When she was only 17, the Canadian singer’s debut album wowed the world. Now, as Let Go hits its 20th anniversary, its pop-punk anthems are finding new life thanks to TikTok
For a generation of girls who had spent years exclusively wearing butterfly clips, bright blue eyeshadow, and pale pink everything, the release of Avril Lavigne’s debut album, Let Go, on June 4, 2002, was more than just a new sound; it was enlightenment, as per The Guardian news.
In an era when bubblegum pop and “sexy baby” personas were popular, the 17-year-old Lavigne emerged as its antithesis. She co-wrote her own songs, with lyrics about skateboarding and being fired from a chicken shop, and was rarely seen without a baggy pair of jeans, heavy kohl eyeliner, and a loose tie around her neck. Her first two singles, Complicated and Sk8er Boi, spent half of the year on the Billboard Hot 100, and her debut album, Let Go, is still one of the top 20 best-selling albums of the 21st century.
Let Go has elevated above the rest of the pop pack thanks to Lavigne’s snarky attitude, grungy look, and alternative-inspired sound. Girls all over the world began to swap choker necklaces for men’s neckwear, body glitter for leather bracelets, and denim for cargo pants almost overnight. Her videos of Lavigne trashing malls and skating with groups of boys were obsessively watched. Let Go unleashed an army of ennui-filled seven to fifteen-year-olds desperate to remake themselves in Lavigne’s image.
“I was getting out of high school and I just wanted to rock out,” says Lavigne today, speaking from her home in Malibu ahead of the album’s 20th anniversary. “I want loud guitars, I want live drums … I want to write about the crazy stuff, the insane emotions, the good and the bad.”
All of this, according to Lavigne, was a genuine reflection of her teenage experience. She was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1984, and spent most of her childhood in Napanee, a small town of about 5,000 people, where she wrote poems, learned to play guitar and hung out with the grunge kids. She first rose to prominence in the country music scene, which can be heard in some of the twangy cadences and narrative storytelling on Let Go. After winning a radio contest in her early teens, she performed on stage with Shania Twain before signing with Arista Records and moving to California at the age of 16.
I remember being at home at 14 and thinking: I need to hurry up and get this music thing going!
Even at the time, Lavigne felt acutely aware of her innocence within the music industry. “I didn’t even know what Hollywood was or what record deals were,” she says. The process of finding co-writers and producers who matched her artistic style involved an endless string of uncomfortable meetings in corporate boardrooms; her age coupled with her lack of understanding of the mechanics of production led to a struggle to get her sound across. “They didn’t care what I had to say; they had their own style and didn’t bother to look at me and try to let me lead,” she says.
However, Lavigne’s instincts were strong: “I was very clear on what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. I wanted to be angsty and to sound more like a band; I didn’t want to be all bubblegum pop. I wanted to turn my emotions into lyrics. I was honestly just very, very pure.”
She eventually settled on the Matrix, a music writing and production trio consisting of Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards, and Scott Spock. Things started to click for the group when they wrote their first song together, Complicated, which became Lavigne’s breakout hit. “I didn’t know what hits were, but my body and my intuition knew that this was a hit song,” she says. “I was like: ‘This is fucking cool, this sounds cool to me.’”
Lavigne and the Matrix would spend the next year trying to work on the 13-track album in studios and hotel rooms across southern California. The themes were heavily influenced by Lavigne’s life, which she says at the time consisted mostly of wearing “fat skate shoes” and appreciating skateboarders. However, while many of her songs were light and melodic, such as Sk8er Boi, or fun and frivolous, such as Mobile and Anything But Ordinary, darker emotions emerged on Losing Grip and the album’s only ballad, I’m With You, which Lavigne says is still a highlight of her live performances.
The combination of these different themes and attitudes resulted in an album that could be played repeatedly without becoming repetitive. “I wrote this album right when I got out of high school and now I get to hear these lyrics of me talking about my small town and my obsession with skater boys,” she says. “Even things like in My World, I literally talk about the fact that I got fired by a ‘fried chicken ass’ I worked for at a fried chicken chain. It’s hilarious. I look back at those lyrics, and I’m like: ‘I can’t believe I said that in a song.’”
Her lyrics’ naivety and simplicity proved to be a key to her success. Let Go, which was mainly targeted at a younger audience, propelled Lavigne beyond the status of a two-hit wonder. Even with the album’s success, she couldn’t quite grasp how big it had become. “I remember my manager being like: ‘Do you realize you’re No 1? And still No 1 this week and No 1 this week and then this week?’”
Lavigne’s confidence obscured how young she was when she rose to fame – and that she did so at a time when young celebrities were subjected to extreme sexualization and horrifying invasions of privacy. However, Lavigne differentiated herself from other female pop stars at the time with her “tomboy” appearance and active criticism of her contemporaries. (In one interview, she made fun of Britney Spears for “dressing like a showgirl.”)
Does she wish her treatment back in the early 2000s had been different? Surprisingly, Lavigne feels grateful for being a teenager when Let Go was released. “I remember being at home and being 14 and thinking like: ‘I need to hurry up and get this music thing going!’” She laughs: “I was like: ‘I want to be doing this while I’m YOUNG!’
“I moved out of my parents’ house and directly into a tour bus, not having any rules,” she adds. “I was like: ‘I can drink beer now and eat pizza every day and I just got to hang out with my band and travel the world. It was crazy, but it was pretty special.”
The 20th anniversary of Let Go corresponds with a reappraisal of Y2K culture by a generation too young to remember it. Several of its songs have gone viral on TikTok, and Lavigne has been cited as an inspiration by gen Z artists like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo (who brought Lavigne on stage at a recent gig for a duet of Complicated). At the same time, there has been an increase in emo nostalgia among older music fans. Lavigne will perform at the When We Were Young festival in Las Vegas this autumn, which went viral earlier this year for featuring so many popular emo and pop-punk artists from the 2000s, including My Chemical Romance, and Jimmy Eat World, and Paramore.
Lavigne finds the whole experience surreal. “That younger generations are discovering my stuff and that Billie, Olivia, and Willow [Smith] go out into the world and continue to shatter the mold as I did 20 years ago is super-inspiring.” She says even the musicians she is friends with and collaborates with are longtime fans. “All these people around me are like: ‘Oh my God, I’m a huge fan, I listened to you growing up, you inspired me!’ It’s really trippy.”
Her future plans include working with two other superstars: Blink-182’s Travis Barker, whose label, DTA Records, put out Lavigne’s recent album, Love Sux, and Machine Gun Kelly, who features on the album and with whom Lavigne will be going on tour. Major items on her bucket list include a Christmas album, a makeup line, and a cookbook. (“My food is, like, gourmet,” she says, “I can do everything! Pasta, sauce, vegan, salads and soups – I can do every kind of soup.”) She has also recently found a director to lead a film adaptation of Sk8er Boi. “I can’t wait to learn this process of making a movie,” she says. “I think I’ll want to make more.”
Lavigne believes the appeal of Let Go has endured after 20 years because once people connect to her music, “they stay connected.”
“I’ve always had this thing where I’m like: just be as sincere as possible,” she says. “The songs are real and they’re emotional. That works for me.”