the inside track

Pop-Punk Is a Tool for Self-Acceptance on WILLOW and Avril Lavigne’s ‘G R O W’

*Why’d you have to go and make things so uncomplicated??????* Photo: Willow Smith via YouTube

Avril Lavigne was not yet an adult the first time she topped the Adult Top 40 chart with “Complicated,” her debut single. The song’s soaring melodies and country contours may have given it broad appeal, but beneath that, Lavigne had a message specifically for other young women: “Promise me I’m never gonna find you fakin’,” she pleaded. When writers focused on Lavigne’s musical differences with the more synthetic pop moment to pit her against its other, often more sexual young women stars, they missed the broader point. “I don’t like that term — ‘the anti-Britney,’” Lavigne told Entertainment Weekly for a 2002 profile. “I don’t believe in that,” she continued. She’s a human being. God, leave her alone!” The magazine still titled the story “The Anti-Britney.”

Radical acceptance has always been a major tenet of punk music, but pop-punk has had a complicated relationship with it in an industry thirsty for drama. Nearly 20 years later, on the heels of a pop-punk revival, everyone is finally closer to the same page. The genre’s most visible torchbearer, Olivia Rodrigo, has been resoundingly praised for singing from an unapologetically feminine perspective; “jealousy, jealousy” may be about comparing herself to other girls, but the true enemy is the culture that forces her to do it. In this landscape, it makes perfect sense for Willow Smith to be making pop-punk music too. As a cohost of Red Table Talk with her (former rocker) mother and grandmother, she opens up to women of all ages about self-harm and polyamory, while specifically speaking to young Black women — aiming “to show that we’re all going through it,” as she recently told Who What Wear. She’s said Red Table Talk helped her open up on new album lately i feel EVERYTHING, and that comes through, especially on WILLOW’s generational pop-punk duet with Lavigne, “G R O W.”

The song’s message is straightforward but powerful. “I’ve been putting work in, healing myself / Still got room to grow,” declares WILLOW, not yet 21 years old. In many ways, it’s the song encapsulation of her work at the red table, with WILLOW finding empowerment through all the progress she has yet to make and the fact that she’s making it every day. To her, personal growth reaches no end: “No one ever truly knows just who they are,” she sings, modeling the freedom that comes with accepting that. Read it a different way and the song can be a commentary on WILLOW’s recent musical changes — not just her owning her ability to experiment with her sound after singing for over a decade of her life, mostly in R&B and lo-fi singer-songwriter spaces, but saying that she’s better for it. WILLOW’s voice sounds confident and declarative on “G R O W” and across lately; you believe that she’s been putting work in musically. Crucially, right when things could get preachy on “G R O W,” the song leans into punk’s playful spirit instead. “You’ll find that you’re your own best friend / And no that ain’t a fuckin’ metaphor” is a lyric that deserves to be emblazoned across WILLOW T-shirts.

One of the most striking elements of the pop-punk revival has been how willing the genre’s “elders” are to embrace the new generation, most prominently Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, who plays on “G R O W.” On one level, Lavigne’s presence on the song closes the loop on this new leaf of acceptance in the pop-punk revival from someone who’s been pushing for years to spread the message. Then there’s the power of hearing Lavigne sing that she, too, still has room to grow — at 36 years old, after forays into poppier fare and Christian rock, in her biggest return to her pop-punk roots in years. Things got complicated, and now she’s showing a new generation of young women how to not shy away from that.

WILLOW, Avril Lavigne Use Pop-Punk for Acceptance on ‘GROW’