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Pop CultureSeptember 8, 2018

How did P!nk get so huge?


If you expected one pop singer to have five sold-out shows at Spark Arena in 2018, would you expect them to be P!nk? Sam Brooks says why you absolutely should, you fool.

Note: This isn’t about P!nk’s superhuman arms. If you want to know how to get swole like P!nk, I am of zero use to you. Godspeed, shredders and swollers.

P!nk (hereafter referred to as Pink, for readability and sanity’s sake) has sold out five shows at Spark Arena, and I’d wager she’s close to selling out a sixth. That’s nearly 60,000 seats sold in Auckland. That’s huge for an artist who you don’t see in the tabloids a lot, who doesn’t get meme’d or even really talked about prominently. You know her songs, but you might not put her name to them.

I was lucky enough to see her first sold-out show at Spark Arena this week (along with ‘Family Portrait’ superfan Madeleine Chapman) and I saw the whole place fuller than I’ve ever seen it. I’ve also seen the hugest variety of people at a concert that I’ve ever seen – along with more bad pink wigs than should be allowed in one place. There were children as young as five, adults who were old enough to have been around when the colour pink was invented by Elizabeth Ardern, women who had dragged their boyfriends there, boyfriends who had dragged their boyfriends there, and a whole lot of girlfriends who had dragged their fellow girlfriends there. Pink was for everybody, and everybody was there for Pink.

So how does someone who is seemingly so anonymous sell out a massive venue in a city that isn’t that big? And it’s not unique to just us, she’s had NINE shows in Sydney over the space of a month, to say nothing about sold-out performances throughout the rest of the world.

Let’s review.

P!nk’s brand has never wavered.

There’s something to be said for quiet, consistent competence – it’s not what necessarily makes headlines, but it makes for a pretty solid career. You can sell albums, you can sell concerts, you can even sell merch on quiet, consistent competence. There’s something more substantial to be said about quiet, consistent excellence though, and that’s what Pink has achieved throughout her career.

Pink debuted nearly twenty years agos when she was mostly known as being the white girl with pink hair who sang R&B. See exhibit A:

We don’t talk of Pink’s first album, even though ‘Most Girls’ and ‘There You Go’ are songs that would be, if not gems in a pop star’s career, at least earrings or bangles. And she seems to have disowned it entirely in the years since. What matters about it is that it put Pink’s brand into place immediately: she could sing, she had pink hair, and she played on a butch image that wasn’t too butch to be in the mainstream.

Which brings us to Missundaztood – still her best-selling album worldwide. It kept those core parts of her brand while pivoting to the Pink we now know, love, and buy many tickets to go and see. Namely, it was that her music was solidly pop with an alternative and authentic lean. Or, to be more accurate and cynical: Pink did unashamedly mainstream music, but the image around that music was one of being an outsider, of being alternative, of being more authentic than the rest of pop. 2002 was the year of Britney, Christina, Mandy Moore, and Jessica Simpson – a year when our female pop stars (or at least our white ones) were calculated in a way that even the general public could tell they were. Their feints at edginess and authenticity were closer to sexualisation and objectification. Ani DiFranco, they were not.

Take the two biggest songs from Missundaztood – or at least the two most enduring ones – and the two from the album that are still on her setlist.

‘Get The Party Started’. It’s absolutely just a song about having a cool fun party that sounds like no other song about having a cool fun party, likely because it was written and solely produced by Linda Perry (of ‘What’s Up’ fame). It’s not deep, it’s not edgy, it’s no more or less authentic than something like ‘I Gotta Feeling’. But it’s different enough to be distinctive, and it still doesn’t sound like anything before or since.

Regardless, this is the funny, silly and brash song. It positions Pink as someone you’d want to hang out with. Remember this part, because it’s very important.

The other big song? ‘Just Like A Pill’.

This is the authentic, emotional Pink. It’s Pink where she leans into rock, while still staying full pop. This song has hooks for days and a driving guitar line that pushes right through the whole thing. However dark this song, and this song doesn’t get darker than a song that sold over a million copies around the world. Crucially, the song was produced by Dallas Austin, also known as the guy who produced Gwen Stefani’s ‘Cool’, Blu Cantrell’s ‘Hit ‘Em Up Style’ and, most importantly, Stacie Orrico’s ‘Stuck’ and Monica and Brandy’s ‘The Boy is Mine’. So, yeah, this is mainstream pop, no matter how much it’s trying to convince you it’s real hardcore, man.

‘Get The Party Started’ is the Pink you want to hang out with. ‘Just Like A Pill’ is the Pink that feels like she’s talking to the sadder, darker parts of you. Both Pinks are pop stars, and both Pinks are key to her continued appeal and triumph.

Every Pink album has followed this trend. One hit is the Pink you wanna hang out with, another hit is the Pink that’s sad, dark and a bit edgy.

Try This: ‘God is a DJ’, ‘Trouble’. (Okay, this is kind of the anomaly here, and Try This is the other album that gets ignored on Pink’s tours – incredibly unfairly. It’s a glistening, arena-ready pop-rock masterpiece, and it would fit well with her full spectacle live aesthetic better than many think it would, but I briefly digress.)

I’m Not Dead: ‘Stupid Girls’, ‘Who Knew’.

Funhouse: ‘So What’, ‘Sober’.

The Truth About Love: ‘Blow Me (One Last Kiss)’, ‘Try’.

Beautiful Trauma: ‘What About Us’, ‘Beautiful Trauma’.

The most incredible thing about this is she’s managed to maintain it without it seeming calculated, or seeming like its a brand strategy. But you don’t sell tens of millions of albums without having a brand strategy, and if you’re a pop star without that strategy then you’re basically drinking and driving commercially. You’re a bloody idiot.

And Pink is no bloody idiot.

P!nk has never really fucked up.

Pink is savvy, you guys.

Let’s see a list of the collaborators Pink has worked with for the past twenty years.

Can’t Take Me Home: L.A Reid, Tricky, Babyface, Kandi Burress. If you were making an R&B album in the late nineties, these were your hitmakers.

Misundaztood: Linda Perry, Scott Storch, Damon Elliott. Along with L.A Reid, these are who you wanted in the early-00s if you wanted some guaranteed pop hits. If you were a female pop star who could hold even half a note in the early aughts, chances are Perry had a hand in one of your songs.

Try This: Tim Armstrong – yes, the guy from Rancid. Not the most natural pick for Pink, but if you were looking to do a faux-punk-rock album in the mid-aughts, you could do worse. Also, William Orbit did the lead single from this album, which is notable mostly because it gives me an excuse to one-up ‘Feel Good Time’, a forgotten pop gem.

I’m Not Dead: After parting with her label, Pink went full pop with these guys: Dr Luke, Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Butch Walker. You know, four of the guys who have been responsible for the biggest selling pop songs of the past twenty years. Just those guys.

Funhouse: More Max Martin, more Butch Walker, with a little bit of Shellback (a shitton of Britney songs, and some of the better Taylor Swift songs) and Tony Kanal (No Doubt’s keyboardist) for good measure.

The Truth About Love: A lot more Kurstin, a little bit of Martin, with a concerted lean into the more country-ish pop with busbee (sic, unfortunately) and Jeff Bhaskar.

And now with her latest album, Beautiful Trauma, she’s retained Kurstin, Martin and Shellback, because who wouldn’t retain two reliable hitmakers? But she’s also branched out into the likes of Jack Antonoff and Julia Michaels.

What’s the point of this exhaustive list? Basically, Pink is an incredibly consistent, good-to-very-good pop artist, and a lot of that comes down to some very savvy choices around collaborators. They’re always forward-facing while retaining those that have lead her to tried-and-true hits, but also allowed her to retain her distinctive voice and brand.

That’s a huge achievement in an industry where pop artists are now expected to reinvent themselves and simultaneously be the thing we first knew them to be – frozen in amber like Han Solo, but be The Last Jedi at the same time.

Which leads me to…

That voice.

Pink can sing. Watch the clip above. That’s not disputable.

But being able to sing does not make you a great pop star. That’s why there’s a show called The Voice, and why you can’t remember the name of anybody who was on The Voice. If being able to sing made you a great or significant popstar, then our charts would be full of musical theatre geeks, and thankfully we’ve just got Lady Gaga to fill that role for us.

What’s important about Pink’s voice is that you know it the moment you hear it. It’s strong, it’s got a little bit of grit to it but not too much, and it’s got enough personality to pull off an aural wink.

Don’t get me wrong, it helps that she’s got a good enough voice to sing live, and a good enough voice that people go, “Man, Pink can sing.” But if that was the most important thing about a pop star, then Britney Spears wouldn’t have been able to make a career out of lip-syncing to some very good pop songs for the past fifteen years.

You know Pink’s voice. And you know that if you go to see her live, you will hear Pink’s voice.

And look! A seamless segue into…

Her live show.

Since her carnival-themed Funhouse album, Pink has been incorporating trapeze and circus into her live act. It’s become so key to her brand that Pink might well be better known as the pop star who does circus than for any of her songs. If that’s how you know her, you’re weird and have been living under a strangely shaped rock for a while, but you’re not necessarily wrong.

As album sales decline and the icebergs slip into the oceans, it’s become more and more important to a pop star’s brand to cultivate a great live show. Look at Beychella, a one-off performance (well, two-off performance if you’re a pedant) that generated just as much hype and ink as an actual album drop. If you’re a big pop star, you better have a proper show to go with it. Only one current popstar can get away with standing there and singing, and that’s Adele. There are tens of thousands of words to be written on Adele’s success, and God bless the person who writes that, but it’s not me.

Pink is the only pop star doing what she’s doing, and that’s a bigger sell than anything else. You know if you’re shilling out $99 to see a Pink show, you’re gonna eventually see her do tricks in the air, risk her life, and finally, beautifully swing around the arena (spoiler: she does this thing, and if it somehow underwhelms your deadened heart seeing it through a screen, it fills you with all of life’s wonder and joy seeing it in person.)

Even if you don’t know any of her songs – and you will, because they get a lot of radio play for all the reasons listed above – then you’ll at least know that you’ll see her do fun tricks in the air.

Like the best, or savviest pop stars, she’s turned her live show into an event, but even more crucially, she’s turned her live show into something only she can do (or at least that’s how it’s perceived).

P!nk makes you feel like she’s talking to you – regardless of who you are.

And here’s the rub, ladies and gents.

The best singers make it sound like they’re singing just for you and just to you.

The best entertainers make that feeling fill an arena.

And the best popstars can do that on hundreds of tour dates, for tens of thousands of people, on an annual basis.

On Tuesday night, I saw an arena that was twelve-thousand full of people who have been spoken to by Pink in some way or another, in the past nineteen years. There were people like me – gay boys turned into gay men who love and respect a female pop star who can sing and dance at the same time. There were people who I’d never be in the same room with ever again, like the woman three rows in front of me, who I named ‘Shona’, in her fake merch and spray-painted pink hair, who danced along to every song and chose the ballads to go and get another drink. There were people from every segment of society, and it was what a sceptical marketing person would call a four-quadrant gig, but what I call an incredibly unifying and beautiful experience.

Because I love Pink.

Lady Marmalade

Just because I have nowhere else to place this, but honestly who would think Pink would be by far the most successful and long-lasting member of this 2001 pop hydra?

Keep going!