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Complicated – Avril Lavigne, 2002
Take off all your preppy clothes.

Remember when we were all deeply, passionately concerned about whether Avril Lavigne was punk or not? Someone would say she was, and then someone who was usually a sixteen-year-old guy in an army coat would try to explain to you what real punk music was but he wasn’t actually explaining it so much as screaming to the heavens that he was a man and he understood real music and none of this changed the fact that “Complicated” is just, on its own, a really solid song, built like a little glittering stone with a hook that tumbles over the hills. It never gets old, both in the sense that a roomful of twenty-five-year-olds from twenty-five different cities will all bring their voices together as one to belt ACTING LIKE YA SOME-BO-DY-UH ELSE GETS-UH ME FRUSTRATED the moment this song lights up a bar in the afternoon, and in the sense that it actually stands the test of time pretty well as a vehicle of charming youthful despair, as the first sound of an artist no one knew yet back in 2002, as the start of Avril Lavigne.

There’s a lot to examine in Let Go but the thing that strikes me most immediately now is how young it sounds, which is not an insult; and, following that, how essential it is to Avril’s music to understand how often “young” is meant as an insult. Let Go came out when she was seventeen. It sounds like the diary of a teenager; it is, by turns, clever, funny, absurd, pretentious, and sure. It also, more specifically, sounds like the diary of a teenage girl. Most of the songs are about the faceless and generally nameless creature who haunts female pop music, the creature we may refer to as The Boy. In this instance, he might have been a series of boyfriends, or one particularly turbulent individual, but he is, as is also the case in female pop music, much less important than the songs that have been written about him. So it works to Avril’s advantage that he stays vacant throughout the album, solidifying only in poignant, vengeful, and occasionally hilarious detail (till you chose weed over me / you’re so lame).

“Complicated” is, ostensibly, about The Boy but not in a way that’s familiar or especially sentimental. It’s a circuitous bleat of concern for something I remember vividly being a problem in the aughts: the fear that someone, in some moments even more horribly you yourself, was a poser. There was — there may still be, among children — an earthy snarl that propelled you toward honesty. You were determined to be real. It was essential to begin an understanding of who you were and who you might become, trapped as you were in your sad unearthly body, like the sensation of a small boat leaving the harbor or raising your eyes along a staircase at midnight. It’s a feeling Avril understands. She doesn’t dress like other girls. She runs around the mall with boys. She brings the learned coolness of girls already bred to be unaffected (chill out, whatchya yellin’ for?) to something that does cause her pain, or causes her to imagine the possibility of it. If it is possible to feel pain in so small a world as being young, then it is the shock of pain previously read in books or seen in movies and suddenly given life, the idea of childhood absurdly and abruptly thrusted into memory. Even at seventeen, she’s writing like she’s lost a piece of herself and recalling it, the way we look around us no matter what age we are and think, but back then I knew what I was about and I had it good. “Complicated” has a touch of something unkempt because of this, teetering on the verge of ugly, and it expresses weird longings, dabbling in the unspeakable dumbness of teenage conflict but there isn’t a trace of parody in her voice; she means every word. Life’s like this, she says. Uh huh. That’s the way it is.

It’s a real fear when you’re young, that someone will lie to you or choose the easy pleasure of a notable lunch crowd over the weekends you’ve spent in your room. Tangible viciousness feels truer, laughing louder than you should, how we tested all the ways we could be too much or get hurt. It doesn’t mean anything in the end, of course, but when you’re young there doesn’t seem to be any end: everything is happening for the first time and it’s impossible to imagine a future. What a fervent desire it is, to be real. The joys you do know to be true are more solidified and they are often actions: I like you the way you are / when we’re driving in your car. In those days, the things that were real were the things you could touch and you could count on them to return. The threat of something manufactured, or cultivated without your consent, was the trouble of adults and it endangered what it meant to be a kid, not by raising the stakes or by heightening the hysteria you already felt, but by complicating it — by introducing an element you had not anticipated. This was what we called being fake. It was a phrase I used a lot in 2002, flinching in sixth grade as I watched my neighbor with her beautiful long brown hair sitting slightly further away from me on the bus every day until one day she sat next to another girl with beautiful long brown hair altogether and that was the end of that. She’s so fake, I fumed. I meant: She can adapt in a way I can’t. She’s figuring out the necessary tricks of being an adult. Life’s like this. That’s the way it is.

It means a lot of things to be young, but most of the words we give it come later when we no longer are. A great deal of being young is being voiceless. So parts of “Complicated” are laughable: the presumption of a seventeen-year-old feeling she knew enough to say life’s like anything at all, let alone an anchored blossoming world where everyone rides skateboards, skips school, outruns the cops; but being young is like speaking a language no one else knows and that you forget as you grow older, littered with the untranslatable phrases of a Monday afternoon, a speckled driveway, bodies near and new, an impossible primal togetherness that seems like it might never end.

I was careful with my away messages on AIM back then; it felt crucial to assign importance to my anguish with someone else’s words, but wrong to include specifics. Specifics could get you in trouble, even if the rush you felt when someone confronted you was like nothing else and burst into being all colored over with the recognition of the personhood you were testing, the many voices you were trying on: someone is reading what I write. I gave it a great deal of thought and then I went with: You fall and you crawl and you break and you take what you get and you turn it into honesty, and promise me I’m never gonna find you fake it. It sounded wise. It sounded like something I already understood.