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Michael's Number Ones: "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne



DATE

WEEKS

May 25, 2002

5

I knew this girl in my Spanish class in high school who liked to wear tank tops and neckties. She looked like a punk rocker, which meant I wanted to be friends with her. One day, I remember talking to her and said something along the lines of "Hey, have you seen this video by someone named Avril Lavigne? She kinda has the same look at you." I don't remember how the rest of the conversation went, but if she had any idea who I was talking about, she probably would've been well-advised to keep her distance from me.


Of course, Avril Lavigne was never going to be punk rocker when she came along. Even though pop-punk and emo were taking shape as big deal music subgenres in alternative rock, Avril Lavigne was always going to be a pop star. Especially, when her first single was a song as insanely catchy as "Complicated".



Avril Ramona Lavigne was born in 1984 in Belleville, Ontario, before moving to the town of Napanee when she was five. Lavigne began singing as early as two years old, and her parents bought her a microphone and instruments to foster her musical development. As a teenager, she sang songs by Garth Brooks and Shania Twain at fairs, and actually got to perform with Twain at a concert in Ottawa in 1999. Soon she was attracting the attention of music industry executives, and she went to New York in the summer of 2000 to start working on music.


It was in New York where L.A. Reid first heard Lavigne perform. Reid, the head of Arista Records at the time, was known for working with a who's who of 90s R&B and hip-hop stars, including Babyface, Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, and TLC. He had also signed Pink, an artist who will eventually appear in this column. Her debut album, Can't Take Me Home, was doing big business around this time, but she was unsatisfied her image as an R&B singer. That led to a left turn in her career with the much more rock-sounding follow-up album Missundaztood. She even name-checked Reid on the song "Don't Let Me Get Me" from the album. ("Don't Let Me Get Me" peaked at #4 on my top 40 right around the time "Complicated" was ascending my chart.)



Still, Reid knew talent when he heard it, and he signed Lavigne to a record deal in excess of $1 million. By this point, Lavigne was shifting away from country music and started hanging out with the skater cliques in her high school. As a result, the process of creating her debut album was difficult. Outside songwriters were brought in to try to create a cohesive identity for her, but nothing seemed to click. It was only when Lavigne collaborated with the Los Angeles-based production team The Matrix, that she found a breakthrough. The group wrote two songs with Lavigne, one of which would become "Complicated". Pretty soon, The Matrix was in charge of producing the rest of Lavigne's debut album. Let Go was released in June 2002, and "Complicated" was tapped as the first single.


Lavigne's narrator in "Complicated" is talking to a partner who acts like themselves when they're talking one-on-one, but puts up a front with other people. "But you've become/somebody else 'round everyone else/you're watchin' your back like you can't relax/you're tryin' to be cool/you look like a fool to me." He's making things complicated between them by acting this way, and it sounds like she's not having it. "You fall and you crawl and you break/and you take what you get and you turn it into/honestly, you promised me I'm never gonna find you fake it/no, no, no."


The song is prioritizing authenticity at a time when it felt like it was in short supply on the pop charts. The backlash to this already seemed to be effect, and I've written about how previous Number Ones artists Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton were already in position to take advantage of it. Of course, punk rock and skater culture had never really had a breakthrough on the pop charts to this point, so if Lavigne was going to push this as her public persona, it helped that she had the backing of a powerful label like Arista.


I first saw the video for the song on Canada's MuchMusic, but it wouldn't take much time for it to cross over to the U.S. The video shows Lavigne and her bandmates going to a mall and generally causing chaos while hanging out there. She doesn't come off as taking herself too seriously, and that's really for the song's benefit. Hearing the song for the first time, I was blown away. I knew I wanted to hear it as often as I could, even if I also knew that doing so would probably make me sick of the song. The melody in the chorus has such a jangly quality that I don't think it would've been possible for me to deny the song if I tried.


Frequently the message boards on the now-defunct Radio & Records website at the time, I remember people basically falling into two camps: those who loved the song, and those who were appalled that a teenage girl seemed to be co-opting punk culture for the benefit of pop stardom. Back then, I could feel the heavy-handed obnoxiousness from the latter group coming through the screen, but I admit if I was a few years older, I might have felt the same way. Thankfully I didn't.


On my top 40, "Complicated" only needed four weeks to reach #1. I'm pretty sure that record still stands to this day. Of course, in the United States the song was a massive success, getting to #2 on the Hot 100 and eventually pushing Let Go to over 6 million copies sold.


But as I feared, I soon burned out on the song, and it fell off my chart relatively quickly. What I didn't anticipate, however, was how the backlash would carry over to the other singles from Let Go. The second single was "Sk8er Boi", and I remember being put off by the misspelling of the title. Nowadays, I wouldn't bat an eye over that spelling. But that also translated to how I felt about the song itself. It got to #34 on my top 40, largely thanks to the goodwill she earned from "Complicated", but I got sick of the song quickly, and it would take me years to come around to idea that the song really wasn't hurting anyone, including myself. Nationally, the song proved to be a solid follow up, reaching #10 on the Hot 100.



Unfortunately, the backlash continued with the third single, the pretty awesome ballad "I'm With You". That one only got to #35 on my top 40. The songwriting on that song is really solid, and Lavigne's "Yeah-ee-yeah" in the bridge has become iconic, especially after future Number Ones artist Rihanna sampled it in her song "Cheers (Drink to That)". I can't really discount my spasms of stupidity I had with music back then. On the Hot 100, the song would get to #4. There was one more single from Let Go, the harder-sounding "Losing Grip", which did enough to put her back in my good graces that it got to #28 on my top 40, despite not being able to sustain the Billboard chart success of her previous singles.


For her second album, Lavigne worked with Don Gilmore, Butch Walker, and Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida as producer, while writing most of the songs with Canadian singer, and Maida's wife, Chantal Kreviazuk. (Our Lady Peace's biggest hit on my top 40, 2001's "Life", peaked at #6.) The resulting album, Under My Skin, was released in May 2004, and has a harder, more mature sound than Let Go; many of the songs really wouldn't sound out of place on alternative radio in 2023. The three singles from the album all did pretty well on my top 40: "Don't Tell Me" got to #13, and "Nobody's Home" got to #5.



But it was the second single, "My Happy Ending", that stood the test of time for me. There's a melancholy feeling to the song, despite the energy Lavigne brings in the chorus. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly summarized it well by saying that "the sk8er boi of the first album has turned out to be a selfish, nasty creep." I guess it's not surprising that some men in alternative bands around this time probably epitomized that description, and I'm sure Lavigne had run-ins with some of them as she became famous. The song only got to #9 on my top 40, but it was another top 10 hit for Lavigne on Billboard. It was also one of the first songs I downloaded from iTunes when I eventually got an iPod, and the constant rotation of the song made me wish I loved it more when it was current.


This is where things take a left turn. You would think Lavigne would continue that trajectory toward more alterna-pop sounding songs, but nope. She went heavy on bubblegum pop with her third album, The Best Damn Thing. The lead single from the album was "Girlfriend" and, oh boy, did I hate that song. It sounds similar to Toni Basil's 1982 hit "Mickey", but takes all the charm of that song and beats you over the head with it like a sledgehammer, which I think is really saying something. My three-year-old niece at the time would sing the song constantly, and as much I love my niece, that wasn't much of an endorsement for the song. The cognitive dissonance between songs like "My Happy Ending" and "Girlfriend" was too much for me to handle at the time. Even now, if "Girlfriend" appears on my radio, I'm likely changing the station.



Nonetheless, the change in direction worked for Lavigne in the moment, as "Girlfriend" became her only #1 hit on the Hot 100. But I think many music fans like myself were also ready to write her off as a result. Trying to get a hit song for it's own sake is a fine art, and Lavigne really wasn't subtle when she tried. Although the follow-up single "When You're Gone" did reach #29 on my top 40, it felt like the damage was done. Her fourth album, 2011's Goodbye Lullaby, became her first not to sell a million copies in the US, and even though I charted two singles from the album, I'd have a hell of a time trying to remember what either of them sounded like. ("What the Hell" peaked at #31, and "Wish You Were Here" peaked at #36.)


She released a couple more albums after that, 2013's Avril Lavigne, and 2019's Head Above Water, but neither album made much of the impact with me, and the lead single from her self-titled album, "Here's to Never Growing Up" is the last time to date that she's had a song crack the top 40 of the Hot 100. She also got some flack for dating and then marrying Chad Kroeger of former Number Ones group Nickelback in 2013. It didn't help that her previous marriage had been to the lead single of another iconic Canadian rock group, Deryck Whibley of Sum 41. (Sum 41's biggest hit on my top 40, 2003's "The Hell Song", peaked at #13.) Her marriage to Kroeger didn't last long, and the two divorced in 2015.



But then a funny thing happened. In the early 2020s, people started rediscovering pop-punk, emo, and all the artists within that umbrella. And it seemed like there was one man behind much of this resurgence: blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Barker seemed to be everywhere a couple years ago collaborating with up-and-coming artists pushing this revived pop-punk sound to the attention of alternative radio programmers. blink-182 will soon appear in this column, and they have a song near the top of my chart right damn now.


Even though Lavigne's songs never came near alternative radio during their heyday, it's undeniable that alternative fans growing up around that time lumped her in with other pop-punk acts. So when Lavigne got to work on her seventh album, Love Sux, it was Barker who got the call as producer. I was certainly down with this revival, and happy to see Avril take advantage of it. The lead single from the album, "Bite Me", got to #27 on my top 40 in 2022, and though it didn't realize any airplay on pop radio, it became her first song as a lead artist to reach the alternative chart, where it got to #23.


I don't think Avril Lavigne will appear in this column again, but who knows? It wouldn't be the first time an artist rode a wave of nostalgia back to chart success, nor will it be the last. After all, if an artist knows what works, then why mess with it? It's really not that complicated.


EXTRAS

Here's "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody of "Complicated", from his 2003 album Poodle Hat, given the wonderfully creative title, "A Complicated Song". (Yes, I'm being sarcastic.)


(Weird Al's biggest hit on my top 40, 2006's "White and Nerdy" peaked at #8. I've never met anyone who doesn't like Weird Al, and would really prefer not to.)


THE NUMBER TWOS

Eminem's "Without Me", the take-no-prisoners lead single from his third album The Eminem Show, peaked at #2 behind "Complicated".



HONORABLE MENTIONS

Jimmy Eat World's breakthrough single, "The Middle", peaked at #3 behind "Complicated". Don't you worry what they tell themselves when you're away.



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