In the winter of 2002, I braved my first talent show, hosted by Girl Scout Troop 863 in the basement of a local church. Ten-year-old me rehearsed my favorite songs, cranking up the volume each time my voice cracked. Which one would I sing to a roomful of parents who probably brought earplugs in secret? It had to be Avril Lavigne's “Sk8er Boi,” which went easy on the high notes and remains my go-to karaoke jam to this day.
But Let Go, Avril's 2002 debut album, deserves more than a drunken sing-along for its 15th anniversary this month. Breakout single “Complicated” boldly called out kids who pretended to be something they're not. Back then, I was an impressionable fifth-grader who cared deeply about being popular. I just wanted to fit in with the so-called cool kids — yet Avril's lyrics celebrated standing out.
After all, there were no pop stars quite like Avril in the early 2000s. While Britney slayed with “I'm a Slave 4 U” and Christina got “Dirrty,” Avril skateboarded in with sneakers, a tie, pin-straight hair, and studded bracelets. Michelle Branch was the girl next door, but Avril was that girl's rebellious best friend her parents said was a bad influence. Sure, she threw up a lot of unnecessary middle fingers, but I was drawn to her confidence and DGAF attitude.
“I'd rather be anything but ordinary, please,” she proudly sang in “Anything but Ordinary,” Let Go's breezy eighth track that was originally suggested as the LP's title and lead single. “To walk within the lines / Would make my life so boring / I want to know that I have been to the extreme.”
Her words magically convinced me it was cool to be different. But instead of embracing what makes me different from everyone else, I tried to be just like Avril — minus flipping the bird, because that wouldn't fly with my parents. To me, she was someone who didn't care what anyone else thought of her; maybe if I dressed the same way, I'd stop wondering why Sara didn't invite me to her birthday sleepover.
So I wore my dad's tie to school and begged my mom for Etnies skateboarding shoes, even though I could barely roller blade. In sixth grade I wrote a persuasive essay on why you should buy Avril's album, then presented the evidence to my English class. (This was the early-'00s version of tweeting “Buy Let Go on iTunes!”)
The music industry was also enraptured by her. In September 2002, Let Go peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, ultimately selling more than six million copies and becoming the year's best-selling album by a female artist. Then eight Grammy nominations rolled in, including Best Pop Vocal Album and Song of the Year for “Complicated” (2003) and “I'm with You” (2004). Not bad for a skater girl from Napanee, Ontario — the small “5,000 population town” mentioned in “My World.”
These days, Avril is working on her sixth album, after recovering from Lyme disease. But when fame first hit, she never stopped being that relatable teenager. At the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, for example, she accepted her Best New Artist Moonman by addressing the crowd as “dude” and literally screaming into the mic. She performed in t-shirts you could buy at the mall, and as her songs took over the radio, her casual pop-punk style became mainstream. I wasn't the only fan who wanted to look like my favorite musician. But if everyone's different, is anyone really that different at all?
Turns out, Avril's music wasn't about being different for the sake of being different. It was about being, well, YOU. As she famously sang in “Complicated”: “You're trying to be cool / You look like a fool to me.”
From the start, staying true to yourself was Avril's personal brand (and a great marketing move). The way I see it, Let Go spoke to the kids who felt like they didn't fit the mold, right before the mid-2000s emo scene welcomed them. That doesn't mean she hasn't made mistakes — please see the video for 2013's “ Hello Kitty” — but her early music felt like a nonjudgmental friend that my younger self could rely on. Whenever peer pressure tempted me, I put on my headphones and blasted “Nobody's Fool”: “Don't call me with a compromise / Hang up the phone / I've got a backbone stronger than yours.”
I was recently reminded of this personal safe space at Emo Nite L.A., a giant party soundtracked exclusively by Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance, and the like. These bands comforted me the same way Let Go once did. So I wasn't surprised when celebrity DJs Machine Gun Kelly and Halsey played “Sk8er Boi” to a roomful of twentysomethings reliving their emo phase. Avril wasn't the first artist to help someone feel less alone, and she certainly won't be the last.