Fefe Dobson revisits her debut album 20 years later: 'I'm very proud of the younger version of myself'
When the music industry wanted the teenage up-and-comer to go pop, she followed her instincts
It all started with a stupid little love song.
Twenty years ago, Fefe Dobson came crashing onto the scene with her self-titled debut album, a collection of songs that captured a moment in time: both personally for the then-teenage newcomer, and in the music industry when the raucous hooks of pop-punk were rising to the top of the charts.
The album opens with a sonic punch to the gut, "Stupid Little Love Song." Guitars and pounding drums in the style of Blink-182 kick in with such force that you literally lean back, unprepared for the tidal wave of sound washing over you. Its story of lovers from opposite sides of the track — "I came here by taxi, you came by limousine," Dobson sings — reveals a romanticism that fuels her music. Love can be stupid, love can be confusing and love can be crushing — but for Fefe Dobson, it's a mosh pit of feelings that she's willing to dive headfirst into, again and again.
"I love love so much," she admits to CBC Music, still proudly wearing her heart on her sleeve all these years later.
Most people probably remember young Dobson best for her debut single, "Bye Bye Boyfriend," an angst-filled kiss-off to a controlling partner. In the music video, Dobson walks onstage and performs with palpable charisma, bouncing around and posing confidently as she tells her newly dumped boyfriend, "It's time that I'd be on my way." While fellow Ontarian Avril Lavigne often gets credited for giving voice to angsty teen girls with her debut, Let Go, which came out a year before Fefe Dobson, the ferocity of "Bye Bye Boyfriend" makes "Complicated" sound timid by comparison.
"I had so many pent-up feelings that needed to come out," Dobson says, looking back at the anger — but also vulnerability — that went into her debut. "It was the first time I'd ever been able to just yell at the top of my lungs basically, and have people see me and hear me. I don't know what I would have done without [songwriting]."
'I was just following my instincts'
Dobson's signature brash sound almost didn't come to fruition thanks to the Canadian label she first started out working with. The label paired her with various writers in order to figure out her sound, and Dobson felt that something was off. "All the writers were rad and everyone was cool, but every time I listened back, it was just not me," she reveals. One day, she was at Toronto's Wellesley Studios with an assigned writer, working in a studio next to Canadian pop duo Prozzäk. Jay Levine and James Bryan McCollum came knocking, in search of a demo singer who could lay down vocals for their track "Get a Clue."
"It was a punk-poppy track and I had never gotten the chance to do that yet," she recalls. "That was what I wanted to do." When they were done recording, Levine approached Dobson: "Am I crazy? Do you realize that you shine on this?" It affirmed the direction Dobson had desired to go in, but no one around her had been listening. Levine and McCollum offered to write and produce an entire album with her — they couldn't promise success, but they could guarantee that they'd make something she could be proud of. When her label didn't see the vision, Dobson left: "I've got to take this chance."
It can be hard to go against the grain, doubly so when you're just a teenager getting started in the music industry who is made to feel like adults and professionals know best. But for Dobson, it has always been important for her to follow her gut — no matter what anyone says.
"When something feels wrong, I instantly feel it. I get anxiety, I feel sick," she confesses. "I was really just following my instincts and everything was pointing to Prozzäk. I'm very proud of the younger version of myself."
'I always try to educate through what I do'
While Avril Lavigne and other acts including Sum 41 and Simple Plan were laying the foundation for Dobson to build atop, one thing set her apart from the rest: she was a Black woman in an overwhelmingly white space. Being a woman in rock — at the time, Dobson described her music as pop-rock, noting that the term pop-punk only crystallized in later years — was already tough enough, but her race put up even more barriers that she admits she sees much more clearly in retrospect.
"I was so young that I kind of blocked a lot of it out, and I was very protected," Dobson explains. It's hard not to feel it overtly in instances like when record executives labelled her "Brandy Spears" ("She's a Black girl, but she's got a pop voice"), but in an interview with CBC's The Block, she expanded on how that early treatment has now given adult Dobson a sense of responsibility. "I always try to educate through what I do," she said, "because a lot of times we forget that history," noting rock's roots in Black music.
Pop-punk's recent revival has repositioned racialized women at its forefront, thanks to the successes of Olivia Rodrigo, Willow and Meet Me @ the Altar. This comes with some much-deserved flowers for Dobson and her early work, though she does squint at the use of the word "underrated," feeling that it slightly overwrites the reality of just how big her debut was. "I was on [MTV's Total Request Live] every couple of months, or maybe every couple of weeks," she says, with a chuckle. "My life changed in an instant."
"Bye Bye Boyfriend" peaked at No. 8 in Canada, and Fefe Dobson topped the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart. Her second single, "Take me Away," is still her only single to chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 87. And in 2005, the album earned a Juno Award nomination for pop album of the year (losing to Lavigne's sophomore release, Under my Skin). The stats don't paint a full picture of Dobson's influence, though, especially as it's grown more pronounced with young artists like Willow, who told Spin Magazine in 2021 that her own album Lately I Feel Everything was an ode to Dobson, Straight Line Stitch's Alexis Brown and her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, because they "were the only three Black rock singers that I knew of."
Fefe Dobson, as culture writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang wrote for Refinery29, "felt like permission — to be Black and angry in public, to partake in the cathartic release of the rage-fuelled emo music in a genre that had a unique way of articulating the isolation I knew all too well as a Black girl growing up in predominantly white spaces while also making me feel excluded from it."
The emotions spilling out of the album showed us an artist who was learning how to speak up, discovering who she was and what she wanted from others and from the world. It gave people her age — or younger — a roadmap to self-discovery and growing up. By the time we reach the Judy Garland-inspired closer, "Rainbow," Dobson is wiser and introspective as she assures listeners "that storms are like rainbows too/ they fade away, fade away." Hell is a teenage girl, but it's not a permanent state.
For as much as Dobson's music has become synonymous with anger and heartbreak, those emotions were never directed at her peers. She understands that comparisons happen, and even though she witnessed the media pitting female pop stars against each other (this was the era of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, etc.), she felt a kinship to artists like Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne. Last year, when Dobson spoke to CBC Music about Let Go's anniversary, she said: "There was definitely a connection there: two girls that felt cut from the same cloth, had really different lives, different struggles, different stories. And yet, we were both able to help teenagers get through things even though we were trying to get through things ourselves."
It's an unspoken solidarity they had, especially when they knew they were outnumbered by men. "The boys that I would tour with, like Simple Plan, they always made me feel like an equal," she recalls. "But in the back of my head, I was like, 'Man, I rock harder!'"
Twenty years later, she continues to rock harder than many of her contemporaries, returning with Emotion Sickness, her first album in 13 years. With thunderous drums and guitars roaring louder than ever, Dobson is living her best rock-star life, one stupid little love song at a time.