Music

Pink vs. Karen O

What the Little Girls Understand

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Kyle T. Webster

For an artist like Pink—the 26-year-old party-starting imp whose primary claim to fame up to this point has been a handful of Linda Perry–facilitated pop hits and a smattering of headlines about whom she's been seen making out with—the bar for breaking new creative ground wasn't set too high. While she's always demonstrated a degree of tough-girl pluck, she hasn't done much to rattle her major-label cage. This changed dramatically with the release of her fourth album, I'm Not Dead. The feel-good dance-floor anthems are still there, but those infectious beats are now wrapped around a core of disarmingly smart, self-aware songs, executive-produced by Pink (with joint credit to collaborator Billy Mann), and delivered with the unwavering passion of a fiercely committed, left-leaning activist.

Her full-frontal attack on George W. comes from a similar political standpoint as Green Day's antiwar opus American Idiot, but with a deceptively demure, acoustic backdrop that throws lines such as "What kind of father would take his own daughter's rights away?/And what kind of father would hate his own daughter if she were gay?" into stronger relief. Moments like that abound, including the admonishment of a possessive lover, and a hilarious swipe at the pointless bravado of "pimp culture." However, the most arresting track is the first single, "Stupid Girls," an incisive, take-no-prisoners critique of female gender roles, beauty standards, and consumer culture. Lyrically, Pink alternates between cheeky laments ("Whatever happened to the dream of a girl president?/She's dancing in the video next to 50 Cent") and blatant barbs aimed at vapid girls who dumb themselves down to appeal to men ("Maybe if I act like that/That guy will call me back"). The video takes those assertions to literal levels, with Pink adopting the narcissistic, materialistic personas of Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson, and other Hollywood pop tarts, satirizing what she sees as a plague of stupidity ("The disease is epidemic/I'm scared that there ain't a cure"), and urging other girls not to assimilate ("Outcasts and girls with ambition/That's what I wanna see!"). Marxist theory it ain't, but for an artist with such a huge audience of impressionable females, giving them imagery and inspiration of this caliber is both a potent endorsement of feminist values and an admirable creative jump for a huge pop star.

Conversely, listening to the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs' CD, Show Your Bones, is disheartening. After Karen O's (AKA Karen Orzalek) move to L.A., and a few years under the helm of Interscope Records, these previously unhinged New York art punks sound soft, safe, and uncharacteristically one-dimensional. Gone are the deliciously deranged, lustful lyrics and signature yelps that made Orzalek's presence so electrifying—in their place are pop-sweetened coos, double-tracked vocal lines that evoke Tegan and Sara, and songwriting that sounds both cleaned-up and directionless. Though we do catch glimpses of their previous sonic mania on more spirited tracks like "Mysteries" (where Orzalek's galvanizing wail is briefly unleashed), there are also disturbingly unoriginal moments, particularly on the lead single, "Gold Lion," which sounds enough like Love and Rockets' "No New Tale to Tell" that it wouldn't be surprising if Daniel Ash and company came knocking with a copyright lawsuit in hand.

No one should expect a promising young band to duplicate their debut, but watching a beautifully chaotic, hypercreative punk trio mutate into something so sedate and toothless is jarring—especially when their frontwoman was such a kinetic, self-possessed presence. In 2003, Orzalek told Australian journalist Jane Rocca, "to be an influence on young girls is a huge responsibility, don't you think? As for my own fans, I hope they're getting something good out of following in my footsteps, whatever that may be."

What fans are getting from either of these women is debatable. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' sophomore effort may be frustratingly restrained and unfocused, but it's doubtful that Orzalek's arsenal is completely empty, and Show Your Bones could end up looking like one awkward misstep on the way to finding their future footing. Likewise, Pink's punk-minded feminism could be a wrinkle that her corporate handlers iron out before she heads into the studio again. However, if the aggressive marketing campaigns pushing both records put either of them in the ears of more young women (particularly those trapped in red-state hell), then we've hit a successful middle ground, despite their disparate directions.

hlevin@thestranger.com
 

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