Avril Lavigne experiencing dwindling Canadian crowds
Avril Lavigne performs during the 17th Annual Race to Erase MS gala in Los Angeles, Friday, May 7, 2010. (AP / Chris Pizzello)
Published Friday, October 28, 2011 1:49PM EDT
TORONTO - Midway through a sparsely attended arena gig in Toronto this week, Avril Lavigne paused between songs to express her joy at playing "so close to home," in her "beautiful" native country.
She had just finished singing "Alice," and it was the first time in the evening she unleashed the full power of her vocal instrument, allowing her voice to billow and soar into every corner of the Air Canada Centre.
And it couldn't have been easy to fill all that empty space.
See, it's not just the Canadian weather that might have felt chilly to Lavigne, who grew up in Napanee, Ont., but moved to Los Angeles years ago. To hear her tell it, this cross-country trek was a triumphant homecoming, the first since her latest album dropped in March, so where were the adoring crowds to cheer her on?
A reported audience of 6,800 fans showed up to her gig at the Air Canada Centre, which can hold 15,800 fans for a concert. Her shows across the country reported similarly anemic turnouts, while the reviews varied from tepid to scathing -- a representative notice from the Winnipeg Free Press compared her lifeless performance to that of a zombie.
And considering that Lavigne's latest -- "Goodbye Lullaby" -- has failed to generate a fraction of the interest as her previous disc, there's no shortage of speculation that the pop-punk princess's reign could be coming to an end.
"She's having a difficult time making the transition from being a skater girl to being a 27-year-old woman," said Alan Cross, music blogger and host of the syndicated radio show "The Secret History of Rock."
"It's very tough to grow with your audience. ... The next year is going to be very important if she's going to be able to make the transition."
"I mean, she's far from dead. But it may take a little time for the new Avril to take root."
And at this point, it's not exactly clear who the new Avril is.
She burst onto the scene less than a decade ago with 2002's hit-laden "Let Go," providing a so-called edgy alternative to the dolled-up pop strumpets who were shifting the bar of good taste ever-lower and climbing ever-higher on the charts in the process (Lavigne's first album arrived in the one-year period between two video hallmarks for lowest-common-denominator pop pandering: Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" and Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty.")
A then-17-year-old Lavigne had a stylistic hook (ties and tank-tops), a strong voice and a bundle of super-catchy pop tunes stained by just a speck of punk grime -- Ramona imitating the Ramones. Given the vapid and increasingly tawdry direction of pop at the time, Lavigne really did offer an alternative to young music fans, even if critics snidely derided the young singer's punk posturing.
And Lavigne herself, meanwhile, easily forged a connection with fans. She seemed as sassy, confused and occasionally petulant as real teenagers, whether she was chewing gum and staring at her shoes through television interviews or mooning cameras at the MuchMusic Video Awards.
On the strength of singles "Complicated," "I'm With You" and "Sk8er Boi," "Let Go" attained diamond certification in Canada and went six times platinum in the U.S. Her next two albums -- 2004's "Under My Skin" and 2007's "The Best Damn Thing" -- brought diminishing returns commercially but still went platinum a combined seven times over in Canada.
And that, perhaps, is when Lavigne's career started to slide. There was a lengthy four-year break between albums, during which time Lavigne divorced husband (and Sum 41 frontman) Deryck Whibley and changed her management, switching from Vancouver-based Nettwerk to a representation based closer to home in L.A.
When it did eventually come time to make "Goodbye Lullaby," it wasn't an easy process. In interviews, she talked about being frustrated by delays and record-company interference, and that creative fracture seemed to bear an effect on an album that pulls in different directions at once.
First single "What the Hell" is a typically frivolous, high-energy pop-rock song that would have fit in nicely on "Let Go." Elsewhere on the record, Lavigne explores a more mature sound. Ultimately, the disc almost seems split down the middle between spit-shined, pink-streaked party starters and glumly introspective material.
"Avril's mellow new album is, in effect, an attempt at reinvention and so far it hasn't worked," said Jeff Burlingame, the author of "Avril Lavigne: Celebrity With Heart."
"But how many teen stars, in any entertainment field, move on to become stars as adults? There are very few and there are reasons for that. Fans grow up and move on. Have you ever seen a 30-year-old mother of two sing 'Sk8er Boi?' It isn't flattering."
Burlingame points out that Lavigne might have had a particularly difficult time retaining her audience because, as those fans aged, they began to see how contrived her "punk" image really was.
"Many people believe Avril was sort of a creation from the get-go. I wouldn't call her manufactured, as many of today's pop stars are, because she does have more talent than most, but she is an artist who auditioned as a country singer, and then all of a sudden became a rock 'n' roll rebel.
"Many people have called her on that. There's a logistical gap there that teens usually don't see through but older fans do. And her fans are older now."
But others point out that Lavigne isn't alone in struggling to retain her fans.
In the evolving music business, where artists seem to slide from view in the time it takes to read a tweet, no one can take anything for granted.
"Things have changed. Fan loyalty has shifted," said Steve Waxman, director of national publicity for Warner Music Canada, a label that isn't associated with Lavigne.
"Now, when we release, we can't necessarily count on a large fanbase to follow an artist from one record to the next. Artists need to basically re-establish themselves on every new release.
"It goes for everybody."
And Lavigne isn't exactly in a crisis. She's built a solid international following in Europe and Japan that can help to offset disappointing returns in North America. She's also kept herself busy with her own fashion line (Abbey Dawn) and two perfumes (Black Star and Forbidden Rose), business pursuits that some have speculated blurred her musical focus -- Burlingame, for instance, mused whether her music had become "somewhat of an afterthought."
Well, the spotlight was on her music at the Air Canada Centre, in part because there wasn't much else to focus on. Lavigne's live show features none of the frilly thrills (or costume changes) of the big-budget pop extravaganzas that Lady Gaga and Katy Perry have steered around the continent this summer. Instead, Lavigne just performs with her band and a stark, bare stage (and yet, tickets for Lavigne's tour-closing show in Montreal began at $53, while Perry's tickets will run US$37.50-$47.50 when she opens her next tour in Hartford).
And Lavigne has never seemed the most engaged performer. During her Toronto show, she displayed the unfortunate habit of occasionally sitting down and resting on an amplifier onstage while singing. Even when she performed at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, she carried the slumping, bored demeanour of a teen being forced to sit through a family dinner.
Yet the young fans who were present at this week's Air Canada Centre gig -- clad in Lavigne merchandise and waving neon green glowing stars in the air -- hung on her every syllable anyway.
"I just want to take the time to say thank you so much," Lavigne told the crowd at one point.
"It's so humbling and I'm so grateful."
The key word there might be "humbling." But given the way the relatively small but devoted crowd shrieked its affection back, Lavigne still has her fair share of devoted disciples waiting to see what she does next.