I can’t pinpoint the exact moment Avril Lavigne came into my life, but I do remember cherishing the thin CD case that held a bootleg version of her 2002 debut album, “Let Go.” The cover image — of the 17-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter in dark-colored, baggy glory as the world rushes by — had been printed out, its colors smudged, and stuffed into the flimsy plastic cover.
I hadn’t thought about that CD in a long time, but was reminded of it this week: Lavigne just released her latest album, “Head Above Water,” a single from which has already made its rounds on Christian music charts. She isn’t the only early 2000s star releasing music, either — Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton have announced new ventures in the past few years.
As these solo female artists reinvent themselves, I’m drawn back to my roots.
The early 2000s marked my first steps into musical independence. For years, I had been subjected to my dad’s musical tastes, and while I’m ever-grateful now for his wide-ranging interests, I was tired of listening to Barry White and Van Halen. I wanted a mix CD to call my own.
When “Let Go” first dominated the charts, I was still in elementary school, so I was years away from being able to fully appreciate the scope of Lavigne’s teenage angst. But that suburban malaise and doubt-filled girlhood nevertheless spoke very loudly to me.
I’d never been confused about my differences growing up. It was just a fact: I was a young Indonesian immigrant in a predominantly white town in upstate New York. And while I didn’t feel any shame in my background, it was exhausting to be a token, to have weight upon weight of assumptions heaped onto my tiny shoulders.
Still, pop stars were always something for most girls to aspire to. And yet I was a tomboy early on, wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs. Even if I secretly wanted to look like ultra-feminine Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, it wasn’t possible — what with my frizzy black hair, my brown skin that, in a few years, would become very acne-prone, and my financial inability to shop at places like Limited Too.
But Lavigne — along with her similarly stand-out contemporaries, Branch and Carlton — showed me another way.
Lavigne, in particular, was positioned as the anti-Britney — Rolling Stone even called her the “teen-pop slayer” — and she was something that I, at the time, was clamoring to see. Her tomboyish, bratty, in-your-face, middle-fingers-up self was something that I could actually imagine myself being — I just needed to stop blushing at the thought of flipping someone off.
For me, “Let Go,” with its heavy-rock leanings, earworm choruses and fierce declarations, was one of the first albums to create space for youthful grit, girlish disdain and alienated rage. I didn’t have my own CD player just yet, so there I was in the living room of our tiny apartment with the family multi-media player, arms swinging to the raging guitar riffs on “Losing Grip” as Lavigne implored, “Why should I care?”
When she was desperately searching for a better life in the soaring power ballad “I’m With You,” she sang my daydreams into dramatic, rain-splattered reality. When she urged the extraordinary in the effervescent pop-rock anthem “Anything But Ordinary,” I wanted to be my unique self. And when, in the music video for “Sk8r Boi,” she was smashing in a car’s windshield at the song’s end, I felt she was expressing my own need for destructive catharsis.
It wasn’t only Lavigne. I remember watching and rewatching Branch’s music video for “Are You Happy Now?” off her 2003 album “Hotel Paper”; my dad used to record music videos on VH1 for repeat views. He also had, somehow, confidently surmised that Branch had Indonesian heritage (a dive into Branch’s social media in later years would confirm that), so our shared background brought her even closer to me. I would play the video over and over to try to emulate Branch’s sullen, snarky delivery.
What these young women, in their late teens and early 20s, offered me as a younger girl was a chance to see myself reflected in solo artists, and to prioritize my gaze over anyone else’s. It was surely a marketing strategy, but they were a little less polished, a little more cobbled together and decidedly more vulnerable than the sexy, hyper-popular stars like Britney. They felt like something I could be when I got older.
As I grew up — and as finding new music became as simple as having a reliable Internet connection — the early 2000s icons that had helped me shape my sense of self faded into the past. Newer, more independent artists filled the void.
The truth was, we were all changing. After 2004’s “Under My Skin,” Lavigne went on to become a pop mainstay for several more years. But the enduring images I have of her before her exit from the mainstream was the orientalist nightmare that was 2014’s “Hello Kitty” music video, where she used four stone-faced East Asian dancers as props, reminiscent of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls. She took to social media to respond to criticism: “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan.” Sure.
Now, the women who rocked the world over a decade ago are re-emerging. Branch, 35, introduced new sounds in 2017’s “Hopeless Romantic”; Carlton, 38, spoke about new music to follow her 2015 album “Liberman” in an interview with The Cut last year; and Lavigne, 34, after opening up about her struggle with Lyme disease, released her new album this week.
Similarly, it would take me years to fill myself out and feel like I was a complete person on my own. High school was a mess, but I could count on artists of color — Yuna, M.I.A., Santigold and Janelle Monáe — to give voice to, and celebrate, my own experiences. What made me distinct from my friends in small town America was no longer a weight but rather a point of pride.
Lavigne, Carlton and Branch’s reentry into public consciousness also comes at a time when so many people are reflecting on identities and experiences of a past era: a time when women were sold as commodities and often taken advantage of. It’s remarkable to think that these women were as successful as they were as solo female rock artists more than a decade ago, when today the music industry remains largely male-dominated.
But in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, even stars that struck us as fearlessly different seem to have something to reclaim. Carlton told The Cut that, during her debut, “I was definitely sold as ‘piano girl.’ We were all sold as these one-dimensional characters.”
If Alex Turner and Julian Casablancas and Paul McCartney can all reinvent themselves, why should these early aughts icons be frozen in the height of their youthful fame?
“My whole life I've been surrounded by middle-aged men telling me what to do,” Branch told Elle in 2017. But now, with a new label and collaborators, Branch has a strong grip on her career and musical independence.
Lavigne, similarly, has a new label; she told The Guardian last month that being on it was “the first time, other than my first album, that a label really just was like: ‘Take your time and write the music that you want to write.’”
It’ll be interesting to see how Lavigne’s sound has changed in the five years since her last album. I’m nearly 25; I might give “Head Above Water” a listen on my commute, but I’m happy to say I no longer rely on stars like her to feel seen.
Still, I’ll always cherish the space they gave me when I needed to rage as a young brown girl in East Coast suburbia.