In a world of pop princesses, Pink was happy to play the villain. In the early studio meetings for the 2001 Moulin Rouge cover of “Lady Marmalade,” the then-22-year-old, whose debut LP didn’t even crack the top 20 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, chafed at the assumption that newly minted sex symbol Christina Aguilera would be the song’s preordained star. When Aguilera’s label executive declared that his client would take the song’s most challenging, highest notes, Pink pushed back: “She will not be taking that part. I think that’s what the fucking meeting is about.” The tension is obvious on the recording — Aguilera’s throaty croons go toe-to-toe with Pink’s raspy belts, neither really getting the last word (but Christina, inarguably, getting the highest notes). The story of that recording is a fitting metaphor for Pink’s breakout second album Missundaztood: It wasn’t enough to just be in the room; she wanted to call the shots.
Pink, née Alecia Moore, had reasons to be cynical of the industry by the time she and Aguilera stepped into the studio. Pink felt called to music from a young age, and she performed rapaciously as a child, in churches and school talent shows in her native Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and hip-hop nights and raves in nearby Philadelphia. By the time she was 15, she and two other girls from Philly formed Choice, a teen trio with an R&B heart. Their single made its way to L.A. Reid, and he signed them to LaFace Records in 1995. But before they could release their first record, Reid urged Pink to go solo. Her solo debut, 2000’s Can’t Take Me Home, was well-received at the time for its R&B influences, earning comparisons to fellow LaFace signees TLC. But Pink bristled at the constraints of LaFace’s sleek machine: “The first album was very much marketing,” she said later. She felt boxed in by the swift push to label her as a white R&B singer. She wanted to growl; they told her to purr.
Despite its relatively low #26 peak, Can’t Take Me Home ultimately spun off two top-10 hits, kept selling long after its release date, and led to Pink’s involvement in the chart-topping “Lady Marmalade.” Armed with a double-platinum first album and a soon-to-be-Grammy-winning feature, Pink felt emboldened to choose the direction of her follow-up. Can’t Take Me Home was a relentlessly contemporary record, cast in breakbeats and the glittering materialism of “bling bling” and “ching ching” that dominated the airwaves in the early 2000s. But the earliest inklings of her second record, Missundaztood, started almost a decade earlier, with the release of 4 Non Blondes’ Bigger, Better, Faster, More! in 1992.
Pink was a rebellious teen at the time, taking and selling hard drugs in her childhood home. She was mourning the end of her parents’ marriage and attending funerals of friends who overdosed. In her lowest moments, she turned to the words of 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry, a strange hero outfitted in steampunk goggles and a massive leather tophat. “She spoke my language,” Pink later explained. “Without having to say anything, she could sing a note and it was what I was feeling.” After finding Perry’s number in a makeup artist’s address book, Pink called Perry up and begged her to work on her second record; Perry, who was struggling to rise above the planned obscurity that besets so many one-hit-wonders, invited Pink to come write with her.
Missundaztood, released 20 years ago this Saturday, is as much a debut of Perry as a pop mastermind as it is a marker of Pink’s independence. “Get The Party Started,” the funk-tinged single that redefined Pink’s sound, began as a half-joke, as Perry tells it: The maximalist production came out of her attempt to learn ProTools to remain competitive as a songwriter; fascinated by its capabilities after a career of tracking songs directly to tape, she threw in every weird chord and digital horn she could find. For the lyrics, she tried to write “every clichéd line I can think of.” The first thing that came to mind was “I’m coming up, so you better get this party started.” Perry came to Pink with the song after Madonna’s team turned it down, and Pink transformed it into a snot-nosed and snarled entrée into the next phase of her career.
“Get The Party Started” is an outlier on an album otherwise filled with ballads and bratty punk-inspired breakdowns. Perry worked with Pink to process her pent-up anger from childhood, and the album feels like a good cry after years of faking a pretty face. “Dear Diary” in particular is a slow, shuffling stab in the gut about feeling disillusioned and abandoned. And though Pink collaborated with other songwriters like Scott Storch and LaFace affiliate Dallas Austin, the vulnerability she achieved with Perry is felt throughout the album. “Family Portrait” gives a heart-wrenching blow-by-blow of her parents’ divorce, almost painful to hear in its emotional specificity.
Pink shouted the quiet parts hidden in bubblegum blues like Britney Spears’ “Sometimes” loud and clear. “Just Like A Pill” and “Don’t Let Me Get Me” were pop songs for fuck-ups — “I’m a hazard to myself,” she screamed on the latter. The album was also filled with the kind of self-aware double-entendres that have become a hallmark of Pink’s lyrics: “L.A. told me you’d be a rock star/ All you’d have to change is everything you are” could be a reference to the pressures of Los Angeles but was actually meant as a dig against L.A. Reid, who disagreed with Pink’s new pop-rock direction. There was a frankness and darkness that felt subversive on pop radio — taking morphine, overdosing, being compared “damn Britney Spears.” Her insecurities balanced the outsized persona on “Get The Party Started,” and her rage overpowered her more ill-fated album tracks (she loses the plot a bit on the extended war metaphor “My Vietnam”). Pink may have set out to shed her image as an R&B singer from LaFace, but Missundaztood quickly hitched her star to another brand: pop music’s rebel rouser.
Missundaztood cemented Pink as a pop mainstay and Perry as a highly sought-after songwriter. In a tragic turn, the two fell out after Perry gave her next hit single, the sentimental and slightly mawkish ballad “Beautiful,” to enemy number one Aguilera. Pink and Perry’s collaboration turned them both into stars in their respective fields — Missundaztood broke into the top 10, and Perry went on to write for Gwen Stefani, Adele, and even Dolly Parton — but it would take years for them to reconcile, finally recording together again in 2017. (Pink and Aguilera also later made amends.)
Pink’s rise to pop-rock royalty feels like a fluke in the parasitic landscape of early 2000s teen pop. Her early career mirrors so many Mickey Mouse Club misfires and burnt out Billboard stars, but she somehow wrestled autonomy of her image and sound in an industry practically fueled by harnessing complete control of their young, primarily female stars. It’s easy to take for granted the messy vulnerability of Olivia Rodrigo or Billie Eilish, or Miley Cyrus and Ashlee Simpson before them, but Pink did double backflips in the air so that they could simply feel the freedom to headbang.