The Number Ones

April 27, 2013

The Number Ones: Pink’s “Just Give Me A Reason” (Feat. Nate Ruess)

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Pink toured stadiums last year. She played Hyde Park, and Gwen Stefani opened for her. It’s been eight years since Pink’s last top-10 hit, but she still packs them in. If anything, she’s playing bigger venues than she was before the pandemic. Some of that is down to consistency — an extremely long stretch of fists-up singalongs. Some of it is Pink’s reputation as a very good live performer who does death-defying aerial-gymnastic stuff while singing. But Pink’s touring apparatus is doing numbers that aren’t quite so easy to explain. Vast numbers of people are still paying to see Pink because she’s a titan in her field, and we might need to start considering her place in the all-time pop-star pantheon.

I must confess that I’ve never thought of Pink as an A-list pop star. She’s just always been kind of there — a familiar voice on the radio, but not one that’s ever fully commanded the zeitgeist. At this point, though, Pink has been famous for a quarter century. When you think back to her class of Y2K-era TRL pop stars, the only other one who’s currently touring huge venues is Beyoncé. If Eminem or Britney Spears wanted to tour, they probably could hit stadiums, but they’re not doing that. I once saw Pink open for an on-fire Justin Timberlake at Madison Square Garden. Today, Justin Timberlake could probably open for Pink. (He wouldn’t do that, but he could, and maybe he should.)

I only have vague memories of hearing “Just Give Me A Reason,” Pink’s duet with Fun. singer Nate Ruess, back when that song first came out, but the chest-banging duet was huge in ways that I never fully clocked. On YouTube, the “Just Give Me A Reason” video has 1.7 billion views. On Spotify, the song has well over a billion streams, and it’s by far Pink’s most-played track. Maybe Pink in general, and that song in particular, speaks for more people than I realized. Maybe I’ve underestimated her. Maybe you have, too.

“Just Give Me A Reason” was the third single from Pink’s sixth studio album. It came out after she’d already released a greatest-hits collection. It’s a collaboration with a singer whose time in the spotlight was just about over. It’s a ballad. Everything was working against this song, but it still sailed all the way to #1 and stayed there for three weeks. In the process, it became Pink’s third Hot 100 chart-topper — or, if you count the “Lady Marmalade” posse cut, her fourth. “Just Give Me A Reason” overachieved in every conceivable way — not least by being a pretty good song.

In 2010, Pink released the career-spanning collection Greatest Hits… So Far!!! — one of the few times that a best-of album has justified that kind of overconfident title. Pink recorded a few new songs for Greatest Hits… So Far!!!, and two of them were massive hits. One of them, the fired-up and quasi-empowering Max Martin jam “Raise Your Glass,” went all the way to #1. Pink became a mom in 2011, which meant that she understandably stayed pretty quiet for a little while. (Her one big 2011 activity was taking the voice role formerly played by the late Brittany Murphy in Happy Feet Two.) Late in 2012, though, Pink came back with The Truth About Love, album number six.

By the time she made The Truth About Love, Pink’s pop-star bona fides were well-established, and she would work with whoever she wanted. The album’s credits are full of big pop names: Max Martin, Butch Walker, Dan Wilson. She teamed up with Eminem, someone who’s been in this column a bunch of times and who doesn’t often appear on pop stars’ albums, on “Here Comes The Weekend,” which probably would’ve been a single if it was any good.

Pink’s main collaborator on the album was Greg Kurstin, a music-business lifer who’s already been in this column for his work on Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Pink and Kurstin wrote the Truth About Love lead single “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” a great title in search of a great song. The track hits lots of familiar Pink beats — anthemic chorus, vaguely naughty lyrics, struggle-heavy lyrics — while also biting the riff from Modest Mouse’s “Float On.” (“Float On” peaked at #68 in 2004.) “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” couldn’t match the towering sass of previous Pink hits like “U + Ur Hand,” and it never really pushed past generic status, but it still did pretty well, peaking at #5. (It’s a 5.)

The Truth About Love came out while “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” was still on the charts, and it debuted at #1, giving Pink the first chart-topping album of her career. (Like Rihanna, Pink took forever to overcome the notion that she was a singles artist.) Pink followed “Blow Me” with the surging ballad “Try,” the one Truth About Love song that she didn’t have a hand in writing. Songwriters Michael Busbee and Ben West first tried shopping that track to Kelly Clarkson and Daughtry before it ended up with Pink. Pink still delivered “Try” like she meant it, and Greg Kurstin produced her version, cramming the mix with EDM synths that were arranged like arena-rock guitars. That song was a hit, too, climbing as high as #9. (It’s a 6.)

But the biggest song from The Truth About Love wasn’t one of the ones that Pink recorded with Greg Kurstin. Instead, “Just Give Me A Reason” came out of a songwriting session with Nate Ruess and producer Jeff Bhasker, Ruess’ collaborator on Fun.’s giant hit “We Are Young.” When Ruess and Pink worked on the song together, Fun. were in the process of breaking up, but Ruess didn’t know that yet. He hadn’t even considered the idea of singing a guest vocal on a Pink record. For him, it was just a songwriting gig.

“Just Give Me A Reason” isn’t a breakup ballad, exactly. Instead, it’s a ballad about the moment that might come just before a breakup. It’s about the point where one half of a couple thinks that things are running out of gas and the other half just has no idea. At one point, Pink told Spotify, “Sometimes [one partner] can be like, ‘The way you passed me the butter this morning, I kinda feel like we’re going to be over in a month and we need to talk.’ And he’s like, ‘I just passed you the fucking butter, what are you talking about?'” (That’s via Songfacts. I’m pretty bad at using Spotify, and I can’t find Pink’s explanation of the song on there.) This is a point that a lot of couples reach, and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an operatic, melodramatic ballad. I think that’s one of the good things about “Just Give Me A Reason.” It avoids cliché by focusing on smaller moments of disconnect rather than going for the cathartic yawp of everything falling apart.

Originally, “Just Give Me A Reason” was going to be Pink taking on one perspective, singing about one side of a relationship’s dissolution. (While working on The Truth About Love, she drew on the stretch, years earlier, when she and husband Carey Hart separated.) After the session, though, Pink had the idea that “Just Give Me A Reason” should be a duet. It should be both people describing their own perspectives. This was smart. I think “Just Give Me A Reason” is way more interesting as a conversation than it would be as a soliloquy.

After the songwriting session, Pink wrote the song’s second verse, the one that Nate Ruess actually sings on the track. Then she had to get him to come in and sing the song with her. He didn’t want to do it. In 2013, Pink told Billboard, “Nate wasn’t sure that he wanted to be on a collaboration with a pop star. Their label is an independent label; they weren’t sure. And I just kept telling them — well, I kind of tricked him into doing it… I was like, ‘This song is a conversation between lovers.’ And he had to do it because he’s my favorite voice right now, aside from probably Adele.” (I’m now realizing that “Just Give Me A Reason” would be better as a Pink/Adele duet.)

When Pink says that she tricked Nate Ruess, she means that she badgered him into recording a demo vocal: “He was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know how my band’s going to feel about it.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I get it. I wouldn’t want to be on a song with a pop star either. But you can’t deny that it’s a conversation — you just put the vocals down as the scratch vocal and I’ll get Gotye to sing it.’ And I knew that was a huge dig.” Gotye was the guy whose song “Somebody That I Used To Know” knocked Fun.’s “We Are Young” out of the #1 spot. Gotye probably would’ve said no, and Pink presumably wasn’t even serious about asking him, but Ruess didn’t know that. Pink played that boy like a piano.

It took a long time and a lot of work for Pink to get “Just Give Me A Reason” into the shape that she wanted. She told Billboard, “I wrote that song, I fought for that song, I fought to have Nate do that song, I fought for the entire thing. And it took many, many months to make that song happen. And I just didn’t give up. When I fucking want something, I go after it.” But one of the good things about “Just Give Me A Reason” is that it doesn’t sound like the result of behind-the-scenes machinations or even Pink’s auteurist vision. The final track isn’t quite as spare as the Adele and Bruno Mars ballads that have recently appeared in this column, but it’s rougher and less sleek than most of the big, thundering tracks that Pink was releasing around that time. In some ways, it really does sound like two people talking past each other.

Duet chemistry is such a fascinating science. You can never tell when two voices are going to sound good together. Sometimes, the voices are too similar, and they blur into each other. Sometimes, they’re too different, and they don’t mesh. Your opinion on “Just Give Me A Reason” probably depends on your feelings about Nate Ruess’ singing. It has come to my attention that plenty of people cannot stand that man’s voice. It’s like sandpaper on their brains. I understand that, but I have a relatively high tolerance for the whine-yelp of the whole emo tradition which is where Ruess got his start. On Fun.’s biggest songs, Ruess yowls like he’s trying to be Freddie Mercury, and the grandeur of the arrangements surrounds him and pushes him up. On “Just Give Me A Reason,” Ruess has nowhere to hide. It works for me. It might not work for you.

The two voices on “Just Give Me A Reason” are pitted against each other, which means they’re forced to compete with one another. When Pink stomps all over Nate Ruess, that’s part of the song’s text. Pink is a fucking pro, and she knows how to deliver this kind of bruised lament with sympathetic force. She’s raw and smoky, and she lets us hear the cracks in her voice. When she amps up to the chorus, you can hear why she’s still playing stadiums. That’s a stadium voice. Nate Ruess does not have a stadium voice. He’s a guy who happened into a flukey hot streak. I like his voice, and I like how he sounds thin and mewly next to Pink. It works for the song. And when they sing together, they sound awesome.

Jeff Bhasker produced “Just Give Me A Reason,” and he played almost every instrument himself. Those instruments are all electronic; it’s programmed drums, keyboards instead of pianos, synth-strings instead of real strings. (The guitars come from Anders Mouridsen, a Danish-born session guy who also played on records from Taylor Swift, future Number Ones artist Meghan Trainor, and Rancid’s Tim Armstrong.) The track opens with nothing but Pink’s voice and some florid, Elton John-sounding piano. It builds and builds, with the distorto-drums that Bhasker used on maximal Kanye West records and the dramatic, clanging drones that movie-trailer editors add to old pop songs. The production is a little thin, but it never distracts from the voices or the melody.

Pink starts off “Just Give Me A Reason” by describing the subtle ways that this couple is coming apart. The guy is talking in his sleep, saying things that he doesn’t say to her. When Ruess comes in, he pleads total ignorance: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand where all of this is coming from/ I thought that we were fine.” Relatable! I’ve been that guy too many times! On the chorus, both Pink and Ruess beg each other to fix things: “We’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.” The song ends with everything left unresolved. They’re working to meet each other, but they don’t know if they’ll get there. That part is relatable, too.

I really like the chorus. The chorus always shows up exactly when it should. It changes a bit based on who’s singing it. The singers put everything into it. It scratches some weird melodic mental itch. Whenever I hear that chorus, I’m happy that I’m hearing it. That chorus keeps “Just Give Me A Reason” from getting too maudlin or serious. I don’t think that “Just Give Me A Reason” is some classic pop song, but it does have a great chorus, and that’s probably the most important thing that a pop song can have.

It’s less important, but I’m not into the “Just Give Me A Reason” video. Director Diane Martel opens things up with Pink floating on a dream-cloud, in bed with a creepy glowing-eyed teddy bear and her husband. When Nate Ruess first appears, he’s on a TV, which seems to get around the inescapable fact that Pink and Ruess would never make a remotely believable couple. She’d break him like a toothpick. Eventually, though, we see Ruess and Pink singing together, staring at each other and wearing old-timey American Bandstand-ass clothes. I don’t know what’s supposed to be happening there, and I think it looks stupid.

“Just Give Me A Reason” ultimately went double platinum, and it would almost definitely qualify for more certifications now if RCA wanted to pay for them. At the 2014, Grammys, Pink did her aerial-gymnastics things while performing “Try,” and then she went straight into singing “Just Give Me A Reason” with Nate Ruess. Pink released one more single from The Truth About Love, the Lily Allen collaboration “True Love,” and it only reached #53. She followed that one with a side-project record. In 2014, Pink and Dallas Green, from the Canadian bands Alexisonfire and City And Colour, formed a duo called You+Me and released a folky album called Rose Ave. None of its singles charted in the US, and the whole project missed me completely. I think it’s kind of cool that Pink snuck that one past us.

Fun. never followed their massive Some Nights album, and they officially went on hiatus in 2014. Considering everything that Jack Antonoff is doing these days, I don’t expect that hiatus to ever end. Nate Ruess didn’t seem to have much interest in a solo career. He released one album, 2015’s Grand Romantic, which was full of the songs that were supposed to be on Fun.’s third album. He reached #77 with lead single “Nothing Without Love,” and he hasn’t made another album or been back on the Hot 100 since. Soon after “Just Give Me A Reason,” though, Ruess sang the hook on “Headlights,” a song from Eminem. “Headlights” peaked at #45.

For most of the past decade, Nate Ruess has stayed out of the spotlight. He did some writing for pop stars like Kesha and future Number Ones artist Halsey. He hosted a podcast about the Lethal Weapon TV series, the kind of deep-nerdery passion project that I simply must respect. In the past couple of years, Ruess appeared on a couple of tracks from currently-incarcerated rap star Young Thug, and he also played SNL with Thug. The Nate Ruess/Young Thug connection might seem random, but if you’ve ever seen the oddly hypnotic Instagram videos of Thug singing along with “Some Nights,” then you know that guy is a big Fun. fan. (“Some Nights” peaked at #3. It’s a 9. Young Thug’s highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2020 Chris Brown collab “Go Crazy,” also peaked at #3. It’s a 6. As a guest, Young Thug will appear in this column a handful of times.)

Pink returned to the pop charts when she recorded the Max Martin/Shellback collab “Just Like Fire” for the soundtrack of the 2016 sequel Alice Through The Looking Glass, a movie that I solemnly promise to never, ever watch. (“Just Like Fire” peaked at #10. It’s a 5.) Pink also had a second kid in 2016, and she sang on a few tracks, including a Kenny Chesney single that became a country chart-topper. (On the Hot 100, “Setting The World On Fire” peaked at #27.) In 2017, Pink followed The Truth About Love with Beautiful Trauma, which might be the most Pink album title that I can possibly imagine, though 2019’s Hurts 2B Human gives it some serious competition. “What About Us,” the lead single from Beautiful Trauma, peaked at #13. I like that song.

From there, Pink eased into the lucrative legacy-artist phase of her career. She won the Video Vanguard award, got a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, and sang the National Anthem at the 2017 Super Bowl. (I have to imagine that she’s somewhere on a short list of potential Halftime Show performers.) Pink also toured heavily, and she made a lot of money doing that. These days, Pink is much less of a factor on the Hot 100, but she’s not out of the picture. Last year, her album Trustfall debuted at #2, and its title track made it to #82. I’m not expecting Pink to appear in this column again, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it happened. Even if she never charts again, she’s had a hell of a run.

GRADE: 7/10

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Pink and Kelly Clarkson, an artist who’s been in this column a few times, singing “Just Give Me A Reason” together at last year’s iHeartRadio Music Awards:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. It’s in the stars! It’s been written in the scars on our hearts! We’re not broken, just bent! And you can learn to buy the book!

more from The Number Ones