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Prajakta Dhopade is a content editor at The Globe and Mail.
It’s been two decades since Avril Lavigne became a global phenomenon. I didn’t know back then, as a preteen brown girl living in the suburbs of Toronto, what an influential role Let Go would play in my life. Looking back now, on the 20th anniversary of her debut album, I can see how much those tunes came to mean to me – and still do.
As the daughter of immigrants who listened exclusively to Hindi music (and who axed our cable subscription, trading it in for satellite, leaving me with little exposure to avenues such as MTV and MuchMusic) I was basically a pop culture and music heretic in my tweens.
I started at a new school in the fourth grade, after attending one filled with other South Asian immigrant children in the Rexdale neighbourhood of Etobicoke, Ont. I remember for the first time feeling unsure of myself, not sure how I fit in, or how to relate to this newer and less brown peer group.
I was lucky a group of girls took me under their wing. I remember, as they tried to get to know me, being asked what my favourite song was. I didn’t have one, but I stumbled around and landed upon Genie in a Bottle by Christina Aguilera because I had heard it once on TV and remembered its catchy chorus. I hoped it was the right answer.
One of the girls mentioned Avril. I hadn’t heard of her (of course). I clung on to that name, determined to become a fan of whoever she was.
I marched into Sunrise Records (at Woodbine Mall for my fellow Rexdale dwellers) and bought Let Go. The moment I heard those first staccato chords of Losing Grip, the record’s first track, I was hooked. I listened to her album on repeat on my sister’s hand-me-down CD Walkman while the rest of family watched Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, an Indian singing competition program, in the other room. I used our painfully slow dial-up to watch the music video for Sk8er Boi on our clunky PC. I could only make out a pixel or two here and there but it thrilled me just the same.
I felt a sense of relief. Now, if someone asked me who my favourite song or artist was, I’d have a real answer.
Her music, her persona, were my first real foray into Western pop culture and an outlet for my tween angst. She fashioned herself as a bit of a rebel, but for me, listening to her music was a way to fit in while also carving out my self-identity. The appeal partly lay in the fact that her devil-may-care attitude was the antithesis of what was expected of me as a woman in my South Asian family. I was supposed to be studious and respectful. Have you seen what Avril gets up to in her Complicated music video? I’d probably have been excommunicated.
The truth was that despite my affinity for Avril, I was still everything my parents expected from me. I was a model daughter; I cared about grades and was very much not a rulebreaker. I juggled what was expected of me while also trying to figure out what I wanted to be – and Avril helped me do that.
She presented a different idea of womanhood than other female pop artists of the time. While some girls wanted to dress like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, I was inspired by Avril. It was a relief to have her to look up to because my conservative South Asian family would have disapproved of the risqué styles of other artists. I could participate in pop culture without disappointing them.
I decided that her music was basically going to form my preteen identity – at school, at least. I began wearing my hair straight and long. I started taking guitar lessons. I exclusively sported Chuck Taylor high-tops and painted my nails black. I was shy and afraid to express myself, worried about what my classmates would think of me, but on braver days I wore studded cuff bracelets and a loose necktie to school. I tried to write song lyrics, inspired by Avril, usually about school bullies or crushes, despite not knowing a thing about songwriting.
I found an amazing group of friends – Desi women whom I’m still friends with to this day – and we all bonded over our appreciation of Avril Lavigne and eventually our love for other contemporary rock bands and artists.
It was quite a scandal in my group of friends when Avril released her third album, The Best Damn Thing, which featured a girlier persona, a lot more pink and the infectious single Girlfriend. After her more serious albums, it felt as if she’d done a 180. What a sellout, we said. I stopped being a fan, betrayed by her evolution.
The irony is that I was changing, too. I was soon entering high school, looking to reinvent myself again. I was listening to different music and, thankfully, I’d given up my songwriting pursuits; I was moving on, just as Avril was.
While I stopped listening to her, discovering her in my formative years set me on a path, and rediscovering her in 2022 led me to realize the profound impact she really had on me. So, on the 20th anniversary of the album that kind of changed my life, I want to say thanks, Avril, for helping this brown girl feel as if she belonged – and sorry for judging you for not fitting into a box. Life is more “complicated” than that.
On the topic of change, this feature in the Atlantic by Olga Khazan documents her experiment to reinvent her personality in three months. We all have things we wish we could change about ourselves – but is it possible to actually succeed? She speaks with experts and embarks on a journey to become more extroverted, decrease her neuroticism and increase her agreeableness. It’s a rollicking and relatable read from a hilarious journalist who frankly determines whether all those self-help mantras and actions can really make a difference. I won’t spoil it for you. I also look forward to listening to her new podcast, How to Start Over.
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