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The drama of the gifted young adult
Avril Lavigneís authentic Under My Skin
BY CARLY CARIOLI


The waltz, H.L. Mencken once wrote, never quite goes out of style. "It does its work, not like a college-yell or an explosion in a munitions plant, but like the rustle of the trees, the murmur of the illimitable sea, the sweet gurgle of a pretty girl." Menckenís description of the waltz ó "sneaking, insidious, disarming, lovely" ó came to mind one day when my four-year-old daughter, Kaia, was dancing around our living room, as she often does, to Avril Lavigneís Let Go (Arista). Although not actually waltzes, Avrilís "Unwanted" and "Iím with You" are close enough. (On her My World DVD, two of her bandmates are caught trying to learn the waltz in their dressing room.) Avís girlish, fly-away melodies float off their modern-rock hinges in a similar three-quarter time, not with full-speed-ahead propulsion but with a sad, hesitant, uncertain elegance.

As my daughterís sweeping, twirling steps met the songsí swooning accents along an intuitive, loping gait, I thought about how Avrilís tunes are the perfect soundtrack for young girls lost in their own private, twirling reveries. In 1995, Alanis Morissetteís "You Oughta Know" codified angry young-womanhood in the voice of an avenging angel. Seven years later, Avrilís "Complicated" marked a seismic shift in tone for girls young enough to be Alanisís little sisters. Avís first line in that song couldíve been interpreted as a gentle rebuke of her snarling elders: "Chill out, whatcha yelliní for?/Lay back, itís all been done before."

Let Go focused not on externalized rage but on internal dialogue: its songs evinced the quiet yearnings of a girl who (most explicitly on "Things Iíll Never Say") feels incapable of making herself heard. Hereís a description of so-called "gifted" children ó a designation that gained credence in the í70s, just before Avril was born ó from Linda Kreger Silverman, a PhD at the Gifted Development Center in Colorado: "Idealism, self-doubt, perceptiveness, excruciating sensitivity, moral imperatives, desperate needs for understanding, acceptance, love ó all impinge simultaneously. . . . Their vast emotional range makes them appear contradictory: mature and immature, arrogant and compassionate, aggressive and timid. Semblances of composure and self-assurance often mask deep feelings of insecurity."

Which is pretty much Let Go in a nutshell. Here was a 16-year-old struggling to define herself out of a tangled web of contradictions. What struck some as outright hypocrisy ó a professionally groomed, painstakingly produced singer marketed as a rock-and-roll alternative to pre-fab teen pop ó impressed me as a worthy metaphor for the challenge of young-adulthood. The truth of Avril is in those contradictions, in all the details she hasnít quite worked out yet. The boy in "Complicated," the one whoís a sweetheart in private and a preening slug around his pals, isnít immature or fake but entirely typical. In the song, he and Avril are enacting an old dance ó a waltz, if you will ó and their teetering, halting steps toward each other are part ritual, part negotiation. Artifice ó dressing up, role playing, striking poses ó is the stuff that childhood is made of. It isnít until those teenage hormones kick in that authenticity becomes an issue. And even then, authenticity is entirely provisional ó you try to figure out which mask fits best. Or, as "Complicated" puts it so perfectly, you take what you get and turn it into honesty.

LET GOíS BIGGEST HIT, "Sk8er Boi," was a ringer ó both in style (its full-bodied punk-pop roar) and in theme (romantic vindication). But it became an emblem for the albumís appeal. Itís the kind of updated fairy tale the Disney Channel puts on in the afternoon ó a twist on West Side StoryĖstyle doomed romance, with a donít-judge-a-book-by-its-cover message dressed up in skateboards and MTV stardom. The popular girl loses out; the tomboyish underdog gets her man and they ride off together into the bright lights of an arena tour. (Its narrative arc is so distinctly Hollywood that itís being adapted into a major motion picture.) But on Under My Skin (RCA, in stores this Tuesday), whatever faith Avril had in fairy tales has been dispersed. Skinís second single, due to hit the air next month, could almost be the opening scene from a "Sk8er Boi: The Movie" sequel. "You were everything that I wanted/We were meant to be, supposed to be but we lost it," she sings, before summing up the aftermath: "So much for my happy ending." None of her kid-sister-rock peers ó a class that now includes Michelle Branch, Kelly Osbourne, Lillix, Hilary Duff, Katy Rose, Fefe Dobson, Skye Sweetman, and Toby Lightman ó has hit the post-adolescent sweet spot of petulance, boredom, and loneliness quite so squarely.

Under My Skin is a more directly confrontational album in both sound and substance. Avril may have unplugged herself from the Matrix, but sheís found the freedom to act her rage. When addressing the thorny issue of sex on Let Go, she put off her suitor with an elaborately light-fingered tactical delay. "I know Iím not ready," she sang, but "tomorrow it may change." On Under My Skinís lead single, "Donít Tell Me," she finds herself in the same situation and goes for the jugular. Her boyís attempt to get into her pants brings a torrent of threats ó "Iíll have to kick your ass" ó and a more general tantrum: "Donít try to tell me what to do, donít try to tell me what to say."

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Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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