Secret of Lavigne's success not so complicated

April 21, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Midway through a sold-out show at the UIC Pavilion Saturday night, Avril Lavigne played a spirited cover of Green Day's "Basketcase."

A comparison between the two pop-punk acts is revealing.

Lavigne was a typical angst-ridden teenager who burst out of nowhere (literally: Napanee is a small town in Ontario with a population of 5,000) to blossom into an expertly marketed, largely manufactured chart-topping pop phenomenon well on her way to displacing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Green Day was a long-running garage band from Berkeley, Calif., that recorded several independent albums and crisscrossed the country in a van on countless tours before signing to a major label and scoring a left-field hit with "Basketcase" in 1994.

According to the standards employed in the punk-rock underground and adopted by many critics, one of these acts is "real" and one is "phony." But while the differences are interesting to note, in the end they don't matter a bit.

The show that Lavigne performed here on her first wide-scale tour was as musically accomplished, emotionally rousing and satisfying overall as any I've seen by Green Day, Blink-182, Sum 41 or any of their "more authentic" pop-punk peers.

Or, to put it in terms that might be clearer to the crowd of young "avrilutionaries" who dressed like their heroine in skinny ties, tank tops and olive combat fatigues: Lavigne rocked my world.

The young singer eschewed the useless showbiz trappings that have become common at teen-pop shows. There were no fireworks, no costumes were changed and nobody flew on a guide wire over the heads of the crowd.

Instead Lavigne fronted a spare but solid bass, drums and two guitars backing band and made do with a couple of video screens, one of which flashed her core message of rebellion--"Try to shut me up"--just before she launched into her 70-minute set.

The focus was on the music: simple, insanely catchy guitar-driven anthems that contemplated young love ("Sk8er Boi," "I'm With You") and asserted the independence and individuality of Avril and her audience ("Anything But Ordinary" and the massive hit "Complicated," during which the star pulled two fans from the crowd to sing along in a democratic show of rock 'n' roll solidarity).

Lavigne has much to learn about arena rock. Except for when she was pogoing in place, she moved about the stage awkwardly, and her heavily accented between-song banter was almost entirely unintelligible. (Canada and the United States would seem to be two countries separated by a common language, as the old joke goes.)

None of that mattered either, because Lavigne delivered the goods, belting out her signature ditties in a booming, brassy voice that belied her diminutive stature.

Her singing was nothing special--she gave us nothing that couldn't have been heard from two dozen other young women who fronted garage bands in clubs throughout the Chicago area Saturday night--but that was also part of her appeal.

Rock is the ultimate democratic art form--anybody can do it, so long as they have the passion and the attitude--and those qualities were on display in abundance, in turn inspiring the waves of adulation (and perhaps the pop-star dreams) of her prepubescent audience.

Notice that I said "rock" and not "pop." Like her labelmate Pink (whose success was also engineered by Arista label head Antonio "L.A." Reid), Lavigne has achieved pop stardom (with all of the attendant hype, hoopla and absurdly expensive posters and T-shirts) without compromising rock's essential values. She may be happy to be moving units and merchandise, but you never feel as if that's her only reason for being--something that could never be said of the chart-topping teen acts who preceded her.

If only a handful of the fans at the Pavilion are prompted to dig deeper--to follow the trail from Green Day to the Ramones, to start seeing local punk bands at Fireside Bowl, and to figure out who the heck the Sex Pistols and David Bowie were (something Lavigne hasn't bothered with)--than she will have accomplished something noble.

Death to Christina, Britney and teen-pop! Long live Avril Lavigne, and long live rock--even if it is of the prefab mall-bought variety.