“I’m still the motherfreaking princess!”
In the bratty voice that, for much of a decade, made her the defiant figurehead of an army of teens who preferred the pop that soundtracked their growing pains be tinged with a little punk-rock danger, Avril Lavigne declares that she still wears the crown. The lyric comes on “Rock N Roll,” the first track on her new album Avril Lavigne. It’s the Canadian songstress’s aggressively weird, epically catchy fifth album. It also might be her best yet.
Much has changed since 2002. Back then, the 17-year-old paired a necktie with a white tank top and sold nearly 17 million copies of her debut album, Let Go, on the backs of edgy pop singles “Complicated,” “Sk8er Boi,” and “I’m With You.” Today she’s on her second marriage, this time to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger. Albums three and four were commercial disappointments. Katy Perry’s zeroed in on the market for screw-the-haters hooks, while the baton’s been passed to Miley Cyrus to lead the movement of petulant provocation. Oh yeah, and the singing teenage rebel herself? She’s closing in on 30 years old.
“I’m wearing a dress!” Lavigne boasts, lounging on a plush couch in a Manhattan hotel. “I wouldn’t have done this ten years ago.”
It’s fitting that Avril Lavigne is the singer’s first self-titled album—rare when an artist is already five records in—as it so glaringly scores the tension that comes when a person reaches this age. Surely there has to be something deeper to the self-titling than the reason Lavigne offers up: “I couldn’t really figure out a name.”
The opening half of the album is shamelessly nostalgic. The raucous and addicting “Rock N Roll” channels teenage Avril, serving up the challenge: “What if you and I put a middle finger to the sky and let them feel like we are rock and roll?” After dabbling with moody doom and gloom on so much of her last disc, Goodbye Lullaby, the radio-ready “Here’s to Never Growing Up” has her comfortably back as troubadour of teenage rabble-rousing. “We’ll be running down the street yelling, ‘Kiss my ass!’/ I’m like yeah, whatever, we’re living like that,” she sings, sounding like Taylor Swift, had the country starlet ever dared sneak whiskey from her parents’ liquor cabinet.
Yet as much as she strums her guitar on behalf of eternal youth and a lifetime of school’s-out-for-the-summer bliss, the truth is that Lavigne is grown up. The album reflects that. “Let Me Go,” a breakup-and-makeup ballad written and performed with Kroeger, showcases an emotionally mature and voiced Lavigne. (Kroeger co-wrote most of the album’s tracks. To say that “Let Me Go” sounds most like a Nickelback song is high praise: love them or, most likely, hate them, there’s a reason we’ve all heard and can’t escape the group’s songs.)
Her voice is hauntingly fragile in “Give You What You Like,” a song about her willingness to barter physical pleasure to escape loneliness. Gliding over dramatic piano-and-strings orchestration, she sounds downright pretty on “Hush Hush,” which she calls “my favorite tune overall” on the album. But “grown up” doesn’t just mean “slowed down” on Avril Lavigne. Take “Bad Girl,” a daddy porn anthem that has her teasing “You can fuck me and then play me/ You can love me or you can hate me” to, of all people, Marilyn Manson.
Lavigne first met music’s most famous ghoul when she was 18. They were both on tour, and he invited her on his bus (a little math calculates his age to be around 33 at the time). “He obviously wears makeup and I’m a chick, so I was like, ‘Coooooool,’” Lavigne remembers, sinking further into the hotel’s oversized couch. “He painted my nails. It was like a burgundy red. It was really cool.”
As it turns out, a manicure wasn’t the pair’s only “really cool” collaboration because, try as you might, be it because of its absurd lyrics or on basic principle of anti-Manson-ness, it’s near impossible not to be hooked by the titillating thrust of the melody and almost manic driving beat, seemingly thumping from a seedy sex dungeon.
More than duetting with her husband and Marilyn Manson, the biggest indicator of Lavigne’s maturity is the blatant way she delivers what we want from her. Lavigne admits herself that a major reason she couldn’t come up with a name for the new collection is because it lacks any real cohesion. “It’s so diverse for me,” she says. “There’s summer songs. It’s nostalgic. There’s rock songs. Pop songs. Ballads. There’s an electronic song. It’s all the styles of the past, but also more experimenting and growing.”
Want Lavigne’s signature brand of keg-party pop for sorority girls? “Rock N Roll” and “Here’s to Never Growing Up” give you that. Some tortured, full-throated belting? The back half is loaded with ballads. And what about a little side-eyed mischief, that who-cares-I’m-Avril-Lavigne attitude? Well, take a listen to the bizarre, yet somehow pleasing, “Hello Kitty,” a dub-step banger that has the singer spitting out her best Japanese in homage to a certain cartoon cat. (Lavigne actually has two rooms devoted to Hello Kitty in her home.)
After more than a decade in the business and as many years of growing up, Lavigne’s seemed to have finally recaptured the thing that launched her in the first place: an unflinching sense of self and an almost obnoxious insistence on not compromising that. Look at Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Lady Gaga: whether twerking, shooting whipped cream from a bra, slapping her crotch, or treating fame as a religion, their successes in the past ten years are owed to brazen self-assurance.
On Avril Lavigne, Lavigne is just as bold. Bold enough to go-for-broke with a handful of heavenly pop singles. Bold enough to marry the most polarizing singer in the world and then flaunt him and his style of music all over her record. And bold enough to throw in some Hello Kitty dubstep and Marilyn Manson S&M for sport.
Asked why she thought her very Avril Lavigne-ness—that necktie, that attitude, that defiant sense of self—reverberated so strongly a decade ago, Lavigne nearly demures. “I was really just focused on my songs,” she says. “I wasn’t focused on my image.” But after a pause, there’s an a-ha moment. “But that’s why it worked! Because it wasn’t calculated. It was natural. I was just a girl who played a guitar about what I was going through and acting the way that I felt. It’s why I always try to be natural.”
Is she being natural now? “People can come up and tell me right now, ‘You’re the skater girl! Why are you wearing a dress?’” she says. “It’s because I fucking feel like wearing a dress right now. Because I’m 29, you know what I mean? You have to be true to yourself.”
Plus, all motherfreaking princesses wear pretty dresses.