Is Avril Lavigne really dead? The rollicking podcast taking on the internet’s wildest rumour

internet’s wildest rumour

This article is more than 2 months old

The ludicrous theory that the singer was replaced by a lookalike set the internet on fire. Now, an addictive new podcast aims to finally get to the bottom of it

n 2011, a Brazilian blog called Avril Está Morta (Avril is Dead) put forth a ludicrous theory. What if Avril Lavigne wasn’t Avril Lavigne? What if she had been replaced by a lookalike shortly after the release of her debut album, 2002’s Let Go, and this lookalike had pursued her career for nearly a decade?

The theory quickly caught fire online. The story goes that Lavigne was plunged into a deep depression after the death of her grandfather and, her stresses compounded by the pressures of fame, killed herself in 2002. But the cynical, money-grubbing record executives who controlled her career couldn’t let go of this cash cow, so they drafted in a lookalike named Melissa to play Lavigne.

It’s one of those theories that sounds preposterous but contains just enough details to keep people from dismissing it out of hand. Lavigne’s appearance has changed a little (although 22 years will do that to you), as has her music (possibly because she isn’t a teenage girl any more) and her handwriting. Plus, she once wrote “Melissa” on her hand in a photoshoot. Suspicious or what?

It’s the sort of rumour on which the internet thrives, one that appeals to the reptilian slice of your brain that gets itchy when you think about conspiracy theories. Want to read something into her lyrics? By all means. Want to scrutinise the moles on Lavigne’s body in detail? Go ahead, creep. The theory is a hall of mirrors in which you can easily get lost.

Now it is the subject of a BBC Sounds podcast, Who Replaced Avril Lavigne?. A lot of podcasts would approach this subject with journalistic rigour, seeking to present a definitive answer. But Who Replaced Avril Lavigne? isn’t interested in any of this.

Melissa, is that you? … Avril Lavigne on stage. Photograph: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Its host, the Irish comedian Joanne McNally, doesn’t have the focus to put this rumour to bed. Yes, she conducts interviews. But on the basis of the first three episodes, none of them are relevant to the story. She interviews her best friend. She interviews Joe Lycett, who struggles to demonstrate even a basic understanding of who Lavigne is.

She interviews other podcasters, starting a terrible chain of events that will surely end with the podcast industry eating itself. She visits Lavigne’s home town but spends most of the trip looking at Lavigne’s childhood home, which doesn’t feel like a fruitful way to determine whether or not she died and was replaced by a doppelganger. If you came to Who Replaced Avril Lavigne? with a serious interest in the subject, there is a good chance you will abandon the series before the end of the first episode.

This would be a mistake, because it becomes clear that journalism isn’t the point of Who Replaced Avril Lavigne?. Lavigne’s supposed replacement acts as a vessel in which McNally can explore other subjects that interest her. She is extremely good at this. Her chat with Lycett ends up being about the weirdness of suddenly becoming very famous. He is remarkably wise, happily telling stories about how confused people are when they see him in supermarkets, even though they must know he needs to eat.

By the third episode, the series has found its feet. Lavigne is almost an afterthought as McNally embarks on a loose exploration of online conspiracy theories. She hints that she may be particularly susceptible to them, mentioning her brief interest in the 9/11 conspiracy film series Loose Change. Then she talks to Dave Benson Phillips, the beloved children’s television presenter, who in 2009 was the subject of a death hoax. Benson Phillips is funny (revealing that he heard about his death while clearing a dead seagull out of a gutter) and vulnerable (discussing how the hoax got so out of hand that he had to tell his loved ones he was still alive).

This podcast won’t give you any meaningful answers to the question in the title – but that isn’t the point. This is not a series about forensic scalpel cuts. This is a very funny woman riffing about how stupid the web is. Once your expectations have been sufficiently adjusted, it’s a hell of a show.

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