Under My Skin is Dark Nostalgia

Ellen Kempner (Palehound) on the life lessons Avril Lavigne taught her, 15 years later.

If it’s been 15 years since Avril Lavigne’s sophomore album Under My Skin came out, that means it’s been 15 years since I was nine years old on the school bus with my face pressed against the window, sulking against the May sun. It was 2004 and the end of fourth grade was on the horizon, as was my tenth birthday. While most of my peers were experiencing spring fever, I had a different infection all together: My savior had spoken again, and her preachings were available to download on iTunes.

I’m almost 25 now, and when I hit play on the opening track, “Take My Away,” the dark swell of guitar rushes at me with the same fervor as it did 15 years ago. There’s an epic-ness to the album’s intro, a clear statement of departure from Avril’s debut album, Let Go. Her debut was the album that changed me, that inspired me to write songs, that had showed me that girls who skateboarded and wore boys’ clothes could be stars too. However, when I listen back to Let Go now, it’s much less punk than I’d remembered. I was soft, shy, only seven years old, and songs like “Losing Grip” and “Sk8r Boi” were rough enough to fire me up, but tame enough to not scare me away. Let Go had planted a seed of angst in me, and by the time Under My Skin came out, that seed had bloomed into a thicket of thorns.

In 2004, I had grown out of my striped ties and camo shirts — I had seen some shit, and I was craving something deeper. Avril delivered. Even Under My Skin’s cover art intrigued me: Avril in black and white with a big red X on her arm. My hero looked older, darker, and perfectly mirrored how I was feeling inside. I judged the album by its cover, and the music matched my expectations. The gothic piano intro of the second track, “Together,” leading into the line, “Something just isn’t right/I can feel it inside” summed it all up. The simple relatability of Avril’s lyrics had been what hooked me on Let Go, but now her lyrics were touching on something more mature.

In the year leading up to Under My Skin, I had learned about sex from the banter of the boys on the bus. It was that specific period of time in our youth when we felt close to understanding the idea of sex, yet were so far from the reality of it. The boys sounded so confident when hashing out their fantasies that I was scared I was falling behind in knowledge; I sat quietly, hoping they wouldn’t notice me eavesdropping and taking note. (This led to me thinking a rim job was when a girl puts her legs behind her head.) (I believed that until I was 15.) I started listening intently to everything, hunting for innuendos in every piece of media I ingested.

On Under My Skin, Avril seemed to have a growth spurt: She talked about sex. A song I could never shake was “Don’t Tell Me.” At first listen, it sounded like an old Avril song, with its strumming acoustic guitar and innocent lyrics. The chorus seemed to hold the same sentiment of rebellion she became known for with her debut. She sang:

Did you think that I was gonna give it up to you this time?
Did you think that it was something I was gonna do and cry?
Don’t try to tell me what to do
Don’t try to tell me what to say
It’s better off that way

If that lyric had been on Let Go, it probably would’ve just been about her general disdain for authority, and other “parents suck” platitudes. But once the second verse hits, she gets real:

Don’t think that your charm
and the fact that your arm is around my neck
Will get you in my pants

Under My Skin came out shortly before I was unrelentingly sexually harassed by a group of boys at my robotics camp (you heard me). The only girl there, they would threaten “rape” — something I didn’t need to know the definition of to fear — anytime I achieved anything. The male counselors would sit idly by and tell me I was overreacting if I came to them about it. It’s an extremely common situation that so many people I know also experienced as young girls.

I was teased for my Avril Lavigne shirt and told she made music for dumb girls — but then, when I would come home exhausted from a day of being taunted, I would listen to “He Wasn’t.” It’s an anthem of independence, and it conveyed to me a crucial message: That I didn’t owe boys my time, energy, or respect if they didn’t respect me in the first place. As I belted along to “We’ve all got choices/we’ve all got voices,” I felt something I had never felt before — power. Until this point, I had resigned myself to being meek in the face of my bullying and harassment. The message I had internalized from my environment was that I needed to be subservient to boys, even the ones I was friends with. But everything was different now; I had a coach. While Blink-182 was teaching the boys in my life that they needed to find a “girl that they could train,” Avril Lavigne was teaching me that I didn’t need to take that shit.

About a month ago on tour, it was my turn to drive, and I played Let Go and Under My Skin back-to-back. My bassist Larz and I realized that while Let Go still slaps, Under My Skin doesn’t. Under My Skin has a lot of skip tracks — we really rocked out to only half of the album. When Larz and I got to “Nobody’s Home,” we were both struck by the fact that our most vivid memory of the album was the music video for this song. In the video, Avril is a runaway, with shaggy black hair and a dirty t-shirt. We both specifically remembered the scene in which Avril washes her hair in a public restroom and sobs into the mirror; as I watch it now, I’m unmoved by Avril flailing around, pulling her hair, and dragging her fingers down the mirror. The scene is not nearly as effective I remember it being; it feels like a glamorization of homelessness, which hasn’t aged super well. Who knows why this is what we’ve both retained 15 years later, why it etched itself into our brains like it did. Was it because we recognized ourselves in her? Was it because we had never seen a hero in pain?

In 2019, Avril’s early hits like “Complicated” and “Sk8r Boi” are still alive and thriving; they’re fun, catchy, and make great karaoke songs. Meanwhile, Under My Skin has been mostly forgotten. Still, as I’m listening back to the record and writing this, I realize that Under My Skin had just as much, if not more, of a profound impact on me as Let Go did when it came out. I think the difference is that I didn’t want to take Under My Skin with me as I aged — it was too painful, its brand of nostalgia dark and uncomfortable. While Let Go reminds me of being a young punky kid, Under My Skin reminds me of what came after, of the coming of age I didn’t ask for. It came at a crucial time in my life when I was learning of the dangers of men, of sex, of girlhood. The perils of those years were unavoidable, I feel lucky now as I realize that Avril may have prepared me for the worst — maybe she even saved me from it.

(Photo Credit: left, Bao Ngo)

Ellen Kempner is the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for the Boston and New York-based indie rock trio Palehound. Their latest record, Eye on the Bat, is out now Polyvinyl.