Most people I know will claim that their musical entry point to feminism came in the form of an old Bikini Kill tape or a Sleater-Kinney interview – objectively cool beacons of subculture handed down from the generations before. But I’ll just come right out and say that mine was Avril Lavigne: the most popular pop-star to ever wear a pair of fingerless gloves.
It all started back in 2002: a particularly shitty year for me. I had been beaten up by a bunch of 16-year-old boys for riding a skateboard in my local park, meaning I never really went near a skateboard again. I’d lost a bunch of friends because I wasn’t up for going to the local 14+ “nightclub” (bowling alley with an alcohol license) to drink WKD and snog someone in the year above. I didn’t wear make-up, I didn’t wear dresses, and I was forever lovingly coined a ‘tomboy’. It’s not that I didn’t feel like a girl – but most people had already made their minds up about what that version of a girl should be, and I guess I didn't fit it.
Growing up in the early 00s meant I had already been subjected to the glory years of manufactured pop. Now, I love me some Britney, but as much of a banger as it is, “Born to Make You Happy” sends the wrong message to an impressionable tween. That's not to say the spectrum of female representation in turn-of-the-century pop didn't stretch further than a blonde-haired, virginal pop-star, though – because it did. We were treated to Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” in 2001, Pink had driven her deadbeat boyfriend’s motorcycle into the window of his apartment the year before, Peaches was all about fucking the pain away, and I’d even entered my Destiny's Child dance routine into the pioneer camp talent competition. These were all badass women, going against the norm of the sugary-sweet pop that had dominated the airwaves in the years previous. But despite having them on my Walkman, I didn’t relate to any of them. I didn’t know how to pay a bill, I couldn’t see myself with short electric-pink hair, and as a 12-year-old yet to understand the real world, I had no idea what pain Peaches was talking about.
You needn’t look further than American Pie – an entire franchise about hormonally frenzied high schoolers and their potholed quest for third base – to see the difference between what was marketed towards teenage boys and what was marketed towards teenage girls at the time. The films were almost synonymous with the pop-punk that littered the soundtrack, and although I enjoyed Blink-182 and Stifler jokes as much as my older brother, this was music that was aggressively marketed towards boys, with girls placed firmly on the sidelines. I obsessed over the latest Jimmy Eat World song or wrote ‘Sum 41 4eva’ across my school diary, but I never felt as though those bands, or that music, belonged to me. And then along came Avril.
I first saw Avril Lavigne on an episode of Total Request Live. They were doing one of their video countdowns and there she was, all straightened hair and baggy pants, gliding on her skateboard over to a bunch of boys and uttering “Life’s like this”, before shredding on her guitar. It felt like the first sign in mainstream culture that I could be who I wanted to be. That I could wear a Green Day hoodie without my punk-pop credentials coming into question, that I could finally quit my classical piano lessons and pick up a guitar without the raised-eyebrows of my music teacher.
While most of the girls in my year seemed to welcome puberty like a seamless next chapter, I was a braces-clad, glasses-wearing dork who gasped at the sight of a thong in the changing rooms. So, the thing that struck me the most about the “Complicated” video was how Avril Lavigne was feminine without embodying any of the stereotypes that had been shoved in my face for so long. She wore make-up, sang about love, and took up as much space as she damn-well pleased in that skate-park – a typically male-dominated setting where girls were monumentally disregarded, as I was.
In an early interview, Avril responds to a question about her critics with a resounding, “If you don’t like me for who I am then you don’t like me for who I am, but all you’re going to get is who I am.” It’s a quote that pretty much sums up the message of her debut album, Let Go. Much like the unapologetic call outs on “Complicated,” the vulnerable-yet-vengeful “Unwanted” and the giant f-you chorus of “Nobody’s Fool”, the ballad-like beginnings of the album's opening track fall away as she roars: "That's when I decided, why should I care?". There was no fluffy forgiveness in Avril's songwriting, which is something I brought into my own life, too.
Avril attended awards shows in cargo pants and plain vest tops, her token tie swinging from her neck; she gave refreshing interview answers no other pop star would dream of uttering – “Wow! You’re so honest,” a presenter would gush, “Why wouldn’t I be?” Avril would shrug. She wore backwards caps; she yelled; she included skate tools and plectrums in her tour merch; she was taking control of a genre in a way I hadn’t seen before. Pop punk was (and unfortunately, still is) a male-dominated genre, but seeing a woman at the forefront of its success – even just for a little while – allowed me to witness that we could not only hold our own among the boys, but that we could do it bigger and better. Even if it was a huge marketing ploy, at least it was one that liberated me.
While I was used to watching pop stars gather to pray before they took to the stage during one of MTV’s finest day-in-the-life-of programs, Avril punched her bandmates, flashed her bra, and called everyone a bunch of motherfuckers. She never once referred to herself as a punk or a skater, but read just about any interview or review from 2002 and most question Avril’s authenticity – how punk is she really? Did you know she doesn’t really write all of her songs herself? Why is she so difficult to deal with? Sure, she was still a mainstream artist and she may not have been 2002’s answer to Throbbing Gristle, but to teenage girls everywhere, she showed us that we didn’t have to stay quiet, we didn’t have to like what we were told to like, and we didn’t have to smile. She screamed in spaces reserved for boys, she told us to pick up a guitar, and she told us it was okay to like stuff that guys had hoarded for themselves.
Her first headline tour was called Try and Shut Me Up. The words appeared ablaze behind her before she launched into the performance, which included covers of Metallica’s “Fuel” and Green Day’s “Basket Case”. Teenage girls gathered at the front of her shows, singing along to the songs that were never allowed to be theirs. She gave us the voice we needed. She didn't just resonate with me, she was filling a gap where teenage girls had yet to see themselves. She was invading the pop-punk space that had been so carefully curated by men and forever marketed towards boys. She was a commercial pop icon, yes, but also a sweary, gum-chewing 17-year-old who didn’t play up to the idea that in order to be a mainstream artist you had to live up to unreasonable expectations of girlhood. In short: she helped me embrace the shit-kicking teenage girl that I always was.
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