Avril Lavigne is the artist you’d blast as you slammed your bedroom door, hoping the music would be loud enough to drown your troubles. When you’re a teenager, every problem is monumental. You feel more perceived than ever, and everyone seems to have it together but you, so you’re scrambling to figure it all out. But if you were a teenager in June 2002, you would get to go through these turbulent years with Avril Lavigne, whose debut, Let Go became one of the biggest pop sensations of the year.
Lavigne was 17-years-old when she released Let Go, a 13-track album that chronicles the angst of growing up, and in so doing, brought female pop-punk music into the limelight. This album features one of her most iconic songs, and my favorite, “Sk8er Boi.” The narrative of the song is reminiscent of children’s moral stories, using a classic formula: you shallowly misjudge someone, they become really big and successful, and you regret that you let them go. But the most fun part about the song is Avril’s role. She is neither of these people. Instead, she’s the one who sees the person for who he is and gets to be with him while the other person is filled with regret. So, the lyrics are simple and straightforward, but they don’t need to be anything else. “Sk8er Boi”’s appeal lies in what it leaves you with: the audacity to imagine that you get to win in the end—“Sorry, girl, but you missed out/ Well, tough, luck that boy’s mine now.”
But much of the album is about not winning. Rather, it delves into all the ways that life feels imperfect. In “Complicated,” you’re not upset because you don’t have the boy. In fact, you very much do, but the boy, much like yourself, is trying to fit in. And in all his fitting in, there isn’t enough left of the boy that you fell for. And so you’re stuck and confused: why is he making things difficult for you? If he just “chill[ed] out” and was himself, things would be so much better!
But the struggle of being oneself is not something foreign to Avril. A few songs down from “Complicated,” she’s reached a point where she too doesn’t feel like anything is enough- not herself, and not her life. “Is it enough to love?/ Is it enough to breathe?/ Somebody rip my heart out/ And leave me here to bleed.” The hypocrisy of her begging to be “Anything but Ordinary” while being frustrated with her boyfriend for wanting to do the same is not an “aha gotcha!” moment. Instead, here it is relatable and comforting.
One of the features of Lavigne’s music that struck me was the contrast between the angst of the lyrics with their generally peppy and upbeat sound. She sings “Guess, I’m wishing my life away/ With these things I’ll never say” with such cheerfulness that you could replace these lyrics with their exact opposite and they would blend in smoothly. This juxtaposition allows her lyrics to be deeply despondent without allowing the song to veer into hopelessness. You can leave the album feeling cheered up even if you were listening to it to brood.
Her desire to make sense of life and the world pops up over and over again in the album. You see it in “Tomorrow,” where she’s hoping that the next day will ease the uncertainty of today, then again in “My World,” where going to parties and braiding your hair is peppered with musings about love and loneliness. This combination of conflict and confusion reaches its pinnacle in “I’m With You,” when she turns away from angst to utter and unrestrained despair, which is heightened by the slower-tempo of the song and the way she truly lets go while belting “I’m With You,”
This struggle makes the songs where she tries to assert herself even more satisfying to listen to. The album, in fact, opens with an attempt at assertion. In ”Losing Grip”, she realizes that she’s in a situation where she isn’t receiving the love she deserves and begins to stand up for herself: “Why should I care/ ‘Cause you weren’t there when I was scared.” The chorus bursts forth from taunt-like verses, making her assertion seem self-assured and confident. But in the context of the rest of the album, this song is encouraging: you can be confused about where you belong and still deserve a space to belong.
To this album, “Naked” is a perfect conclusion. After all the unfulfillment and confusion, loneliness, and anger, “Naked” provides hope. “I’m trying to remember/ Why I was afraid/ To be myself and let the/ Covers fall away/ I guess I never had someone like you/ To help me, to help me fit/ In my skin.” However, the song doesn’t sound as happy and carefree as some of the darker songs. There’s an edge, which doesn’t allow this to be a complete resolution, which sounds about right. There isn’t a neatly wrapped solution to all the worries in the album. When you’re in your teenage years, you just have to get through them, and hopefully, every now and then, you’ll get a respite like “Naked.”
Avril Lavigne is straightforward and hesitant, assertive and doubtful. When she’s in despair, she can make it palatable and even sound chipper. I think it is this range, along with the ever-relatable subjects of this album, that made Let Go a success when it first released, and a source of comfort almost 20 years later.