When she arrived on the pop scene three years ago with the name Pink and hair dyed to match, Alecia Beth Moore was a marketing director's dream and a critic's joke.
With an R&B-pop sound as manufactured as her image, the 20-year-old Philadelphia-area native combined Madonna's tease, a punkette's rebellion and Looney Tunes flair.
Critics were so dismissive that her "Can't Take Me Home" album finished a hapless No. 780 on the Village Voice's annual best-album poll of U.S. pop writers, but the marketing team at Arista Records got the last laugh. Pink's album sold 3 million copies worldwide.
Rather than being thrilled, Pink was embarrassed. She felt like a puppet -- and rebelled. Seizing control of her career, she overruled record company concerns, recruited a new manager and set out to make a record she believed in. It was a remarkable turnaround that not only won over critics and sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide but also started a race among other teen pop stars like Christina Aguilera to add substance to their own sound.
Pink continues to push boundaries in her new, even more rock-oriented "Try This" album, which will be released Tuesday and is expected to be one of the holiday season's biggest sellers.
Rolling Stone called Pink's decision to take control of her career after the first album one of the most "radical R&B-to-rock transformations since Prince abandoned disco for a 'Dirty Mind.' "
Countless young pop stars share Pink's feelings of puppetry in an age when record companies carefully shape their images and big-name producers make the creative decisions for them. But most go along because they are more interested in being stars than artists.
"Everything in this business is designed to encourage you to play along," Pink says today. "They know people are so hungry for stardom that they'll just follow the record industry game. I know because I was ready to do anything when I started out.
"But I found that selling records wasn't enough. I told myself after the first record that I'd rather go back home and start over again than be trapped in a one-dimensional world any longer."
By breaking from the system, Pink demonstrates that artists, if bold enough, can still make a difference in a conservative pop business climate where everything from record company timidity to radio format rigidity discourages risk-taking.
A need for affirmation
As a teenager in Philadelphia, Alecia Moore wasn't concerned about artistry. She just wanted -- desperately -- to have a music career. She saw it as her ticket out of town and a troubled personal life.
Her middle-class parents -- mom was a nurse, dad an insurance salesman -- separated when Pink was in grade school. She lived with her mom until her rebellious attitude was too much and her mom kicked her out at 15, Pink says. She then lived with friends and relatives before moving in with her father.
"I was a very defensive kid 'cause I was really sensitive underneath and didn't want people to know," she says by phone from Stockholm, where she's stopped during a monthlong promotional tour of Europe. "So I came off as very tough and very angry. I can understand why my mom kicked me out. I don't know how she put up with me for that long. I was just out of control."
Pink was in love with everything from punk to hip-hop (Mary J. Blige's "What's the 411?" was the first album she bought). When she thought about a pop career, she was willing to move in whatever direction offered the most opportunity. If she lived in Nashville, she might have even turned to country. The only constant in her life at the time was massive ambition and the need for affirmation.
She formed a punk band in her early teens but then moved to a female R&B-pop trio named Choice because it seemed to have more of a commercial future.
She was right. Antonio "L.A." Reid, then the head of LaFace Records in Atlanta, heard a demo tape of the group and signed Choice. She was 16 and still went by her given name.
For nearly two years, Choice worked in the studio with different producers without much success. Finally, Reid persuaded Alecia to go solo -- and she came up with the hot pink hair and the name (taken from a character, Mr. Pink, in "Reservoir Dogs").
Pink eventually dropped the "Mr." but not the hair dye, and she continued to work patiently with various producers to find a hit sound. The result was the "Can't Take Me Home" album.
The singer's dramatic turnaround started by her refusing on the second album to rely on the A-list of big-name producers who are skilled at making pop/R&B that fits in with what is playing on the radio but often at the sacrifice of individuality.
She wanted to move closer to rock and thought Linda Perry could help her. It was a daring choice because Perry is a singer-songwriter who was anything but hot a decade after her fleeting success with the short-lived rock band 4 Non Blondes.