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.
It's a move industry observers now applaud as brilliant, but most people then just scratched their heads and wondered whether this young maverick wasn't out of control. It's risky changing styles, because you can alienate your old fan base without winning a new one.
A fateful message
Pink spotted Perry's number in a makeup artist's phone book and the brash young singer left a rambling 10-minute message on Perry's answering machine.
"Basically, I said, 'I love you. I've always loved you. You don't know me. Even if you've seen my videos, you still don't know who I am or know what I can do. But I want to work with you and if I can find your home number, I can also find out where you live and stand outside your window and stalk you until you agree to work with me.'
"Linda called right back and said, 'You're crazy. Come on over.' "
Pink and Reid are on great terms, but they differ on what happened next.
"Pink has circulated stories that I didn't like her record, which isn't true," Reid, who replaced industry titan Clive Davis as president of Arista Records in 2000, says with the patient aura of a father talking about a daughter who likes to stir things up.
"The first song she played me from the Linda Perry sessions was 'Get the Party Started,' and I thought that was a smash."
His later conversations with Pink, he says, were more along the lines of suggesting that she ought to include some music that wouldn't leave out her original radio base, the rhythmic R&B-pop; format.
"Everything on the new album was incredible, but it was very Top 40," he says. "I was trying to be a voice of caution. I didn't want us to eliminate any format that had been helpful in developing her career."
Pink chuckles when told about Reid's remarks. "I took him four of the songs I did with Linda, including 'Party,' and he jumped up and down and said he loved it. He was so excited that he even patted me on the head," she says.
"But two weeks later he said he had decided the new music was crazy and that it wasn't going to work. We had a meeting in Miami and he said I was abandoning my fans and that was a mistake. He felt that if the music isn't broken, don't fix it. He said: 'You're a new artist. You can't do this.' "
Pink said she wanted to make music her way or she'd just call it quits.
"I knew the risk involved," she says. "I'd seen artists change styles and fail miserably, but I've also seen artists change and continue to do well. That's why Madonna has always been an inspiration for me. I told him I had faith in my ability and I was willing to take the chance.
"And I have so much respect for L.A. because he turned around during that meeting. By the end, he said, 'OK, let's do it.' "
"Missundaztood" proved a winner on all counts. Critics were so impressed that the CD made the Top 50 in the Voice poll -- ahead of works by Tom Waits and Ryan Adams. Pink's raucous "Get the Party Started" did even better, tying Coldplay's much respected "Yellow" for No. 5 on the list of best singles.
Jeff Pollack, a top radio programming consultant, believes Pink's album "elevated" youthful pop in the process.
"I was shocked when I heard that second record. I thought, 'OK, here's someone who is going to be with us a long time,' " he says. "It's not disposable pop, which is 90% of what one hears. There's some substance, and she can really sing."
Reid isn't the only industry big shot who has been at Pink's side during her transition. There's also Roger Davies, a soft-spoken Australian who joined the list of A-level managers in the '80s by helping turn Tina Turner into a pop superstar in her post-Ike days. His other clients include Cher, Janet Jackson and Sade. He never expected to add Pink to his list.
Davies was impressed enough with Pink's presence in her first video to check out her debut album, but he was no more won over by it than critics were. When he later heard some of the early songs Pink wrote with Perry, however, he was intrigued.
"She not only sang along to the tracks, but she acted them out," he recalls. "She said, 'This song is going to be the first single, and this is how the video should be.' By then I knew I wanted to manage her. I told her that she was taking a huge risk by changing her sound, but she knew that. She was just fearless."
Pink, who lives in Los Angeles and has been dating motocross star Carey Hart for two years, had planned to continue working on the third album with Linda Perry.
But the songwriter-producer has become very much in demand since "Missundaztood." Aguilera, Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne are among the artists who have turned to her in hopes of upgrading their music.
Perry and Pink ended up working on only three songs together on the new album, and Pink is a bit vague about why. Perhaps Pink felt she no longer was getting all of Perry's attention. Or the rebel in Pink simply wanted someone else to help her move further into rock.
Pink found that new studio partner when Tim Armstrong, leader of the L.A. punk rock band Rancid, introduced himself at a video shoot in Los Angeles.
They ended up doing the bulk of the new album together -- the two co-writing songs and Armstrong producing the tracks.
The songs on "Try This" aren't as savagely personal as many of the ones on "Missundaztood," but they still soar above most of the day's generic teen-pop sounds.
Pink's writing lacks the artful subtleties and insight of Fiona Apple or the most absorbing young female artists, but there is something endearing about her bringing a sense of creative ambition into the commercial mainstream. Her singing, which may be her greatest strength, gives the tunes a personal stamp.
Despite the rock emphasis, the new album offers much diversity. "God is a DJ," written and produced by Billy Mann, has much of the dance-floor punch of "Get the Party Started," and "Oh My God," which she wrote with Armstrong, generates the sensual sparks of the classic singles Donna Summer made with Giorgio Moroder.
Pink's favorite track is "Unwind," whose lyrics are a salute to fireball '60s blues-rocker Janis Joplin. As she speaks about Joplin, it's easy to see why the young singer feels such affection for Joplin, who was another rebel outsider.
"The song's about being tough on the outside and vulnerable on the inside, and I see now that I am also talking about myself," says Pink, whose hair is now dyed blond.
"When I made 'Missundaztood,' I realized I wanted to show people who I really was. I always wrote poetry as a teenager and it was always so dark, but it made me feel good to get it out. I knew there was a chance that no one would relate to any of it in the music, but I wanted the album to reflect a real person. I was tired of being a marketing concept."
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Even a maverick needs role models
Pink reflects on two tough women who have influenced her work:
"I wanted to do it my way with my career, and I had this arrogant notion that people weren't just interested in my music but me as a person. That was my bit of arrogance, I guess. That's something I learned from Madonna. I was a fan right from the first time I heard 'Holiday.' "
"She was so inspiring by singing blues music when it wasn't culturally acceptable for white women, and she wore her heart on her sleeve. She was so witty and charming and intelligent, but she also battled an ugly-duckling syndrome. I would love to play her in a movie."
Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.