Ciao, Britney! Skanks -- er, thanks -- for the memories, Christina. How were you to know that, come the end of 2002, the girls of America would no longer be lowering their necklines in homage to you but, instead, learning how to knot a necktie?
Thanks to Avril Lavigne, the 18-year-old Canadian whose Let Go is the hottest debut album of 2002, butt cheeks, dance beats, and gleeful artifice are suddenly out, while tank tops, rock, and ''real'' are unexpectedly back in. A dormant category, female singer-songwriters, has returned, with a catch: It's now aimed at a demographic too young to remember the last Lilith Fair. The YM generation's would-be Joni Mitchells and Jewels are earnest chart climbers like Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton; the new Chrissie Hyndes and Courtneys are the spunkier Top 40 punks epitomized by Pink and Lavigne. Pop tarts are assumed to be toast, especially now that tie-wearing tomboy Lavigne has been dubbed ''the anti-Britney'' by her legions of new supporters.
''I don't like that term -- 'the anti-Britney.' It's stupid,'' Lavigne protests, preferring not to stomp to success on someone else's coattails. ''I don't believe in that. She's a human being. God, leave her alone!''
By all means. But surely it's safe to say that fans are looking for less sexually explicit --
''Have you seen Christina's video?'' she interrupts. Lavigne screws her face into a yucked-out expression at the mere thought of the queasy combination of featherweight boxing, soft-core porn, and bad plumbing in Aguilera's new ''Dirrty'' video (see page 27). ''Poor girl,'' she whispers.
The teen queens may actually need her pity. Tom Poleman, who programs one of the country's highest-rated Top 40 stations, New York City's Z100, has seen Avril wax and the old-school teen-poppers seriously wane in recent requests and call-out research. Lavigne (pronounced la-VEEN) is ''the defining artist of this phase of pop music,'' he declares. ''You could take every aspect of the Britney persona and look for the polar opposite in Avril. Whereas Britney was more glamour and less reality-based, Avril is much more the regular kid. For boys, she seems more attainable; girls can see themselves living more like her, dressing the same, being attracted to the same boys.''
Lavigne is sitting cross-legged on the floor, digging into some room-service breakfast cereal. It's not as if her Los Angeles hotel suite didn't come with its own dining cove, but she prefers to eat off the low-slung table she carries everywhere...which is to say her skateboard. The alliteration of ''typical teenager'' might have been invented for this unassuming upstart, who also has a snowboard and Rollerblades sitting by the front door. Utterly unprovocative pink underwear peeks out of her flared jeans; identical multiple bracelets dangle off her wrists. She's wired at the beginning of a conversation and, by the end, curled up childlike in a ball, seemingly near comatose from low blood sugar. There's something brilliantly paradoxical about her: the completely average adolescent who also exudes palpable star quality in spades. Maybe every teenager is a star and it just takes Avril Lavigne to make us recognize it.