Pop & Hiss

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Can Pink be a rock star, please?

October 30, 2008 |  3:49 pm

Funhouse400 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. The messages that artists send out about matters that go beyond rhythm and noise -- like what it means to be a man, for example, or how a woman should behave -- influence fans' thinking beyond the reach of their headphones.

"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 returns of both Metallica and AC/DC, two of the most self-contained, successfully formula-bound bands still working, 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.

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 and witness the babes screaming for Chad Kroeger as he roars at them about how they'd look better with something in their mouths. The irresistible drive of a song like that 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. There are, in fact, some very prominent female rockers stomping around right now. 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 may be so deep as to be unsolvable. But every blow against it helps. That's why I'd like to propose we take Pink at her word when she tells us that she is a rock star.

Pink's fifth album, "Funhouse," was released to mixed reviews this 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.

In "So What," the album's chart-topping first single, Pink puts on her own particular superhero costume -- she's Party Girl, knocking over the table as she rampages around looking for fun. It's in this song that she sneeringly declares herself still a rock star. Supposedly her sass is directed at Hart, but she could also be talking to a general public who can't see past her platinum-minted co-writers, or the way her music sometimes dips toward R&B and Broadway style standards, or the flashy dance routines in her stage shows, and see that rock has her heart.

Here's another way to look at some of the tracks on "Funhouse." (We could start with the title, a possible homage to Iggy and the Stooges, as the Guardian's Caroline Sullivan noted in her review.) "Sober" is a power ballad structured just like a Nickelback song, with an infectiously repetitive melody, a soaring chorus, and a somber, earnest tone. The title track borrows its opening riff from "This is Radio Clash" by the Clash, a  "real" rock band if there ever was one. "Ave Mary A" sounds like Concrete Blonde taking lessons from U2. The spare, haunting "Crystal Ball" has a little Stevie Nicks in it, and "Glitter in the Air" bears the mark of Tori Amos -- and guess what, those women are rock stars.

Pink is a smart cookie, and she undoubtedly knows that allowing herself to be branded as one of those pop tarts who messes around with rock on the side makes for a better marketing campaign, with more crossover appeal. After all, it's not like she'd have much of a chance of breaking into rock radio. Now that the rock-focused side of the music industry has younger bands like Hinder re-manning the barricades, it's less likely than ever. But the truth is, Pink is what rock has always been: a mixed up, rebellious, border-crossing, wild young thing. Why not admit that she really does mean what she says?

--Ann Powers