So far, Avril Lavigne is having a lousy Sunday.
She is plopped on a sofa backstage at Nation, the Washington nightclub, looking bored to the point of catatonia, her only vital sign the nonstop jiggling of a pink-sneakered foot. The unfocused stare, her barely audible voice -- it all says she'd rather be anywhere but in this tiny room, hashing over her life, her music, her family and her seemingly instant rise from small-town obscurity to big-time "Britney killer" for the zillionth time.
The only topic that interests her in this interview is how little she enjoys interviews.
"No offense or anything, it's just, like, weird when someone's, like, 'So how does it feel?' " she murmurs. "You just shake someone's hand, sit down and spill your guts. And they just want to know so much and you're just, like, 'Why do you care?' "
Why do we care? Well, girlfriend, let's start with your debut album, "Let Go," which has sold more than 4 million copies and is hovering like a UFO at No. 3 on the charts 31 weeks after its release. Let's move on to the five Grammy nominations, including nods for best song of the year ("Complicated") and best new artist. And let's not forget your role in bringing the sound of electric guitars to countless middle-school girls who are tearing down Britney posters, swearing off peekaboo halter tops and dreaming of starting a band that really rawks.
No offense or anything, but that sort of cannonball grabs the attention of everyone in the pool. According to fans, this 5-foot-1, 18-year-old Canadian is leading a counteroffensive against factory-made teen pop -- one joined by Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, among other artists. Lavigne (it's pronounced AV-ril La-VEEN) co-writes the songs, plays an instrument and doesn't dance. She dresses in baggy pants and T-shirts, like any sophomore skipping third-period French. She's tomboyish but cute, feisty but somehow indifferent, naughty enough to swear and flip the occasional bird.
It's a dressed-down rebuff to Britney's primped perfectionism. It's anti-style, and regardless of how much of it has been carefully anti-planned by Arista, her label, there's little doubt that it's working.
"She's not phony, not blond, not pop," says Jessica Grosche, 20, one of a couple thousand fans at Nation for the all-ages show. "I don't like Britney. Too pop, too repeated. There's too many Britneys out there."
Others are blunter. "Britney's a slut," says Paula Vogel, a smiling 12-year-old from Columbia shivering in the cold half an hour before the venue's doors opened. "She sells her body. Avril doesn't do that. She's real."
She certainly seems real enough during the interview, if only because there is no point in faking so much apathy. It's charming, paradoxically. Lavigne has been perfectly packaged, right down to the punky type font on her album, but she and the character she's playing onstage are the same person, and after all the beauty-pageant blankness of the midriff crowd, a kid so unprogrammed that she won't perk up for a chat is refreshing.
By show time at 7 p.m., Lavigne seems energized -- a little. Her audience, by contrast, is frenzied. Girls are so crammed at the front of the stage that some are collapsing from heat exhaustion. Most are simply leaping up and down, waving their hands in the "Hook 'em Horns" configuration -- pinkie and forefinger out, the other fingers tucked under the thumb -- that Lavigne shakes at an audience when she gets emphatic.
She opens with "Sk8er Boi," a rock tale about status and romance. She barely moves, planting herself behind the mike, hip cocked a little, a few strands of hair floating up, blown about by a high-powered fan.
There's something gorgeously iconic about that image. It's going to launch a thousand bands.
A few songs later, she slips a guitar over her head and lets it hang to her knees. Everyone sings every line of "Complicated," her breakout single, and by the end of the show she's leaping up and down, spinning. When she leaves after 45 minutes, her audience doesn't seem to realize that it's supposed to clap for an encore. Chants of "AV-ril, AV-ril" finally ring out, which brings Lavigne back.
"She's so hot," says one of a pair of fans who look like sisters. "If I was gonna make out with any girl, it'd be her."
Lavigne comes from a town in Ontario called Napanee, population 5,000. Her parents are strict Baptists, and Avril spent far more time at church than playing records. Actually, she never owned any LPs or CDs growing up. Aside from a couple of cassettes -- the Beach Boys, Dixie Chicks -- she rarely heard any pop music. Last week she bought her first Ramones album.
"There was always music at the church," she says. "That's where I got my start."
At the age of 14 she won a talent contest and the right to share the stage for one song with Shania Twain. At the time, Lavigne's repertoire was parent-approved country-pop, in the Faith Hill vein. An Ontario-based manager later heard her singing in a bookstore and, at age 16, she'd stirred up enough interest at a festival called North by Northwest for an audition with an Arista talent scout, Ken Krongrad. He, in turn, was knocked out enough to urge Arista label head L.A. Reid to sign Lavigne, which he did, shortly after a 15-minute tryout in New York. The deal is reportedly worth $1.25 million for two albums.
But by then, Lavigne couldn't stand light country-pop.
"When I got signed," she recalls, "L.A. Reid had heard me sing three songs that were like nice little Celine Dion songs and he'd signed me off my voice and vocal performance. And as he got to know me I told him, 'I don't want to be singing those songs. I want to write my own songs. I want to rock out a bit.' "
Lavigne tried collaborating with nearly a dozen professional songwriters sent by Arista, but all of them were pushing her back toward Faith Hill. Nothing worked until she met with a three-person songwriting and production team called the Matrix: Scott Spock and husband and wife Graham Edwards and Lauren Christy. The trio's long list of previous credits includes Christina Aguilera and the Backstreet Boys. If those associations are a touchy topic with Arista -- weirdly, there are no songwriting credits to be found in the liner notes of "Let Go" -- it isn't with Avril. She explained exactly how "Complicated" was written.
"Graham sat down with the guitar and was, like, 'Listen to this little idea I have,' and I was like, 'Oh cool,' and then me and Lauren started singing to it. And we just recorded the guitar part and then went and laid on a blanket in the sun and wrote lyrics to it, Lauren and I."
Lavigne came back the next day and nailed the song in a single take.
All the "anti-Britney" talk that's trailed her since the release of "Complicated" annoys Avril. "It's mean," she says, "and stupid." But Lavigne does seem better suited for our times. Britney's jeweled costumes and Roman-candle production numbers worked when we were richer; she was ideal back-hum for the Nasdaq machine when it pedaled past 5,000 and our biggest problem was called Y2K. Lavigne and her no-frills quartet are the sound of the New Austerity, of rearranged priorities. Or maybe she's just part of pop's nonstop switch-off between glamour and grit, costumes and un-costumes, the cycle that took us from Ziggy Stardust to Sid Vicious to Duran Duran.
Or maybe she's just a sleepy kid in a need of a rest.
"When we're done," she mumbles, "I'm going to take a nap."