2002 was an interesting time to be a middle schooler. The cultural landscape was shifting pretty dramatically. The ‘90s had lingered into the early oughts. 2000 wasn’t that different a year from the decade that had just wrapped up, it was only a little more neon. But by 2002, the previous decade truly started to fade. Boy bands were pretty much out the door. The huge original blockbusters like Armageddon had given way to the rise of the comic book movie. The only successful comic book franchise through the ‘90s had been Batman. It hadn’t spawned imitators in the way you’d think, inspiring throwback adaptations of old pulp characters like The Phantom, The Shadow and Dick Tracy instead. X-Men had kicked the door open for Marvel to finally bring its beloved properties to life and in 2002, Spider-Man was the biggest thing in the world. The post-Scream wave of slasher movies had died out as well, partially thanks to the lukewarm box office of 2000’s Scream 3. Instead, 2002 kicked off the Japanese remake craze with The Ring, which led almost immediately into The Grudge, Dark Water and so on.
Things were changing on the music scene as well. Boy bands were pretty much out the door Justin Timberlake launched his solo career, immediately leaving his former N*Sync members in the dust. The girls of the late ‘90s remained surprisingly unaffected. At this time, Britney and Christina were only getting stronger and J-Lo was transitioning into a movie star. And at the same time, providing a new young voice and a fresh burst of energy to the pop scene came the Great White Northern answer to a teen pop scene that was growing somewhat stale: Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne.
Taking the world by storm with her debut album Let Go, Avril Lavigne combined the teen pop energy of Britney Spears with the edge and eyeliner of Green Day. In 2002, it felt like this girl came out of nowhere and yet became completely unavoidable overnight. And, admittedly, that might have had something to do with being a preteen boy with a crush on a pop icon that, at thirteen, I earnestly thought was “punk rock.”
That year alone, Lavigne had two chart topping songs. One could argue that “Complicated” is objectively the better of two. But the other is an undeniable cultural milestone, whether you think that’s for better or worse. And that’s the song we’re here to talk about and attempt to dissect.
“Sk8er Boi,” by Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne, might not be the best song ever written. It’s not the worst song ever written, either. But it is, without a doubt, the most 2002 song ever written.
First of all, there’s the very concept. The notion of being a (as phonetically deciphered) skater boy, is not something that quite exists in 2019. At least, not by any stretch like it did in 2002. I’m obviously not saying that skateboarding no longer exists, nor that people don’t still do it professionally. Obviously that still happens, but it doesn’t happen remotely the way that it did then. “Sk8er Boi” hails from an era when everyone knew the name Tony Hawk. Kids who had never skated in their lives had posters on their wall of a man who briefly legitimized the extreme sport as, well, a sport. The games were dominating the market. But it wasn’t long after this song, only a few years, before those games had to reconfigure into Tony Hawk Underground because even they couldn’t just be about skateboarding anymore in order to survive.
Today’s youth are smart, but I honestly kind of have to wonder if someone at the age this song was intended for, listening to it for the first time in 2019, would even have a frame of reference for what the success story here is even about. Hell, as an adult who lived through that time, it still feels only vaguely like reality that one could be internationally famous for skateboarding. Of course, he also becomes a skateboarding rock star (we have to assume he’s successfully skating as an adult during his rock career, or he’s defined by completely different passions as a teen and adult) and that’s where we really need to get into the perspective of the song.
At the end of the day, “Sk8er Boi” is a story of total male wish fulfillment… being sung by his girlfriend. More than that, it’s a song about what an absolute loser this girl who turned him down in high school is, sung by his girlfriend. Now, on one hand, it’s possible that this is just an unfathomable—maybe even unhealthy—show of support. She is so proud of who he is now and the things he has accomplished, so shaken by his story of high school rejection before he became the successful and confident person she knows now. She, as she notes, sees “the soul inside” and acknowledges the man he has become to the point that she’s embarrassed for anyone who never saw that potential to begin with.
This is a song that is completely from the perspective of the titular Boi, about how this girl was an absolute loser for turning him down and now he is so cool and so successful, unbelievably successful, and he just knows that she is beating herself up about turning him down in high school. That is, again and I cannot stress this enough, sung by the current girlfriend. This is a song, sung by a woman, that is literally without a female perspective. I’m going to make a rare generalization and say that people by and large just don’t write songs about their boyfriend’s ex. That’s considered a weird thing to do. So it’s even weirder when the song’s not even about an ex, but about someone he asked out once in high school and got rejected by, but like he knows she absolutely liked him back it was just a status thing obviously. That does not happen.
We’re given a lot of detail about both the Boi and the Loser Girl Who Turned Down My Precious Sk8er Boi, because they’re the focus of the whole song. Our heroine, telling us this story, is barely even a character in the song at all. We know only three things about her. 1, she’s (presumably) our actual singer Avril Lavigne. 2, She wrote a song about the events of the story. 3, She’ll be back stage after the show.
This is where the aggressively male perspective of “Sk8er Boi” really begins to show itself. This is complete and total wish fulfillment, and really unnecessarily vindictive wish fulfillment at that. All of his dreams came true. He’s a massive success and everyone goes to see his shows to say “I knew him when.” He’s a skater and a rocker and he’s dating none other than Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne. The Loser Girl, meanwhile, is left nursing babies and regret. This is so shitty for both women, because the first scenario is largely imagined. The singer doesn’t know the girl she’s singing about and the Boi clearly hasn’t spoken to her since high school, so her secret desire for him is absolutely something that was never vocalized. It’s all imagined. Either he’s incredibly successful, still imagining that her life must be terrible and full of regret for shooting him down in high school in order to make himself happy, or it’s all a fantasy—but we’ll get to that.
The other issue is, of course, that we have Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne proudly singing about how she’ll be back stage after the show, how she’ll be singing a song about some girl he used to know, shooting off harsh digs that are still wrapped in a distinctly Canadian politeness like “She needed to come back down to Earth,” like she’s a doting fan girl for him when he’s an embarrassed and still obviously self-conscious burnout who couldn’t get a date in high school and she is an International Superstar. It’s amazing that there’s not a verse in there giddily going on about how she’s going to be picking up his dry cleaning.
The romance here is just not healthy no matter how you slice it. Comparing it to simila songs of its general era, it’s almost a perfect invese of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” as that similarly structured song is about a loser guy afraid to ask out a cooler girl before he finds out (actually finds out and not imagines years later after he’s already achieved success) that she’s a Teenage Dirtbag like him and shares the same weirdo interests that he has and they began an earnest and healthy romance fueled by Iron Maiden. This is the opposite of that on pretty much every level. The Boi of our song has such a chip on his shoulder that he could very well be the same central character from Puddle of Mudd’s “She Hates Me.”
There’s possibly no teen, female pop song that screams at a glance of being written by a man than this one. And it largely was, in that two men did help to write it. But here’s the thing: there were other writers and one of those writers was, you guessed it, Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne.
On one level, it’s hard to imagine that Lavigne would be crafting the voice of something that’s so firmly from the perspective of a shitty guy, but then again she is the one singing the song. So either that’s just the unfortunate truth, or there’s something more to the song. Let’s think back on just how over the top it is. The fact that not only is this guy successful, but that he’s gotten everything he’s ever wanted and still needs to make sure the other girl is miserable as a part of his fantasy. Either this is a generic pop song celebrating a guy’s terrible behavior, or this is an admittedly effective and even hilarious satire of White Boy (Boi) Entitlement. There’s certainly an argument to be made there in just how far it goes.
I’ve referred to the male fantasy elements of the song, but it’s been to lead to this idea, because what if a fantasy is all that it is? There’s enough evidence in the narrative, such as it is, to suggest that absolutely nothing—save for the backstory of the high school rejection—that happens in this song actually happens. This is a fantasy playing out in the mind of the Boi, possibly immediately after the initial reaction, imagining how sorry she’s going to be when she sees how cool and successful he’ll grow up to be. But it’s almost better if it’s actually a fantasy playing out years later, if ten years later he’s daydreaming at work thinking about how any minute now he’s going to be a skateboarding rockstar dating Avril Lavigne while this girl he’s still clearly obsessed with will be so miserable for turning him down that one time in high school.
It is both easy and hilarious to imagine that for her debut album, Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne would craft a song about a dude who is imagining dating her as part of his idealized dream life, crafting a power fantasy about how jealous this unnamed girl from high school is going to be when she goes to see his sold out show and how she’ll be thinking the whole time what a mistake it was to turn him down. After all, it’s ridiculous that a successful woman would sing an entire song about how this one girl she never met should never have rejected her boyfriend and that they should have fallen in love and should still be together to this day—because that’s what the guy has to want if he’s still so clearly obsessed over it—but it is not remotely unrealistic to think that a guy would fantasize about all of that. It’s hilariously plausible that a guy might have daydreams about how sorry that girl from high school is going to be when he’s rich and famous and that his imagined celebrity girlfriend would support those ideas enough to write a song about them.
It is entirely possible that none of that was remotely intended in any way, shape or form. But that’s the beauty of art, even (or especially) pop art. It’s completely open to interpretation and there’s plenty of room in this song to support the idea that it could be a tongue-in-cheek satire of absolute man-ness. It could also be a shallow pop song about how that much that girl from high school sucks, or it’s just an on-the-surface “don’t judge a book by its cover” story. It could be any of those things. But the one thing that is undeniable is its place on the Mt. Rushmore of major pop culture events of 2002. While it didn’t quite do what “Baby One More Time” did for Britney, it firmly announced Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne as one of the first teen pop icons of the 21st century. And whether it’s a weirdly misguided story of “Boy meets girl and girl says no because she sucks” or an over-the-top satire of that very concept, it’s kind of still a bop either way, and one that remains endearing because while I know how I personally have come to read it, its intentions are anything but obvious.