Seventeen years after her angsty pop punk made her a global star, Avril Lavigne’s back with a sixth album. And having survived illness and divorce, she’s in no mood to compromise
Pop stars – especially women – are frozen at the age they become famous. Breaking the ice usually involves a bad-girl reinvention, if not a genuine breakdown. Somehow, this tension never affected Avril Lavigne, the Canadian pop-punk star who arrived in 2002 aged 17 with the brilliant Complicated, a heaving teenage sigh directed at some poseur boy. It’s not that she didn’t have an indelible look: her low-slung skate pants, tie and ramrod-straight hair are an enduring fancy-dress costume. It’s that she never seemed to want to grow up.
Her alternately fun, angsty debut album, Let Go, seemed authentic enough – she played guitar! The lyrics were handwritten! – to convince a generation of teenage girls that she, and by association, they, were more credible than Britney. Then 13, I was one of them; I wore Dad’s tie to the shops and wasted hours learning how to copy her handwriting. It was music many quickly graduated from, to acts whose credits didn’t list multiple co-writers: the drug of authenticity hooks teenagers fast. But there is no shame in being a gateway artist, a role Lavigne seemed surprisingly happy to keep playing.
After an emotionally intense second album, she seemed to dial back the years with 2007’s The Best Damn Thing, led by single Girlfriend, a Hey Mickey-style rager about homewrecking. Goodbye Lullaby (2011) had What the Hell (“All I want is to mess around”) and her 2013 self-titled album boasted Bitchin’ Summer (ie School’s Out with swearing) and Here’s to Never Growing Up (“We’ll be running down the street, yelling, ‘Kiss my ass’”). She was 29. A year later, she started feeling inexplicably exhausted. Doctors tried to diagnose her with anxiety and chronic fatigue, even though she was sure she had Lyme disease. Finally, she got a vindicating diagnosis and spent two years in bed on antibiotics, certain, at one point, that she would die.
What happens when a teenage immortal faces death? Lavigne, now 34, doesn’t want to talk about that. “It was a relief” to get the diagnosis, she says tersely, calling from Los Angeles. “I was like: ‘OK, now I can at least start treating something.’” She was treated at home. Who cared for her? Her manager interrupts and insists we “really focus on the music”. But it is hard to separate Lavigne’s illness from her sixth album, Head Above Water, named after a song that came to her as she lay in her mother’s arms, feeling as if she was drowning. It is her best song in years, an emphatic, gothic ballad that is doing well on the US Christian singles chart and has 57m YouTube views. “It just felt really good to be singing,” she says. “The emotion was so raw.”