The Week In Pop

Pink’s Party Is Still Going Strong, It’s Just Taken A Maudlin Turn

Pink has never fit in — so much so that not fitting in has become part of her personal brand. Despite spending two decades operating from deep within the mainstream machine, Alicia Beth Moore can believably tout herself as a pop star for the outsiders and the rebels. It’s a weird thing to say about someone whose music is about as far from alternative as you can get, but that’s the strange balance she’s been striking for all these years: She releases deeply accessible songs largely untethered from industry trends, spiked with attitude and agnostic to genre. She hasn’t bothered with being cool. Being herself has been enough.

Her achievements have not always been recognized. Rarely does Pink come up in conversations about her era’s greatest, most important pop stars. When MTV awarded her the Video Vanguard Award at the VMAs two years ago, many including myself wondered if she belonged in the company of icons like Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West. When her album Beautiful Trauma put up the year’s best sales figures — many of those albums bundled with tickets for her acrobatic live show — I was forced to reckon with the scope of her success and how much she means to a huge number of people. I might not consider her an icon, but somebody does. A lot of somebodies do. But with new album Hurts 2B Human, out tomorrow, her unique career path has led somewhere all too familiar.

When Pink debuted with Can’t Take Me Home in 2000, she did so as a boilerplate pop-R&B singer, signed to L.A. Reid’s LaFace Records and working with scene mainstays like Babyface and Kandi Burruss. It got her a foothold to the tune of two top 10 singles, rampant MTV exposure, and an opening slot on NSYNC’s blockbuster tour promoting No Strings Attached. Perhaps most importantly, it secured her a place in the Moulin Rouge “Lady Marmalade” remake, which became her first #1 hit. What the album didn’t do was establish a distinct identity for Pink, who was just 20 at the time, fresh off an adolescence spent singing in Philly clubs and the non-starter girl group Choice. Reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, Douglas Wolk wrote, “She makes a pretty good Monica, but we already have one of those.”

It was not a coincidence that her second album was called M!ssundaztood. With that project, Pink began carving out her own lane, one she’s still redefining to this day. She moved in with songwriting legend Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and spent months writing material that incorporated rock elements while maintaining a pop essence. The album kicked off with lead single “Get The Party Started,” a funky dance track with a driving organic pulse, Pink amped up her spiked-punch vocals to a siren blare: “I’m comin’ up so you better get this party started!” It was a risk, a distinct break from the Timbaland and Neptunes production that ruled the airwaves at the time. Even riskier: On follow-up single “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” Pink called out label head Reid by name. “L.A. told me, ‘You’ll be a pop star/ All you have to change is everything you are,'” she sang. “Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears/ She’s so pretty, that just ain’t me.”

The risks paid off. M!ssundaztood went quintuple Platinum and cemented Pink’s superstar status. She was suddenly much more difficult to pigeonhole: a pop star equally capable of selling the surging rocker “Just Like A Pill,” the hip-hop-inflected “Family Portrait,” and a piano-lounge duet with Steven Tyler called “Misery.” For 2003’s Try This she worked closely with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, duetted with Peaches, and cut a track with producer William Orbit — an even more radical approach that resulted in the commercial nosedive some had predicted for M!ssundaztood. When the hits dried up and sales hit a career low, she began to rein in her more outré impulses while still finding ways to infuse her music with her signature attitude.

Perhaps smarting from passing on the eventual Kelly Clarkson smash “Since U Been Gone,” Pink brought in that song’s writer/producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke for 2006’s I’m Not Dead and 2008’s Funhouse and came away with similarly anthemic singles, songs that rightfully attracted “Since U Been Gone” comparisons but also rightfully became hits in their own right. At the same time, she teamed up with grungy rocker Butch Walker and Billy Mann, a fellow pan-genre Philadelphian who’d remain a close collaborator for years. Indigo Girls and No Doubt’s Tony Kanal showed up along the way, among others.

A new equilibrium was established, in parallel with the likes of Clarkson and Avril Lavigne but still sometimes intersecting with hip-hop, dance, and R&B. She had zeroed in on a signature sound, a sassy form of pop music powered by rock guitars and playfully sneering lyrics. At its most audacious, it was the musical equivalent of an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt, albeit one far too comfortable and expertly tailored to have been purchased at a gas station. Here was a self-styled salt-of-the-earth badass who seemed to be presenting her authentic self to the world. A lot of people who couldn’t relate to Britney Spears probably saw themselves in her.

It’s hard to believe, but five albums and more than a dozen hits deep, Pink was only approaching her commercial peak. Funhouse’s stomping breakup anthem “So What” exemplified her sound at its most aggressive. Responding to a real-life separation from her husband, she declared, “So what? I’m still a rock star!” It became her first solo #1 single. When she released Greatest Hits … So Far!!! two years later, it generated another #1, the pop-rock club banger “Raise Your Glass.” The power ballad “Fuckin’ Perfect” fell just short of becoming another chart-topper. Both that one and “Raise Your Glass” were recorded with Max Martin and Shellback during the producers’ unstoppable imperial phase, yet their ethos was distinctly Pink. She was soaring — sometimes literally, as by this time she had begun putting her gymnast childhood to use by incorporating high-flying acrobatics into her live shows. (She says her training began with hanging upside down on a jungle gym singing while aerialist Dreya Weber punched her in the stomach.)

Pink’s era of dominance rolled on into 2012’s The Truth About Love, which shockingly was her first #1 album and unsurprisingly yielded another #1 hit, a piano-led duet with Fun. singer Nate Ruess called “Just Give Me A Reason.” Pink’s albums had always included some soft-rock influences, but “Just Give Me A Reason” foregrounded those impulses. Its success marked another pivot point for Pink, steering her in an adult contemporary direction she further explored when Beautiful Trauma finally emerged five years later, again with an intriguing mix of co-conspirators ranging from Eminem to Jack Antonoff. She continued to pull at that thread with “A Million Dreams,” her contribution to last year’s blockbuster The Greatest Showman soundtrack.

Pink’s career path stopped being risky a long time ago, yet the parameters she’s set for herself remain broad. Thus, the Hurts 2B Human rollout has included four very different singles. First came “Walk Me Home,” a vocoder-laden Mumford-folk anthem with a chorus big enough to swallow you whole. She wrote it with Ruess, who knows a thing or two about gigantic choruses. Another somewhat grating rock hit-maker, Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, helped write “Hustle,” a jazzy, bluesy retro finger-snapper marked by cheeky outbursts like, “Bitch please, don’t try to hustle me.” The emotional electronic shimmer “Can We Pretend” features DJ trio Cash Cash, while the title track is a somber duet with pop’s reigning maudlin youngster, Khalid.

These songs are all competent, catchy, and punched up with the frank lyrics that have been Pink’s truest through line. They will get stuck in your head and, in some cases, make your body move. They show an artist who’s found her comfort zone and has successfully grown her music up along with her (she turns 40 this year). Yet if Pink’s early music was sometimes unfairly slagged as inessential, the label fits better than ever here. I don’t even think these singles are bad, exactly. If they came on the radio I wouldn’t necessarily turn them off. I am just not sure why anyone would actively seek them out beyond a preexisting attachment to Pink.

Hurts 2B Human is full of songs like that. Pink remains a consummate professional, and this time around she’s employed a small army of fellow pros including Martin, Shellback, Teddy Geiger, Beck, Sia, Julia Michaels, Chris Stapleton, and Greg Kurstin along with aforementioned Ruess, Reynolds, Cash Cash, and Khalid. Together, they hit all the expected beats and deliver consistently strong performances. But Pink has spent the second decade of her career undoing that sense that you’re hearing a wild card, and Hurts 2B Human puts that notion to bed once and for all.

It might put you to bed, too. The album is heavy on power ballads, many of them inspirational in tone. It helps that Pink is singing, both because she can really wail and because she still peppers her songs with real-and-raw rhetoric that feels like genuine expression. Sometimes this means verses punctuated by stray expletives, and sometimes it’s straightforward confessions like this one from “Happy”: “Since I was 17/ I’ve always hated my body, and my body’s always hated me.” The picture she paints on the dark, computerized Wrabel collab “90 Days” is evocative: “We’re driving in a black car, and it’s blacked-out and we’re spinning/ We’re listening to ‘Fast Car’ and you’re driving fast and you’re singing.” Her writing remains sharp, though not always, as we’re reminded when she praises her partner’s “Big-time Johnny Cash kind of love/ McDonald’s type of love” on “(Hey Why) Miss You Sometimes.”

Pink is still a distinctive presence on her records — brash yet vulnerable, snarky but likable, versatile without losing her center. Yet those records have grown increasingly bland and maudlin with the years. Undoubtedly, they will resonate with the audience she’s targeting, and maybe that’s enough. Despite the assembly line quality that plagues most of the album, there’s too much palpable emotion in these songs to reject them as mere product. Still, for someone who only recently started to take Pink seriously, the lack of spark on Hurts 2B Human stings a bit. I want to root for her, but at the moment I don’t care to listen to her.

CREDIT: Big Hit Entertainment

CHART WATCH

BTS just scored their third #1 album in under a year. Per Billboard, the K-pop phenomenon’s seven-track collection Map Of The Soul: Persona logged 230,000 equivalent album units and 196,000 in pure sales. Those are both career bests, and the 230K represents the fourth biggest debut of the year following Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, and Backstreet Boys.

BTS are the first group to land three #1 albums in less than a year since the Beatles released their three-part Anthology series in 1995 and 1996. The last artist to do it was Future with DS2, What A Time To Be Alive, and Evol between August 2015 and February 2016. The last group to release three #1 albums in a shorter span was the Monkees between February and December of 1967.

Billie Eilish and Khalid are at #2 and #3. Debuting at #4 with 55,000 units/39,000 sales is Anderson .Paak’s Ventura, his first top 10 album (last year’s Oxnard peaked at #11). Nipsey Hussle and Ariana Grande are at #5 and #6. Beyoncé’s Homecoming: The Live Album debuts at #7 based on two days of tracking, during which it tallied 38,000 units and 14,000 in sales. The motley crew of Juice WRLD, Post Malone, and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie round out the top 10.

BTS also have their highest-charting single to date on the Hot 100. But let’s work down from the top, where Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” remains for a third straight week. According to Billboard, its 125.2 million on-demand streams last week represent the second biggest streaming week ever, bested only by the 143 million streams “Old Town Road” put up the week before.

Post Malone’s “Wow.” returns to its #2 peak, swapping places with his own Swae Lee collab “Sunflower,” now at #3. Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” Halsey’s “Without Me,” and Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” are at #4, #5, and #6. Up to a new #7 peak is Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing With A Stranger,” becoming Smith’s sixth top 10 hit and Normani’s second following the Khalid duet “Love Lies.”

Debuting at #8 is BTS and Halsey’s “Boy With Luv,” the aforementioned Hot 100 peak for BTS and their second top 10 hit overall following last year’s #10-peaking “Fake Love.” It’s also Halsey’s fifth top 10 single. Rounding out the top 10 are Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” at #9 and Cardi B and Bruno Mars’ “Please Me” at #10.

POP FIVE

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Julien”
“Julien” has received a positive response, but all I can think about is how poorly it compares to “Run Away With Me” as an album opener. Officially concerned about Dedicated.

Kygo & Rita Ora – “Carry On”
This is no better than OK, but the phrase “Rita Ora’s Detective Pikachu song” fills me with delight.

Kim Petras – “Broken”
Those Travis Scott-style ad libs are really doing it for me. So is the misty synth-trap beat. So are the vocals, which seem to have converted human emotion into neon light.

Galantis – “Bones” (Feat. OneRepublic)
I used to really like Galantis, but man, dropping a whitebread OneRepublic collab that sounds outdated by half a decade is not the move.

LANY & Julia Michaels – “Okay”
“I’m gonna be okay — right?” That’s a great hook. I just wish it was a Julia Michaels solo song because it’s totally on her wavelength, and LANY guy is killing my vibe.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Adele and her husband have separated. [AP]
  • In his first onstage appearance in 2 years, Justin Bieber joined Ariana Grande at Coachella and said his new album was coming soon. [Variety]
  • However, TMZ reports Bieber is still about a year away from having an album ready. [TMZ]
  • Despite initial reports to the contrary, Grande and Beyoncé were paid the same for Coachella ($4M per set). [The Blast]
  • Lizzo announced her fall North American Cuz I Love You Too Tour. [Lizzo]
  • Jonas Brothers’ reunion album Happiness Begins is out 6/7. [E!]
  • Katy Perry hopped on a remix of Daddy Yankee and Snow’s “Con Calma.” [YouTube]
  • Tierra Whack, Chance The Rapper, Childish Gambino, and Kesha are among this year’s Webby Award Winners. [Webby Awards]
  • BLACKPINK performed “Kill This Love” on Corden. [Rolling Stone]
  • Alessia Cara covered Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird” for her Spotify Single. [Spotify]
  • Mark Ronson and Lykke Li released a video for “Late Night Feelings.” [YouTube]
  • Sam Smith dropped out of some live events — including the upcoming Billboard Music Awards — to focus on his health. [Twitter]

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