When was the last time this happened: a breakthrough artist spends the night its album debuted in the top 10 on The Billboard 200 chart playing the opening slot at a tiny Sunset Strip club instead of headlining its own show – or partying like a rock star elsewhere in town?
How about Wednesday (June 12) night, when current it-girl Avril Lavigne, who’s all of 17 years old, played an unexpectedly aggressive early set at the Viper Room in Hollywood. Though Lavigne was there, in theory, to warm the mostly-music-industry-crowd up for the hitless bands Lo Cal AM and Plain White T’s, the club emptied out considerably when her set was over. It was an unusual twist for what’s already shaping up to be an unusual career, especially when the tone of the show is considered.
In her short, seven-song set, Lavigne and her band eschewed her album Let Go’s oh-so-pop arrangements in favor of distortion-blast rock, thankfully leaving behind the overproduced sheen of her album. No longer apt were comparisons to lite-rock teens Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton; Lavigne was on a mission to prove that she could rock way harder than that. She was clad in skater-chic duds, and her four-piece backing band looked and acted like rejects from a Sum 41 guitar player audition; all five of them bopped around, together, in pogo-heaven unison.
It wasn’t just the look, though, it was the sound, too. “Losing Grip” lost its faux-hip-hop DJ scratching and gained an attitude. “Sk8er Boi,” minus it’s wanna-be-cool keyboards, would have felt at home on the Warped Tour. When Lavigne played “Unwanted,” she throat-sang with a convincing angst that made it easy to overlook her sometimes trite lyrics like “I tried to belong/it didn’t seem wrong.” And, though she claimed to “suck” when she strapped on a guitar for “Naked,” she played with confidence, open-chord riffing to the song’s catchy chorus.
All of this raises an inevitable question, though: Who, really, is Avril Lavigne? Is she the radio-friendly pop princess of the radio hit “Complicated?” Or is she the skull-and-crossbone-tie wearing punk princess of her headbanging live version of the same song? These are similar to the questions that plagued Lavigne’s admitted idol Alanis Morrisette early in her career, when critics complained (perhaps correctly) that she was a record-company creation, forced to act a certain way by CEOs and Svengali-esque producers. If Lavigne wants to avoid answering these questions, she has to decide, right now – before she gets even more famous – who she really is.
Hopefully, someone hasn’t already made that decision for her.