Avril Lavigne Spanned The Worlds Of Pop And Rock, Just Like The Artist Herself
By Aliya Chaudhry
An eponymous album marks a major moment in an artist’s career. For women, owning one’s work, body, and artistry can be especially powerful, even political. Throughout Women’s History Month, MTV News is highlighting some of these iconic statements from some of the biggest artists on the globe. This is Self-Titled.
“Singing Radiohead at the top of our lungs,” Avril Lavigne belts at the start of “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” the lead single off her self-titled album, expressing both her love of the band and her devotion to rock music. The Radiohead song in question, Lavigne revealed to Billboard in 2013, was “Creep.” Later in the same track, she sings, “We live like rock stars / Dance on every bar / This is who we are / I don’t think we’ll ever change” — a promise to stay young, but also to keep true to Lavigne’s alternative roots. Ironically, it’s a pop song, accentuated by acoustic guitar strumming and bright percussion, but the evidence shows Lavigne can be both a pop artist and a rock star. Her eponymous album takes that stance proudly.
Lavigne makes her case on album opener “Rock N Roll,” a love letter to the genre. An energetic pop-rock stomp reminiscent of her early material, it boasts a crunchy electric guitar solo and a chorus beat calling back to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” The lines “Don’t care about a reputation / Must be living in the wrong generation” reference Joan Jett, and Lavigne’s cover of “Bad Reputation” appeared on the extended editions of this album and 2011’s Goodbye Lullaby. The music video for “Rock N Roll” shows Lavigne playing her guitar solo in front of a church in the desert, the same way Slash did in the music video for Guns N’ Roses’s “November Rain.” These nods place the singer in the lineage of classic rock, which bolsters the collection’s argument that her peers aren’t solely the pop stars of the 2010s or the pop-punk bands of the 2000s, but the stadium rockers of previous generations, and that her influence may very well stretch for decades to come. Spoiler alert: It definitely did.
Released in November 2013, 11 years after her debut and 9 years before her most recent album Love Sux, Avril Lavigne arrived at the midpoint of her now 20-year career. It took the artist’s name, since Lavigne felt it was so varied that there was no unifying theme or style to tie it together. “The record is so diverse and it’s all over the map stylistically and lyrically,” she told Rolling Stone around the time of the drop. “I couldn’t really find something to really sum it up. It just felt right with it being a decade and my fifth record. I think it was just time for a self-titled record.”
Avril Lavigne has summery bass-driven pop like “Sippin’ on Sunshine” and electro pop-rock like “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” but also contains a surprising number of ballads. The piano-led “Hush Hush” and sweeping “Let Me Go” erupt into full-scale orchestral choruses. The latter is one of the album’s most unexpected and compelling tracks, and features Lavigne’s former partner, Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger. Delicate “Falling Fast,” country-tinged “Bitchin’ Summer,” and darker “Give You What You Like” are built around acoustic picking. Even the songs with slower starts build to big pop choruses, like bittersweet “Hello Heartache,” which combines sorrowful lyrics and a resigned melody with more upbeat, energetic instrumentation. Overall, Avril Lavigne strikes the pop-rock balance consistent across Lavigne’s career. But her self-titled record showed Lavigne investing in her own style by mixing the sounds of her previous releases with newer ones.
She references her bombastic tongue-in-cheek hit “Girlfriend” on “Rock N Roll” (“I am the motherfuckin’ princess”), and the album’s emphasis on slower songs matched Goodbye Lullaby. “Here’s to Never Growing Up” and nostalgic “17” — titled after the age Lavigne was when she released her debut album — have shades of Let Go (Lavigne even replicates her early skater look in the “Here’s to Never Growing Up” video). It didn’t feel like Lavigne wanted to keep up with contemporary trends, but instead, to stick to the brand of pop-rock she pioneered the previous decade, even though it had fallen out of style. “I don’t care if I’m a misfit / I like it better than the hipster bullshit,” she sings on “Rock N Roll.”
“They don’t play rock songs on the radio anymore. It’s all very, very pop and dance,” Lavigne told Digital Spy in 2013. “For me, my music’s always been heavy pop-rock… I’ve always experimented but at the same time remained true to my roots.” In fact, Lavigne named nostalgia as one of the running themes on the release.
The album’s rock influences are also clear in the collaborators Lavigne chose to work with. Kroeger (a “Rockstar” in his own way) co-produced and co-wrote several songs, including “Here’s to Never Growing Up.” Lavigne in turn covered Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” on the extended edition of this album, which she reimagined as a stripped-back, haunting piano ballad. Boys Like Girls frontman Martin Johnson and Evanescence’s David Hodges also worked alongside Lavigne on the project. Marilyn Manson contributed vocals to the track “Bad Girl,” a team-up born out of their friendship at the time — and one that doesn’t play well now, given that in the past year, several women, including actress Evan Rachel Wood, have come forward against Manson with allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, as well as physical assault.
Avril Lavigne’s release was indeed marked by controversy, but not about Manson. “Hello Kitty” and its accompanying music video were criticized for fetishizing and objectifying Japanese culture, and for perpetuating racist stereotypes of the country and its people, particularly when it came to the backup dancers. Outlets and Twitter commentators called Lavigne out for using women of color “as props.” Lavigne’s response was underwhelming. She tweeted, “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.”
This incident tends to stick out when fans think of this album, which hasn’t made the same impact as her other records. It also happened at a time when conversations around cultural misappropriation were particularly active, as other pop stars including Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Selena Gomez similarly faced backlash for taking from other cultures and objectifying people of color, acts of which many artists across genres remain guilty today.
Despite the controversy, Lavigne continued to perform the song, even as recently as 2019. And she continues to live the brand, which was the inspiration behind the track. “Obviously it’s flirtatious and somewhat sexual, but it’s genuinely about my love for Hello Kitty!” she told Digital Spy ahead of Avril Lavigne’s release. This year, she told Vogue one entire bedroom in her house is dedicated to Hello Kitty merch. “I have this huge pink couch that has all these Hello Kitty stuffed animals on it, from tours and from fans as gifts,” she said.
Nearly a decade later, Avril Lavigne’s core thesis has become fact: She is a rock icon. While her influence spans genres, she is known for perfecting the brand of pop-rock that proved foundational to generations of artists including Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, Snail Mail, Willow, and Rina Sawayama. She has been especially important for the recent pop-punk revival, which she is both an influence on and a part of. Love Sux, which was released last month, sees Lavigne not only sticking to the commitment to rock music she expressed on her self-titled album, but going further into it than ever before.
“I was just like, ‘Let’s make a pop-punk record,’” she told Entertainment Weekly. “We used live guitars and live drums and didn’t hold back, and just got to do exactly what I wanted and what I feel like I’ve probably wanted to do for a long time. It’s fast. It’s fun. It’s just pure rock and roll from front to back.”
As this year’s Grammy nominations attest, rock music is still often seen as a stereotypically masucline enterprise — even amid breakout stars riding waves of big guitar sounds. Women like Lavigne, who deftly strike a balance between pop and rock, are readily grouped into the former category more easily than the second. But with her self-titled album, she proved once and for all she can be a part of both worlds. Now, decades since she was crowned a pop princess, she’s still a rock star.
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