My Week on the Avril Lavigne E-Team

Originally ran September 2002, Pitchforkmedia.com

I saw a lot of girls at my bachelor party in Montréal, but the one I was
sober enough to remember was Avril Lavigne. We were watching Canadian cable
in our hotel room, polishing off a case of Molsons before we went out for
lunch, and as we flipped through the music stations we stumbled across Avril
Lavigne's "Complicated". None of us knew who she was, and most of the guys
didn't care, but I made us stop and watch.

At first glance, Avril's just another cute teen-pop star. But rather than
dancing in choreographed formation with gay New Yorkers, she whizzes around
on a skateboard; she's a female pop singer, but she plays with a rock band,
cops a wholesome mid-80s punk look, and acts like a tomboy. She probably
hangs with the outsiders at school—the kids who smoke weed, hate football
and try to read Camus. No, her music isn't great, and no, she's not as punk
as her record label claims. But she's spunky, sharp, and comes off as a real
teen instead of a creepy blow-up doll. If I could go to school with these
girls—and don't think I don't dream about it—Britney Spears is the girl I'd
ogle, but Lavigne's the one I'd knock myself out to impress.

One day I was skimming through her website (because, um, I'm a rock critic,
and I have to keep up on this stuff) and I found a weird ad: "Join the
official Avril eTeam!" Lavigne's handlers have hired a company called the
Hype Council to start a grassroots marketing effort: they're getting fans to
sign up and spread the word about Avril, online. It's the same concept as a
street team, where a label gets kids to blanket the city with posters and
bumper stickers to promote a show or a record release. Street teams are a
time-honored way to get free labor out of dedicated fans. But eTeams are
more efficient, more powerful—and just as cheap.

But exactly how does it work? What's in it for us? A free t-shirt? Concert
tix? Maybe, dare I dream, a chance to meet Avril? It had to be checked out.



MY LIFE AS A TEENAGE GIRL

I knew I couldn't go into this thing as a grizzled 28-year-old music snob.
So step one was to create a cover for myself: I became Kate Thompson, born
on July 4th, 1984, and currently living in Allston, Massachusetts (a.k.a.
"Rock City!!"). All I know about being a girl is what I've learned from Judy
Blume novels and the WB, but I figured I could bluff it well enough to get
in the door. I set up a fake e-mail address in Kate's name and then sent in
my application for TeamAVRIL.

While I waited to hear back, I also got a copy of her album, Let Go, and
listened to it a few times. Listening as a teenage girl and not as a critic,
I've got to say, it's not bad—half heartfelt angst, half high-energy spaz
pop. The songs come off as honest, genuine teenage mood swings, from the
crashing guitars and angst-drenched cries of "Losing Grip" to whimsical and
hyper-poppy tracks like her latest hit, "Sk8er Boi". Expect to see the
lyrics from "Anything but Ordinary" scribbled all over yearbooks across
America's junior high schools: "To walk within the lines would make my life
so boring!!/ I want to know that I have been to the extreme... I'd rather be
anything but ordinary." Lavigne's voice is pretty strong, too, as she
started out singing country music, where weak pipes will get you nowhere.
(But don't tell anyone about the country connection—if the kids find out,
it'll be worse than if she had VD.)

And now it's my job to help push her record as far up the charts as it'll
go.



MICHELLE BRANCH, YOU WANNABE, YOU'RE GOING DOWN

Within days I got—that is, Kate Thompson got—marching orders from TeamAVRIL,
in a four-page long e-mail from someone named "Wag".

Wag runs TeamAVRIL on behalf of the Hype Council, and at last count, she's
in charge of over 60,000 rabid Avril fans. I couldn't find a biography or a
profile of her (if Wag is even a woman), but I would guess that she's an
early-to-mid-twentysomething with dotcom marketing experience who was once:
1) a camp counselor; 2) on the prom committee; or 3) the plane crash
survivor who ate everyone else.

Wag's there to keep the kids in line with a friendly but firm hand,
encouraging us to finish our tasks and helping us through the frequent site
outages and relaunches that plague the TeamAVRIL site. Every week, Wag sends
us the latest news on Avril, and then gives us a list of ways to help her.
From the first update, it didn't look like Lavigne needed much help: Let Go
went double platinum the last week of August and hit #3 on the Billboard 200
(behind the Dixie Chicks and Eminem). The video for "Sk8er Boi" hit full
rotation on MTV and made #1 on "Total Request Live", that critical gauge of
teen pop fame. And best of all, as Wag wrote: "Avril won the VMA [Video
Music Award] for Best New Artist!!! What an absolutely COOOOOOL night that
was!"

But as Wag reminded us, "the competition wants #1. Let's heat it up!!!" And
it's true: as big as Avril gets, a dozen other wannabes vie for her spot—for
example, porcelain doll Michelle Branch, who, like Avril, claims she writes
her own songs and never uses a stylist. Branch won MTV's 2002 Viewer's
Choice and her song "Goodbye to You" is climbing the charts. Wag didn't need
to spell it out: we had to put that bitch down.

So how do you help Avril? TeamAVRIL focuses on three kinds of targets:
online polls, message boards, and "Total Request Live". The polls are the
easiest. Many pop websites run some kind of survey where you vote for your
favorite new artist; Wag has listed them all, and told us to hit them early
and often. The most critical is CosmoGIRL.com's, where we're voting for
nothing less than the CosmoGIRL of the Year.  If Avril wins, you'll see her
raccoon-eyed, necktie-sporting Canadian visage on the cover of the November
issue.

I had to register on the CosmoGIRL site to vote, which means CosmoGIRL gets
my (fake) registration and demographics info. But at least they send me
helpful make-up and fashion tips. They've narrowed the poll options to Sarah
Michelle Gellar, Gwen Stefani, Katie Holmes, Shirley Manson, and our girl
Avril. Now, you may think CosmoGIRL would only give one vote to each
registered visitor. Instead, they encourage you to vote up to one hundred
times a day. So naturally, that's how many times I voted. I thought about
tossing a couple votes to Gellar because I dig "Buffy", but she's been
phoning it in for the past couple of years. In the end, all my votes went to
Avril.

The next task is to look for message boards and chat rooms and barrage them
with Avril propaganda. In case you're not familiar with these forums, the
basic idea is that anyone in the world can go to a website with a message
board or a chat room, and just start typing. For example, you may create a
subject titled, "Avril RAWKS", and post a few comments about why. Then a
dozen other people will come in and post messages saying, "Avril SUX". Then
you write back telling them to blow themselves. This can go on for days.

There are many message boards that focus on music, and all of them, from the
poppiest to the snobbiest, have at least a couple threads about Avril. Most
of them are negative, taking her to task for not being "real" and not being
"punk". Cocky teenagers with hit singles have to expect some amount of flak,
but Avril inspires profound hatred. On the "Total Request Live" boards,
punkdrummergirl15 writes: "I would love to wack her in the head with a
tennis racket (the one she should be holding!) she is a freaking yuppie
wannabe!!" Or from RapSmirk: "Avril Lavigne looks worse than an adult diaper
with semen in it."

As an upstanding member of the team, I just kept posting back, trying to
turn the tide. "She's not trying to be anything! She does what she wants—she
doesn't sing songs about being a punk, she sings about being alone, or
depressed, about being lonely but not wanting to act just like everyone else
in her class..." I ended each post with, "AVRIL RAWKS! Nobody's gonna talk
trash about my girl!"



THE MOST IMPORTANT FORUM IN POP—AND IT'S RUN BY IDIOTS

At the end of the week I sent in a detailed two-page status report. And then
I waited, until this Monday, when I got another update and found out how we
were doing. Let Go still holds the #3 spot on the Billboard 200—no movement
there, but at least it hasn't slipped. Nothing much else had changed. But
there was one way I could watch our progress: sit through "Total Request
Live" and see if Avril's video stayed at #1.

From what I can tell, "Total Request Live" is the most important forum in
teen music. It's a daily show that broadcasts live right after school, from
3:30 to 4:30. They rank and play the top ten videos of the day, ostensibly
chosen by you the viewer, who can call in or vote online for your favorite
music. In the days of street teams, labels encouraged the fans to call radio
stations and request songs. But TeamAVRIL doesn't even bother mentioning the
radio: it's too local, and no station can touch "TRL"'s influence. In
addition, radio stations barely take requests, while "TRL" claims to work
strictly from your votes. Granted, you only get 60 videos to choose from,
but if you want to write in a vote for some weirdo indie band, there's a
form for that, too.

Usually, Carson Daly hosts "TRL", but today the second stringers were in
charge: up in the studio was Quddus, a bland guy who kept saying "bro" and
"man" to remind us that he's black, and working the crowds on the street was
a featureless twig named Hilarie. These dopes made Daly look like Cronkite.

I waded through eight crappy videos before it came down to Eminem and Avril
fighting for the top spot. And Avril won! Eminem got the #2 spot with that
whiny song about how his moms didn't love him as a child. Listen, Em, you
goddamn bleached weasel, I've got problems, too—I don't need to hear about
yours. "Sk8er Boi" topped the charts once again and we got to watch the
video, where Avril flies around on a dirt bike, hangs with her band, and
runs around with that silly necktie she's always wearing. I clapped and
cheered. Maybe it was my 500 votes that put her over the top! Every little
bit helps.



IT'S ONLY CHILD LABOR IF YOU PAY THEM

Now, this is all pretty exciting, until you look at the big picture.

What do the members of TeamAVRIL get for all their hard work and trouble?
Nothing. That's right, nothing. Not even a t-shirt. At best, you're entered
in a contest to win a t-shirt, or an autographed CD. The hardest working
team member, out of all 60,000, wins an autographed guitar. But the rest of
us don't get shit—not a discount, not advance orders on tickets, nothing.

The site does promise 'exclusive content' that only TeamAVRIL members can
see. This might be cool for the dedicated fans that typically sign up for
this kind of stuff, but when I joined, nothing was up there but a clip from
the song "My World" (which is already on the album) and a personal message
of thanks from Avril: "Thank you for all of your e-mails and calls to 'TRL'
and [Canadian music channel] 'MuchMusic' which helped me get to #1 on both,
which in turn increased record sales..." Wow, that came from the heart.

The only real perk is that as soon as you're accepted as a member of
TeamAVRIL, you get access to their 'backstage area', where you can check
your TeamAVRIL e-mail (yourname@teamavril.com—prestigious!), or access the
message board. This message board seems to be the only one in the world
where nobody makes fun of Avril, thereby making it some kind of refuge.

I had a blast hanging around the board. You probably want me to quote some
of the funny things I read, in some kind of "16-year-old Avril Lavigne fans
say the darndest things!" expose. But I won't, mainly because I wasn't any
smarter or cooler at their age. Besides, apart from some arguments over
whether Avril really plays guitar or whether she's really punk, it was a
pretty average board. It has male and female fans, from their pre-teens to
early twenties. Kids wrote in to complain about the first day of school, or
make plans to meet after Avril concerts; they talked about music and posted
links to their home pages.

And even though I could rant about how TeamAVRIL is scamming us, I'm willing
to bet that most of the thousands of TeamAVRIL members just signed up to
hang out and use the board. After all, if everyone followed orders, Avril
would have 60,000 votes on the RollingStone.com "Who's Gonna Win the Pop
Pack Race?" poll; instead, she got a mere 4,000, putting her far behind
Anastacia and Dropline. Maybe TeamANASTACIA hands out free shirts.



CONCLUSION: WHAT A SCAM

A lot of energy gets wasted on this. It's free labor, with kids like me as
the suckers who click these stupid polls and chat up Avril. And it's even
worse because the company's not just after your time: they want to use you
as marketing data. Even the members who do nothing have handed the Hype
Council their names, ages and addresses. It never hurts to have 60,000
people come to you with their personal information, so whether or not
TeamAVRIL makes a difference, the Hype Council and the record company still
win.

But if the fans like Avril that much, more power to them: you can't really
choose the music you like. Heck, I'll admit even I've got a soft spot for
Avril after doing so much work for her. Maybe it's true what they say about
missionaries: if nothing else, you end up converting yourself.