LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - When Avril Lavigne released album No. 2 in 2004, the spunky teen pop star announced to the world that she was growing up. Gone were the baggy pants and skater-chick image that first earned Lavigne the media-christened nickname of “the anti-Britney.”
On that year’s “Under My Skin,” punky anthems like “Sk8er Boi” were replaced largely with grammatically correct, midtempo teen-angst rockers. The album was released a few months shy of Lavigne’s 20th birthday, and the black-and-white Goth imagery made it clear that Lavigne was dealing with some intense late-teen issues.
Today, Lavigne is done with all that.
On April 17, she will release her third album, “Best Damn Thing,” on RCA, and the mood is decidedly lighter. Ask Lavigne about forthcoming single “Girlfriend,” and she doesn’t so much answer as break into song — chorus, air punches and all.
Lavigne has never been nearly as animated as she is on “Best Damn Thing,” at least based on the six songs previewed for the press. “Contagious,” her hardest-rocking song to date, features Blink-182’s Travis Barker on drums. Yet elsewhere, the album moves like an arena-rock party, with the title track and “I Can Do Better” built for fan sing-alongs.
“I was just so over writing such serious songs,” Lavigne said. “Even though they really weren’t that serious, I went through a little dark phase when I was 18 and wrote ‘Under My Skin.’ But I grew out of that. Lyrically, I didn’t know where I was going to go on this record. I totally did not even think about it. I had no theme. I was thinking more about the music and the vibe.”
The vibe of “Girlfriend” is pure high school pep rally, complete with shout-outs and hand claps. With its ‘60s girl group meets punk rock feel, the song, in fact, could be a cheerleading routine, were it not for Lavigne’s penchant for swearing.
All signs point to Lavigne re-embracing a lighter, more colorful approach to her music and image for the release of “Best Damn Thing.” Lavigne worked with a host of producers, including husband and Sum 41 leader Deryck Whibley, Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls) and previous collaborator Butch Walker. But the name that sticks out is Dr. Luke, who turned Kelly Clarkson into a Lavigne-inspired rocker with smash “Since U Been Gone,” and is working on the new Britney Spears album.
Add the fact that a heavy marketing component for “Best Damn Thing” centers on a multiplatform, Japanese-style comic book/mobile initiative, and it’s easy to get the impression that Lavigne is aiming to once again win over the youth market.
That may very well be the hope of her label. But if the 22-year-old sounds like a kid again on “Best Damn Thing,” she said it’s only because she realized that having fun is more important than maturing.
“My favorite stuff to play live has always been ‘Sk8er Boi’ and ‘He Wasn’t,’ the faster songs,” Lavigne said. “When I was on tour, I realized I need to write more of this kind of stuff. Those songs come alive onstage, and I feel like that’s the most me.”
When Lavigne released her first album in June 2002, she was the punk rock face for the teen pop craze popularized by the likes of Spears and Christina Aguilera. Lavigne came complete with an identifiable fashion accessory — a T-shirt and a tie — and became a rock ‘n’ roll star for a youth market that hadn’t yet outgrown the mall and hadn’t yet bought into the Warped tour.
Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s top 40 chart in October 2002. The song beat out offerings from such larger-than-life celebrities as Justin Timberlake, Eve and Nelly, and stood out because it spoke the same language as its 16-year-old audience.
“Let Go” positioned Lavigne as a readily approachable, easily relatable artist. She was a little girl from Napanee, Canada, who cut grass for cash in “My World,” and she opened the album by declaring that she “sometimes gets so weird” she freaks herself out.
When Lavigne re-emerged on the pop music landscape late last year with “Keep Holding On,” a prom theme-type ballad from family fantasy flick “Eragon,” she appeared to be settling into adulthood. The song is having its biggest success on adult contemporary radio.
Lavigne had reservations about releasing the relatively mellow “Keep Holding On” as a single.
“A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, I heard your single from your new album,”‘ Lavigne said. “I’m like, ‘That’s not my single.’ I totally get offended. ‘Girlfriend’ is like totally crazy, and I’m dying for that song to come out.”
Lavigne, who cites the Distillers and Blink-182 as her favorite bands, recorded and co-wrote eight songs with Dr. Luke. The in-demand producer has recently worked with Clarkson, Pink, Kelis, Jibbs and Paris Hilton, among others. He said he has had his eye on Lavigne for years, and he credits his work on Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” as finally helping him get the gig.
“Avril was like, ‘I heard that, and that should have been my song,”‘ said Luke, who was more than happy to share his other work with Lavigne, beyond the half-dozen tracks officially released to the press.
He held his cell phone to his laptop to give a taste of a new cut called “I Wear the Pants.” It begins with Lavigne in a near rap before the guitars kick in, a la Fall Out Boy’s “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race.”
“She’s kind of girl rapping, but doesn’t sound like a rapper,” Luke said. “I love that, like Peaches or Blondie’s ‘Rapture.’ I like it when white girls rhyme, and are sassy and have charisma.”
It was at the advice of her manager, Terry McBride, that Lavigne learned to sing “Girlfriend” in Spanish, as well as Japanese, Mandarin, Hindu, Portuguese, French and German. “Under My Skin” sold more albums outside the United States than domestically, and McBride believes that tackling the single in multiple languages will boost Lavigne’s ringtone sales outside North America.
An even greater olive branch to her international fan base is her Japanese-style manga comic, “Make 5 Wishes.”
In the States, Random House will release “Make 5 Wishes” as a book, and it will be available as a value-add download to those who purchase the album on iTunes. In most territories, however, it will be issued as an episodic series via cell phone.
The manga also enables Lavigne to release music apart from her albums by dropping new songs into episodes. The digital editions will be open source, allowing fans to take the content and create their own stories.
The “Girlfriend” video, which premiered on MTV’s “TRL” the last week of February, reveals another first for Lavigne: some lighthearted, choreographed dance routines.
The moves were partly inspired by a fellow Canadian. “I saw Nelly Furtado play live, and I was like, I totally need to do that,” Lavigne said. “Now every night I go to dance rehearsals ... I’m going to do some dancing. Not on every song, but this record is just so upbeat and rocking that my show is going to be a whole new level.”
Lavigne won’t tour until early 2008,. But when she does head out, she’ll have a seven-piece backing crew — and a pair of dancers. It’s going to be a bit more professional, Lavigne said, a bit more of a spectacle.
“Before, my show has always been me and four guys,” she said. “That’s what I wanted at that point in my career. But now? F*** it.”