000s. No-one exemplified the move to a more Lavigne-influenced style of pop sprinkled with rock better than Disney-backed singing sensations – think ‘La La Land’ by Demi Lovato and ‘7 things’ by Miley Cyrus. Rock wasn’t just cool, it was now mass market and profitable.
Nylon magazine also makes the correlation between Avril’s impact beyond the realms of pop, seeping into hip-hop. In his 2013 track ‘Dreamin’’, Nipsey Hussle raps, “It’s complicated how I made it like Avril Lavigne”. In Rihanna’s 2010 single ‘Cheers (Drink To That)’, Lavigne’s ‘I’m With You’ is sampled throughout.
As Nylon puts it, “it’s difficult to name another pop punk princess with this much currency among rappers and hip-hop artists. And it makes sense. For a certain generation, Lavigne was one of the biggest pop stars in the game.”
This further reinforces the idea that Avril Lavigne made pop punk accessible to wider audiences, expanding its appeal beyond existing fans of the genre. This included the elements of the subculture that came with it, from skating to skate couture, typically perceived to be white male interests but with young girls watching on as it was now being spearheaded into the mainstream by a woman.
Another key factor in fortifying the era-defining nature of Avril’s discography is the agelessness of the music videos. From trashing a mall in ‘Complicated’ to rocking out on top of a car in ‘Sk8er Boi’, the videos are distinctive enough to still be instantly recognisable. They’re fun, playful, and edgy; everyone wanted to be Avril Lavigne.
What made her cooler more so, was the outfits: plain tank top, baggy cargo pants, spiky bracelets, ratty Converse, and an out-of-place tie. Lavigne’s tomboyish attire was anti-prep, anti-feminine, anti-parent – all serving to oppose the dominant fashion trends of the time. It was empowering to see a girl dressing for herself. Not only did she look damn cool, but she cemented herself as a fashion anti-icon for the times.
From the grungy messy eyeliner + matted middle parting undertones of ‘Let Go’, to the girlier pink punk checkered skirts + knee high socks rebirth of sophomore album ‘The Best Damn Thing’, the fashion was in some ways largely responsible for Avril’s musical success, helping her to create a brand that stood out from the rest and continuing to make its influence known in current teen styles.
The original e-girl
Tik Tok is an app that currently boasts a hefty 1 billion active monthly users worldwide. So when Tik Tok not too long ago decided to go on a mission to single-handedly revive early 2000s culture, it was bound to stick. And at the helm of this resurgence was the ‘e-girl’.
‘E-girl’ is a slang term for teens girls and young women who are active internet users, heavily characterised by their emo/punk style. Inspired by the aesthetic of bygone eras, e-girls can be distinguished by their brashly dyed hair, thick winged eyeliner that is both effortlessly neat and intentionally messy, hearts drawn onto the face, and often a large spattering of blush on the nose to contrast their soft grunge androgynous outfit choices. The e-girl is both girly and tomboyish.
I’d be hard to draw from alternative fashion over the past few decades without using Avril Lavigne as a staple inspiration, renowned for her contribution to the punk rock aesthetic. In the same way Avril rejected the the Y2K pop machine’s overtly feminine look, e-girls contrast the Instagram filtered-to-perfection ideals of today. Not only did Lavigne serve as a fashion icon in her own time, with hoards of young girls (myself included) sporting ties over tank tops and fingerless gloves as an ode to the singer, but her middle-finger approach to societal standards has also set a precedent for today’s generation.
The ‘Avril Lavigne’ hashtag on Tik Tok has over 525 million views, and ‘Sk8er Boi’ 86 million. Why? Because both her music and style epitomise the freedoms, frustrations, rebellious nature that come with being young – a sentiment that allows her to remain ever relevant to the youth of today. It’s okay to be a girl who likes baggy clothes, it’s okay to be a girl with messy makeup, it’s okay to experience a little teen rage every now and again. She may no longer be a teenager herself, but the 36 year old has set up her career to forever represent a challenge to the norms, enabling it to still stand the test of time.
The best damn thing is yet to come
Although pop punk is heralded for its ability to represent and appeal to the youth, growing up is inevitable. Avril Lavigne came onto the scene as a feisty teenager, less interested in the male gaze sold to us by the media, and more focused on spotlighting the trials and tribulations of a teen girl living in a small town. Whilst mall hangs and skate sessions were nothing new, and forebears such as Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani walked a similar path, Lavigne’s ability to make the pop punk genre her own as a woman not only participating but dominating in the field, helped to showcase the subculture in a new light and push it to new heights in the mainstream. The Canadian offered an alternative perspective within the male-dominated genre, which continues to resonate with teens today.
Music is seemingly cyclical, with pop punk making a comeback to the forefront of commerciality once more. If Lavigne’s recent string of releases (and the attention they’ve garnered from old and new fans alike) are anything to go by, she is poised and set for the taking, ready to reclaim her title as queen of the scene once again.
Avril Lavigne’s latest album, ‘Love Sux’ is out now: listen here.
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