BRITNEY SPEARS SET THE model for teenage girls who top the charts: Flash lots of cleavage, but be devout and polite. Then there’s the Avril Lavigne approach, more rock-delinquent than juvenile virgin-whore: “The other night, I got into three fights,” says Lavigne. “I was at a club and some girl was giving me attitude. When people are drinking, they get mouthy. She pushed me, and I got her down on the floor. Security came, and because I was on top, they threw me out.”
Lavigne’s management has warned her that if she gets arrested and deported from the U.S., it might be fatal to her career, which is off to a fast start with the single “Complicated.”
Lavigne grew up in Napanee, Ontario, population 5,000. (The name is French and is pronounced AH-vreel la-VEEN.) Her father worked for the phone company; her mom stayed home. All her life, she dreamed of being a pop star. Not only would she sing in front of the mirror, she’d pretend she was being interviewed.
Singing gospel in church turned into performing country songs by Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks at county fairs and talent contests. At age twelve, she borrowed her father’s guitar and taught herself to play by practicing Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away” over and over. Her favorite bands were the Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox Twenty and especially Hanson. “Check out the lead singer! He’s adorable!” she enthuses. Then she reflects, “The funny thing is, we kind of look alike.”
Lavigne’s first kiss came in ninth grade; when her parents were away one night, a boy snuck over to her house. She just wanted to get it done, she says: “It sucked, because I didn’t know what I was doing – and I couldn’t even blame it on alcohol.”
Lavigne signed a demo deal with the Canadian label Nettwerk; they sent her down to New York to work with producer Peter Zizzo when she was sixteen. Outside the window of her West Village apartment, she could see transvestites and hookers. While she was waiting for a cab one evening, a man flashed his bankroll and asked, “You working tonight?” After that, she started carrying a knife. When Arista head Antonio “L.A.” Reid came to the studio to see her, all her collaborators kept telling her not to be nervous. She didn’t understand why, because, she says, she’d never had stage fright in her life.
She signed with Arista and resisted their efforts to have her sing other people’s songs. She also deflected suggestions that she should have her teeth bleached, or wear something sexier than her usual outfit of Dickies, a tank top and a necktie: “I don’t want to walk around in Britney Spears clothes, with high heels and those tight little pants where I can’t sit down. How uncomfortable is that, eh?”
Lavigne’s debut, Let Go, is a tuneful rock-pop blend of adolescent angst and look-at-me rage, halfway between Alanis Morissette and Michelle Branch. Every song is true, Lavigne says. “Losing Grip” blends a Dido melody with big guitars, vocal histrionics and lyrics about an ex-boyfriend. “I really like performing it when I’m mad,” Lavigne says. “And I’m always mad at boys.”
Lavigne calls me at 8:30 A.M. from a hotel room in Orlando, Florida, that is not her own, functioning on two hours’ sleep before she gets on a plane to Europe. She tells me what happened last night, when she performed at a radio-station showcase. When she mocked some of the other participants – such as O-Town and Aaron Carter – for lip-syncing their sets, the organizers tried to pull the plug on her: “I cursed out the station, and it turned into a tiny riot.”
After the show, she was thrown out of her hotel for making too much noise, she says. “I had to run across the hall and sneak into the guys’ room. I fucking hate cops, man. They’re so dumb. Some of them are awesome; others just want to get people in trouble.”
Then, Lavigne has a most atypical moment: She experiences self-doubt. “Please don’t make me sound like a bad person,” she says. “I just don’t like letting people push me around.”