When Avril Lavigne wore a black tie over a white vest, stood in a skate park and dubbed everything “complicated”, was she aware of the lasting impact she would leave on the world? How, 17 years later, the reverberations from songs like ‘Sk8er Boi’ and later tracks like 'Girlfriend', 'My Happy Ending' and even 'Hello Kitty', would leave their mark on a generation who were born around the time her debut album was released in 2002? Did she realise that in 2019, an app called TikTok would be filled with people called e-girls who owe everything to her? Probably not, but she should have! Because, as I see it, Avril Lavigne was the original e-girl.
If you’ve no idea what I’m on about, let me explain. E-girls are the bread-and-butter of TikTok. The term, which was originally a slur directed at female gamers and cosplayers in an attempt to shame women, has been reclaimed by users of the app and mutated into something wonderful. Aesthetically slightly similar to the scene kids of the 90s and 00s, e-girls are the antithesis to primped, Facetuned Instagram girls. They’ve been raised on a diet of beauty vloggers, emo music, video games and anime. The makeup look is specific -- winged eyeliner, little hearts on their cheeks – and yet open to experimentation; the lip colour varies wildly, while blush is either ignored or utilised heavily, particularly on the tip of one’s nose. Their hair is often multi-coloured and worn in bunches, piercings are practically mandatory. Their outfits usually comprise of high waisted skirts or shorts, band T-shirts or tops with a soft-grunge, soft-punk or goth aesthetic.
There’s also an aura of irony surrounding e-girls. Embracing the title comes with a wink, as if to say, “I’m aware of what you think of me. I know what I look like. And I don’t give a fuck.” E-girls are self-aware. Their digital identity, while authentic, is often knowingly performative; being an e-girl is just another facet or building block of someone’s digital identity.
Drawing a line between early incarnation Avril Lavigne and today’s e-girl isn’t a reach. While Avril obviously wasn’t the first girl to wield a guitar, lust after hot skateboarders and wear baggy shorts, she was the first to push such a combination of things on to the mainstream. Her debut album, Let Go, sold well over 10 million copies worldwide, and she inspired an unlikely early 00s fashion revolution of wearing school ties over tank tops.
This aesthetic, as well as that from the 'Sk8er Boi' video – backwards trucker cap, studded wristbands, heavy, almost blue eyeliner, green tee, three-quarter-length cargo shorts and black white striped socks pulled up to the knees – feels inherent to the DNA of the e-girl, whose nostalgia for and homage to late 90s and early 00s is sartorially obvious. But this is compounded when you consider the period during which Avril’s rise to fame coincided. At the time, pop had mutated from Madonna’s earth mother era and Janet Jackson’s hypersexed confessionalism to a highly constructed, glossy conveyor belt of Britney Spears lookalikes. While there were some anomalies to the manufactured music machine (HIYA P!nk), most artists were directed down a route of bubblegum pop with a firm and unwavering hand (soz Jessica Simpson/Mandy Moore).
The arrival of a song like 'Complicated', with its whiff of authenticity and its singer who couldn’t be further from the blonde identikit pop machine, was a disruption. Avril felt like a beacon for the alternative, albeit a tightly packaged and marketed alternative. In this way she’s not much different to egirls and their rejection of Insta-influenced clones. While Avril borrowed from the marketing techniques employed by pop’s megastars to push her music to the mainstream, she also maintained – or seemed to maintain – a level of autonomy rarely bequeathed to commercial female artists, which allowed her a position on the fringes of the pop scene. She was pop adjacent, an outlier and magnet for kids who felt different but who still enjoyed the delights of pop culture.
The e-girl feels similar in this respect. TikTok is an app that has been downloaded 800 million times globally, and there are allegedly as many as 500 million monthly users. As platforms go, it's hardly underground. Even exploring the e-girl hashtag on the app shows how pervasive the trend has become, videos utilising that tag having been watched over a million times (there will, of course, be e-girl videos without the tag, as well as clips that have used it to appear on popular hashtag searches). E-girls, like Avril, are a packaged and commercialised version of alternative culture, aware of their role they play and their position in society when it comes to their consumption.
This cognisant approach is, arguably, the direction that Avril’s career continued down. (Arguably because, if recent interviews are to be believers, she might not be as self-aware as one assumed.) Her third album, titled The Best Damn Thing, felt like it came with a wink to camera. Lead single 'Girlfriend', with it’s Toni Basil-esque “Hey, Hey! I don’t like your girlfriend. No way, no way! I think you need a new one” chant, could not, and perhaps should not, be read seriously. Likewise, 'I Can Do Better' with Avril’s assertion that she “will drink as much Limoncello as I can”, and 'I Don’t Have To Try', in which she boasts that she’s the one who can do both the dance and the prance, cannot, and perhaps should not, be taken at face value either.
This record reminds me of a popular TikTok meme in which “regular” people are tricked or dragged into an “e-girl factory”. It pokes fun at the ridiculous aspect of online trends, as well as the ubiquity of the e-girl. It’s meta: both mocking the production line of social media and how, even in alternative culture, there’s no such thing as true individualism. The e-girl also shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Finally, we have Avril Lavigne’s (slightly problematic) affinity and appropriation of Japanese kawaii culture. Avril, who has a large fanbase in Japan, has drawn aesthetically from anime for a for a number of eras during her career, but most prominently in the questionable EDM banger 'Hello Kitty'. The track and accompanying video, which was chastised by western audiences for cultural appropriation is allegedly popular in Japan, and is almost the blueprint for e-girl videos.
Firstly, there’s the styling, with a rainbow-haired Avril spending most of the video marching around in black top and a skirt that’s essentially a giant cupcake with miniature cupcakes attached. She’s also got stockings on, hinting, however reductively, towards an element of sexualisation, another aspect of e-girl culture. Secondly, there’s the dancing. Many e-girl clips on TikTok are filled with the same lackadaisical dance routine and there are some major similarities between those videos and the routine that Avril herself does during the song’s chorus. The song itself appears often on TikTok, where it's been rebranded as part of the "arigato, kawaii challenge". Fair enough.
2019's Avril however, is lifetimes away from her e-girl roots. After spending years battling Lyme disease, the singer, now 34 years old, has become more introspective in her outlook and musical output. While on her previous, self-titled 2013 album she was celebrating eternal youth with 'Here’s To Never Growing Up', her post-illness record, 2019’s Head Above Water, traverses more adult contemporary spheres. Both the comeback single and the album’s title track is practically a gospel song, as she pleads to God for salvation from the dangerous waves of her illness.
It makes sense, though. Just as e-girls won’t be e-girls forever as the cruel sands of time see them mature and move their interests on to other things, Avril, after the lessons she learned from being unwell, couldn’t spend her life in teenage scenester perpetuity. Nevertheless, as long as the egirl continues to thrive on TikTok, the spirit of the Avril Lavigne will continue to leave it’s trace on pop culture. And for that we can only be thankful. Here’s to you, Avril: forever and always the original e-girl.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.