One Non-Blonde

She didn't steal Britney's voice, but she did steal Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" hat: Pink
Terry Richardson

Do you really hate Britney so much you'd rather your daughter idolize a smug little acoustic princess like Michelle Branch? Sure, I'm with you--ideally a forced feeding of Sleater-Kinney and Polly Jean Harvey would allow blossoms of self-determination to sprout forth from your darling seed's imagination. But though some kids will cruise the aesthetic back roads, adolescence is, for most of us, an interstate of the soul, a bleak stretch with only the most standardized corporate sustenance available. When you pull off the freeway, you've got Taco Bell, you've got Wendy's, take your pick. Michelle Branch is the Wendy's of teen pop--the same old glop camouflaged with "classier" presentation. Her much-vaunted ability to write her own songs is the equivalent of a crisper leaf of lettuce and an extra half-strip of bacon slopped on the same charred sliver of beef grease.

With radio programmers employing such drab "quality" pop to court Teen Girls Too Smart for Britney, who can blame Alecia Moore, a.k.a. Pink, for muscling in on the action? I doubt many people thought of Pink and "damn Britney Spears" on the same synapse before the former's "Don't Let Me Get Me" complained pointedly that she was "tired of being compared" to everyone's favorite symbol of pop vacuity. After all, Pink's 2000 hit "Most Girls" meant to distinguish her from R&B gold diggers, not bottle-blond genies, and her debut album Can't Take You Home was more TLC than TRL. But like Eminem, Pink knows how to pick her enemies, consciously or un-, and her second album, M!ssundaztood (Arista) recognizes that more cash and cred flow to a not-Britney than to a not-Brandy.

That in mind, M!ssundaztood could easily degenerate into mere cheerleaderphobia, blackening Ultrabrite teeth with gleeful spite, just, you know, 'cuz. Yet Pink recoils from these Britney comparisons that seem to come not from the world outside but from her own mind. "She's so pretty," Pink practically sighs. "That just ain't me." Pink's "Every day I fight a war against the mirror" is the cry of the everygirl who steps up to the glass with internalized, unspoken expectations and slumps away with the disappointment of not seeing a Neutrogena commercial reflected back. The way Pink smothers her hurt beneath a deadpan front insists that this winnowing of self-esteem is not Britney's fault. Or the fault of Britney's fans. Or of L.A. Reid or Carson Daly or even the dickwad in chem who asks how come you don't have any boobs. That's life, Pink seems to say, sucks, don't it, let's get on with it already.

And for the first six tracks, getting on with it is what Pink does, dutifully acknowledging the tension between her outward bravado and inner doubts, then hiking her skirt up another inch and pounding Jell-O shots. The title track doubles as a confused statement of purpose, "Just Like a Pill" adds to pop's limitless store of twisted relationship metaphors, and "Get This Party Started" weaves through crowds with more DOR swagger than any white girl since Tiffany saw you standing there. Musically, M!ssundaztood is all glossy pop-rock arrogance up top and subtle R&B electro fillips underneath. (Pat Benatar remixed by Arthur Baker?) And the results motor along so sleekly, so brightly, so tunefully that Gwen Stefani should consider a new career--a stewardess, maybe, or a mom.

Then comes the long, dark look inside. "Family Portrait" is a crusher of a broken-home vignette: A desperate teen promises daddy that if he'd just come back home she'll never spill the milk at dinner or fight with her brother again. Even the unfortunately entitled finale "My Vietnam" overextends its metaphor past inadequacy, on through stupidity, further on to bravery, and straight up to resonance. You might imagine that new writing partner Linda Perry, mouthpiece of late-alt one-hit annoyances 4 Non Blondes, is Pink's model of self-expression. But it's telling that when Pink really cuts loose, on "Misery," she sounds perfect against her duet partner, that master of slick rock-soul Steven Tyler. Perry's bombast used to be merely a parody of emotional expression. But ever since Aerosmith abandoned integrity along with their other hazardous addictions, Tyler has jammed self-expression past the point of parody, his vocal overkill actually becoming affecting again.

Pink basks in a similar shameless exuberance. Any young woman can "express herself"; it's far trickier to stumble forward in the process of forging a self worth expressing. Because her feelings are just as real as yours--and just as clichéd--Pink is capable of embodying pop's deepest consolation: Yes, your pain is special and particular and yours, but no, your pain is not unique. Pink's bad-girl shtick (an act, even if she lives it like she sings it) inflates sexual and psychological and interpersonal turmoil to a grand scale--but more concretely than most teen pop. Adults are slow, after all. Sometimes you need to spell out the subtexts that pop and its teen audience ordinarily assume. You know, love is a battlefield that's tearing up my heart. So hit me with your best shot, baby, one more time.

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