How Avril Lavigne risked being seen as TOO young. Marketing the Canadian teen as a punkish skateboarder instead of a more mature singer was a gamble that's paying off handsomely
Avril Lavigne
Credit: Avril Lavigne Photograph by Gabrielle Revere

You can never go too wrong courting the youth vote. That’s the lesson some will take away from the astounding success of Avril Lavigne, whose ”Let Go” album has been the biggest pop music debut of 2002. Her popularity is largely due to a risky marketing strategy that targeted the teen audience, even though many people involved with her career or in radio thought that it was a mistake to “go so young” and potentially alienate older music fans who might also enjoy Lavigne’s music.

Lavigne’s first single, “Complicated,” was thought to have wide cross-demographic appeal, to adults as well as kids — but her label and management decided to promote it with a video that had her and her band skateboarding and disrupting a shopping mall, the sort of imagery that might have grown-ups thinking “Clean that mess up!” more than clamoring for the record.

The second single, “Sk8r Boi,” was targeted at teens, with its story of star-crossed crushes amid mismatched high schoolers. These were controversial choices, given that the upcoming third single, “I’m With You,” was thought by some to be the biggest potential smash on the album, and could have established her as a more mature artist if they’d gone with it first.

“‘Sk8r Boi’ was the more controversial choice, at least here in the building,” says Antonio “L.A.” Reid, the CEO of Arista Records. “Some people just really didn’t get that. And with the first video, there was some concern that maybe because it’s so young and so playful, it might alienate more serious music lovers.”

But Lavigne’s manager — Nettwerk’s Terry McBride, who also oversees the careers of such artists as Dido, Sarah McLachlan, Sum 41, and Coldplay — insisted on this series of singles. “When we first sat down with Arista over a year ago, most of the staff had only heard ‘Complicated’ and thought this girl was a pop artist that was gonna go up against a Michelle Branch,” says McBride. ”About 20 minutes into the meeting, seeing that they didn’t understand who this girl was, I put on ‘Sk8r Boi.’ And after that was finished, they all went, ‘O-KAY! She’s actually something completely different.'”

It’s no coincidence that McBride brings up Branch. The media were beginning to take note of a new wave of young female singer/songwriters who actually wrote or cowrote songs. With the end of the teen-pop phenomenon in sight, Branch and Vanessa Carlton were being pushed to radio and journalists with catchphrases like, “She actually plays an instrument!” There was just one problem: However refreshing they might be as a counterpoint to Britney and Christina, Branch and Carlton tend to be on the nondescript — read: dull — side. It was important to establish Lavigne, then, as not all THAT mature.