Avril Lavigne’s comeback single “Head Above Water”, the first song she’s released since 2015, is fairly easy to brush off at first. But, the music video she released on September 27 demands that you take another look.
Upon first glance, the song comes off as canned, the lyrics a little too on the nose and broad to be about her years-long battle with Lyme disease. The production booms, but didn’t feel raw in the way that something like Kesha’s monumental comeback single “Praying” did. In fact, it almost sounded like any dime-a-dozen empowerment anthem that’s hit the pop market in the past decade…at first.
However, it’s very easy to dismiss that perspective upon further listens. Not only is “Head Above Water” the most honest and raw Avril Lavigne’s been in over a decade, but this song oozes blood. Her vocal talent and range are far above much of what she’s previously exhibited, and she sells even the more formulaic lyrics with passion and sincerity. While some songstresses would utilize lyrics like “I’ll meet you there at the altar/as I fall down to my knees” to talk about turning to a lover in tough situations, Lavigne is literally kneeling to beg God for her life. The most striking lyrics are in the refrain: “God, keep my head above water/I lose my breath at the bottom/Come rescue me, I'll be waiting/I'm too young to fall asleep” It’s universal without being bland or being robbed of its power, which helps it stand its own against other empowerment anthems (even her own previous success, “Keep Holding On” from her 2007 album The Best Damn Thing.)
While she does mention God by name, she doesn’t need to in order to make the song feel transcendent and otherworldly. The production and instrumentation, switching from a bare piano ballad before introducing booming percussion and lilting strings, does that well enough. It doesn’t overpower Lavigne or cheapen the message; in fact, it does quite the opposite.
The music video only highlights the song, as Lavigne is clad in an angelic white dress with an ornate cross around her neck as she traverses desaturated landscapes that call back to Luke Skywalker’s isolation in The Last Jedi. The sea that surrounds her island is vast and strong, and she has nothing but her voice and her faith to keep her alive, even as she is submerged completely. Still, she emerges triumphant before plugging the website for her charity, The Avril Lavigne Foundation, and urging viewers to educate themselves about Lyme disease.While the context that she’s literally been fighting the disease since 2015 helps give the song its power and weight, you don’t need to know that for the song to evoke feelings from someone who hasn’t fought this specific battle. This track is incendiary, with enough detail to be about something real without being so specific that it’s not relatable.
Empowerment anthems, especially in the sphere of pop music, have had the tendency to be more than a little cookie cutter (such as Katy Perry 2013 hit “Roar”, or the worst of this kind of track: “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten). However, “Head Above Water” by Avril Lavigne proves that genuinely uplifting empowerment anthems don’t have to be bland or vague, nor do they have to be rare. They are allowed to have teeth, be personal, and genuinely bring a person to their knees.
The music video for “Head Above Water” can be found here and is currently available on all streaming platforms.