To be published on 27 August 2022 by Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9781637311042
I went to high school with lots of people who called themselves artists, and one boy who was the real deal. Reuben was soft-spoken, with intense blue eyes behind thick glasses. Unlike the rest of us, who mostly painted, sculpted, danced and made music in order to win the admiration of our classmates and teachers, Reuben didn’t seem to care what people thought of his art (which was a mixture of music, photography and writing). He was going to keep experimenting and pushing boundaries, regardless of what other people liked. His creations were sometimes off-putting, often wonderful, and consistently strange.
When I first heard “Sk8er Boi” as a teenager, I was embarrassed by how much I liked it. I had internalised the message that anything teenage girls enjoyed wasn’t real art (a perception which harmed the Beatles early in their career, and which persists to this day). I never admitted to anyone how much time Avril Lavigne’s debut album spent in my parents’ CD player. But one day, while wrestling with a trigonometry problem in maths class, I started humming “Sk8er Boi”. It was the distinctive melody of the bridge: Sorry girl, but you missed out – well, tough luck, that boy’s mine now . . . As soon as I realised what I was doing, I stopped. But it was too late. Reuben, the avant-garde artistic genius, had heard me humming the latest girly pop song.
We made eye contact.
‘Good song, right?’ Reuben said.
For a second I thought he was making fun of me. But Reuben had a more subtle sense of humour than that. He never joked at anyone’s expense. I was astonished to realise that he genuinely liked “Sk8er Boi”.
The teacher shot us a warning glare, so we never had the chance to discuss it at length. But that was the moment I started to wonder if there might be more to this punk rock anthem than met the ear.
And there is. So much more.
Can I Make It Any More Obvious? isn’t a book about Avril Lavigne and her life—I’ll leave that to a more experienced biographer. Nor is it a book about the album, “Let Go” (much as I’d like to explore my theory that “Complicated” is a song about a teenage girl’s relationship with a married man). This is a book about “Sk8er Boi”, which may be the most significant artistic achievement of the 21st Century.
The lyrics appear simple. A girl pretends not to like a boy, because her friends don’t. Later, the boy becomes a famous musician, winning over the girl’s friends, but it’s too late—she’s already a single mother. A closer listen, however, raises question after question. Why do the unnamed protagonist’s friends think the Sk8er Boi isn’t cool? Isn’t skateboarding the very definition of cool? Later, when the girl is living alone with her baby, how is she available to go to Sk8er Boi’s concert at the last minute?
And there are deeper mysteries to ponder. Had the girl ignored her friends and dated the Sk8er Boi, would anything have changed? His ability to play the guitar doesn’t necessarily indicate that they would have been a good match. If they had dated and the relationship had “worked”, might she not still have found herself at home, feeding the baby all alone while the child’s father is “rocking up MTV”?
Lavigne provides answers, but they’re hidden. Throughout her career, she has excelled at allusion. She never announces, only implies, attacking from the side like a velociraptor, to better get past the listener’s defenses. The song ends on a surface-level twist: the unnamed narrator is revealed as the Sk8er Boi’s current romantic partner. We rock each other’s world, she sings. It seems like a happy ending, at least for the narrator and the Sk8er Boi.
But it’s not. Lavigne slips a deeper twist underneath, one that not even the narrator is aware of. The Sk8er Boi may be famous and commercially successful, but he’s deeply unhappy. We know this, because he’s still writing songs about the girl. We end on this broken love triangle—the girl thinking she missed her chance at a better life, the Sk8er Boi secretly longing for her, the narrator oblivious to her partner’s suffering.
The following 614 pages will explore not only some of the more curious lyrics (all of her friends stuck up their nose?) but also the music itself. You could mistake Sk8er Boi for a standard I-V-VI-IV pop song, if you weren’t listening closely. But when you try to play along, you soon realise how strange—even absurd—some of the harmonies are. (The verses are in D major, but Lavigne and The Matrix include not only C naturals, but B flats. The chorus, in C major, includes an A flat!)
The second volume, to be published in 2023, will explore the percussion line between 2:30 and 2:41, investigating why the drummer might have made some of those choices, and how those eleven seconds compare to other “breaks” in comparable songs across other genres.
The third volume will focus on how carefully Lavigne pronounces the K in the word “punk” at 0:21, and how this is emblematic of her ability to project a raw, wild persona, while also being delivering a tightly controlled performance.
What more can I say? Quite a lot, actually. Let’s get started…