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Pink: Color her a rock star

The singer's new CD gets bogged down in overproduction, but you can clearly hear where her heart is.

November 03, 2008|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

Pop music is a crazy, mixed-up confetti pile, best when it's brimming over with colors and textures and shiny bits. That's why pop artists so vehemently fight being categorized; not only does it hurt their egos by shoving their precious self-expression into a box, it's bad for business. The truly super pop star leaps across radio formats and sales charts in a single bound; Lil Wayne benefits greatly from being the only rapper on a Joe Nickelback fan's iPod, and John Mayer makes bank as a fantasy date for ladies who love Mary J. Blige.

That said, categories do matter. People build their wardrobes, calendars and chosen families around them. Loving a kind of music becomes living a kind of life.

"Rock" is a category that some fans and artists diligently police these days. Interview somebody like Austin Winkler of the band Hinder, a self-styled champion of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and you'll hear the word "real" tossed around about 100 times. And the triumphant return of both Metallica and AC/DC proves that there's a huge hunger for a rock sound and style that seems pure.

But that urge is so boring. Don't we all know that rock's been about faking it ever since Elvis slipped away from his mama and pretended to be Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup in a Memphis recording booth? Mick Jagger faked being Tina Turner; David Bowie faked being a space alien, an aristocrat and Greta Garbo, all at once. Robert Plant faked being a good wizard, and Jimmy Page faked being a bad one. Angus Young is still faking being a naughty schoolboy, and he's older than Dumbledore.

It seems silly that rock lovers would cling to the idea that there's a right way to live the lifestyle and crunch the power chords. But more than in maybe any other pop style, rock's habits of exclusion die hard. Notice one thing about the list of legendary posers above: all white, all male.

Then flip to this week's Rock charts. Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks: all white, all male. The album chart gets a tiny drop of diversity from Katy "One of the Boys" Perry and the few female guests on a Halloween-themed soundtrack album.

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Leave it to the ladies

Let's leave race out of the conversation and just stick to that tired old subject of women in rock. Now, many women love to rock. Just go to a Nickelback show. Sometimes, the irresistible drive of a raunchy rock song can cause intelligent, mature, professional ladies to put aside their better instincts.

You don't think AC/DC sold nearly 800,000 albums at Wal-Mart in one week without a good chunk of those purchasers being moms in there to buy some toddler socks, do you?

I'm well aware that it can feel liberating for a woman to jump into the testosterone tank of "real" rock. I've been doing it for decades, and it's still fun. I've also been asked over and over to write essays about how this year -- 1989, 1994, 1997, 2007 -- is the year for Women in Rock, how the scales have really tipped and a new perspective is finally breaking through, only to have to admit that in the mainstream, the old, hard, hairy ways still rule.

It just seems sad that mainstream rock continues to lag behind other music cultures in letting women roar in their own way. Country's got Gretchen Wilson and Jennifer Nettles and even Carrie Underwood. The list in R&B is too long to enumerate. Indie rock's thoroughly diverse by now, and even underground metal has found a place for a few notable lionesses.

The seemingly unsolvable gender problem in mainstream rock is rooted in that idea of what's real. But aside from Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde, who've clung to their androgynous images like armor, none has passed the "real" test.

Whether it's Katy, Avril, Gwen, Kelly or even older sister Sheryl, a woman rocker is like a caterpillar: Once she blossoms into a commercially successful artist, she transforms into something else. She's a butterfly, pretty but expected to be short-lived; a fluttery creature of pop.

The prejudice might be so deep as to be unsolvable. That's why I'd like to propose we take Pink at her word when she tells us that she is a rock star.

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Parting shots

Pink's fifth album, "Funhouse," was released to mixed reviews last week. A compendium of her changing moods about divorcing tattooed motocross hottie Carey Hart, it's an imperfect collection, with a few too many mid-tempo meditations and not enough unfiltered Alecia.

The production is part of the problem -- built to support the many bells and whistles favored by its top producers (Horns! Strings! Cutesy back-up vocals!), the songs are too well-dressed to be as raw as they should be. But they're still rock songs, exploring the genre's favorite themes of indulgence and regret, emotional darkness and liberation.

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