Deeper than her shiny pink guitar

Special to The Times

LAS VEGAS -- The pop star has an electric guitar in her hands. It's pink and glittery, and Avril Lavigne is strumming only a few simple chords as she sings, leaving her band to keep the volume way up onstage at the Pearl Concert Theater at the Palms Hotel & Casino. She's not a teen anymore but is still quick with a pop hook and is as striking and glamorous as any Britney-Mandy-Christina on the radio. Except for one thing: She wants it loud.

Now she's singing to the excited pop-punk riffs of "I Always Get What I Want," a song from 2004, shaking her head to the raging melodies and guitars, and singing from the toughest side of her voice. Lavigne looks happy this way, hand on her hip, with a cartoon skull-and-crossbones patch on one knee and a streak of bright pink in her long platinum hair. This is ecstatic pop with a bad attitude, catchy and impolite.

Lavigne used to be skittish about the "pop" label, but her 75-minute Vegas set shows the singer working to expand her range, sitting behind a piano for two radio-friendly ballads, stepping out with her six dancers for the bright cheerleader beat of "Girlfriend," her first single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Her audience is a mix of teens and tweens and older fans. Parents have brought their kids, a few of the tiniest ones standing on a riser between the stage and the barricade, right where Lavigne can see them.

"You guys want to see me play the drums?" the singer asks as a pink drum kit is rolled out. "Maybe I'll play drums better than I'm singing tonight."

She's making a joke. Her voice hasn't cracked or croaked at all tonight, but it was completely gone when she woke up, and she might have had to cancel. She made sure that didn't happen, using steam, tea and throat spray, and no talking at all for most of the day. (But she would end up canceling subsequent shows in Phoenix and San Diego, her first since being discovered at 15 out of Napanee, Canada.)

"I'm more mature and I'm older, so I look at things differently," says Lavigne after the show. She's 23 and two months into a six-month world tour, which lands at the Honda Center in Anaheim tonight and the Gibson Amphitheatre on Sunday. "I feel like I've learned how to be more of a performer and be more professional."

Lavigne looks relaxed if a little weary after her set, resting on a leather couch in a large but austere dressing room. The remnants of strawberries sit on a nearby tray. Her voice is a little scratchy and she becomes more or less animated depending on the subject, sitting up, reclining and kicking her legs up, standing up or looking down as she speaks, then up again with a bright smile.

"I was really bad at doing interviews when I was younger," she admits. "I'm really shy, and I didn't like doing them because I had to do so many. You don't really know how to have a conversation when you're that age -- with a camera and bright lights adding to the anxiety."

Success had come suddenly for Lavigne. After recording her debut album, 2002's "Let Go," she quickly scored major pop hits in "Sk8ter Boi" and "Complicated" at age 17, and dropped out of high school as a platinum-selling artist. Her 2004 followup, "Under My Skin," was another huge hit, with songs that were darker and more personal. After that, she says, she wanted to turn up the volume and dance. The result was her newest album, 2007's "The Best Damn Thing."

"I was on tour and I was like, 'I want to rock out harder, and I want to have more fun onstage,' " says the singer. "That's why I wrote this record: up and fun, and the boy-bashing songs are playful."

Some of the new songs are straight-ahead rock with big melodic hooks. Elsewhere, Lavigne steps deeper into pop. Melodies tend to come easily, and the singer says she can usually recognize a hit even before the recording is done.

"Girlfriend" came in a matter of minutes in a sudden burst of inspiration between Lavigne and producer Dr. Luke (a.k.a. Lukasz Gottwald) while finishing a different song at Conway Studios in Hollywood. "All the stuff I think is better always comes really quickly. 'Complicated,' the words came like that," she says, snapping her fingers to a fast beat. "I hate the stuff where you have to sit racking your brain and trying to figure it out."

She called on a variety of other producers and songwriting partners for the new album, including Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance) and her husband of nearly two years, singer Deryck Whibley of the band Sum 41. They worked on the album for six months, often writing songs in the studio. No outsiders or label insiders were invited.

"I said no one is going to hear anything until I'm done," says Lavigne, who lives in Bel-Air. "I was in the studio for six months, and no one heard anything. Then I was done, but I didn't want to be done. I wanted to keep writing."

She admits to being hurt by early skepticism about her role in the writing of her own songs, a fairly uncharitable accusation to hurl at a teen then just getting started. She co-writes virtually all her material: "I've gotten a lot of flak . . . for the whole writing thing. But I am one of the few people my age writing my stuff [in pop]."

Her future in that world is still open-ended. "There's a side of me that could definitely put out an acoustic folky singer-songwriter record, and I just might," she says, lying back again. "The last time I was at home I was writing some cool stuff, not thinking about radio but just for me, just doing some cool acoustic stuff. I might do a bit of that on my next record."

Or she could shift more in a direction suggested by a moment late in the Vegas concert when Lavigne and the band reprise "Girlfriend" as a bouncy hip-hop tune, with her crew break-dancing across the stage. "Did you think I was a good rapper?" she asks with a laugh. "I totally want to do a rap song. I'll have to think about that. I'll probably have to get drunk to do that one."


Avril Lavigne

Where: Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim

When: 7:30 tonight

Price: $26.50 to $52.50

Contact: (714) 704-2500


Where: Gibson Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City

When: 7:15 p.m. Sunday

Price: $35.50 to $55.50

Contact: (818) 777-3931

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