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The Grrrl Grows Up

Remember when people were calling Avril Lavigne the great grrrrl hope? Remember when Women-Who-Rock-minded scribes got all excited by Lavigne's punked-up image on the cover of 2002's multiplatinum debut, Let Go? Remember when feminists cheered along to songs on 2004's Under My Skin, which included lines like "Don't think that your charm and the fact that your arm is now around my neck will get you in my pants"?

Forget all that. On her latest album, The Best Damn Thing, Lavigne has a new look — one that's more girly-girly than grrrly-grrrl. On the title track, she even gets pouty, like one of those Radio Disney singers: "I hate it when a guy doesn't get the tab/And I have to pull my money out/And that looks bad."

But to her core audience — teenaged girls — none of the gender-political implications of all this really matter. Lavigne is still a venerable hit machine: The Best Damn Thing and its first single, "Girlfriend," both reached No. 1. Her upcoming concert promises to be filled with all the glitz and polish of a major production as well. "The show is going to be very upbeat and the production will be bigger," she said in a recent conference call with reporters about her current Best Damn Tour. "Dancers on a couple of songs, and LED screens, and I'm going to have checkered flooring. I have a pink sparkle drum kit, a pink piano being made, flags. Over time I just learned how I need to be on stage. I'm more confident." Whew! Who has time to think bad thoughts or start a doll revolution when all that's going on?

There's something different about the 23-year-old Lavigne. She's definitely not the teen who launched a hit-and-money-making career more than five years ago. She certainly seems to have lost some of her youthful edge. It might have something to do with her 2005 marriage to Sum 41's Deryck Whibley. And maybe something to do with her eight-bedroom, $9 million Los Angeles palace. And quite possibly something to do with her new clothing and fragrance lines.

Then again, Lavigne doesn't exactly play to her strengths on The Best Damn Thing. Instead of the hard-driving rock anthems — like "Sk8er Boi" and "My Happy Ending" — and chewy power ballads — like "Complicated" and "Don't Tell Me" — that generated all that buzz in the first place, Lavigne stuffs her latest album with generic pop songs. Making matters worse, she occasionally sprinkles some experimental crap in there. Cripes — "I Don't Have to Try" is damn close to electroclash!

"[All] I wanted to do was just write really fun songs that weren't serious and breakup-boyfriend songs," she says. "My previous record was really dark and deep. I got that out, and I spent a whole year and a half singing those songs. Now I wanted to go and write really fun songs, so I can have fun and just jump around onstage and not be so dark."

She's got every right to feel that way. Yet if you dig deep enough and give it some time to sink in, The Best Damn Thing includes some of Lavigne's catchiest songs — particularly the super-poppy "Girlfriend" and "I Can Do Better." The video for "Girlfriend" is up to 79 million views on YouTube and is one of the most downloaded songs of all time. But the fact that these karaoke-style sing-alongs are so few and far between probably explains why the album has sold only five million copies worldwide, compared to earlier releases that did considerably better (her second album, Under My Skin, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts in 2004 and went triple platinum).

Lavigne clearly needed to do something to spark her career in the wake of these figures. So the one-time girl-next-door-approachable singer sexed up her image. Last year, she posed topless on the cover of Blender. Then bikini pics from a Miami vacation found their way online. And Maxim's March issue features a cover shot of Lavigne cupping one of her breasts while draped in a frilly pink top.

But none of these things could distract from the plagiarism accusations that have been hurled at Lavigne since The Best Damn Thing was released last April. First, the Rubinoos — who had an obscure power-pop song called "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" in 1979 — sued Lavigne, because her "Girlfriend" sounded an awful lot like their "Boyfriend." (The matter was settled out of court in January.) Then singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, who collaborated with Lavigne in the past, claimed that she and Avril worked together on a song called "Contagious." When a track called "Contagious" showed up on The Best Damn Thing, Kreviazuk's name was missing, and she threw a fit. (Kreviazuk later apologized for dragging the matter into public view.)

Last month, a group of dancers threatened to boycott the Los Angeles auditions for Lavigne's tour, alleging that the singer paid substandard rates. Meanwhile, tween faves the Jonas Brothers were tapped as concert openers. The blogosphere immediately called the move more than a little desperate, since tickets aren't selling all that well for the Best Damn Tour, and the world's biggest teen group would surely help move a few thousand.

Lavigne dismisses all this. What really seems to get her worked up are the accusations that have plagued her from the start: She's not a punk — for the record, she never claimed she was — and her albums have always been more pop than punk anyway. But the allegation that Avril is unprincipled, or untalented, is hogwash. Though she plays many of her own instruments — rhythm guitar, the piano, even the drums — for some reason she is still forced to disavow comparisons to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera."My songs aren't bubblegum-pop dance songs," she says. "I don't have background dancers on every single song like them."

But Lavigne need not get worked up. She's in control of her career. And that's something she's defiantly proud of — even if it's in need of some salvaging these days. "I went in the studio, and I told my manager and my record company that nobody could hear anything until I'm done," she says. "I was literally in the studio, racking up studio bills for six months, and no one heard anything. I'm sure that made them very nervous."

Piling up big bills for the label? Bossing around corporate executives? Even Lavigne's detractors have to admit that there's something a little punk rock about that.