Girls Power-Pop

November 12, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


Tired of being compared/To damn Britney Spears," Pink sang on her second album, 2001's multiplatinum "M!ssundaztood." "She's so pretty/That just ain't me."

As the two teen-pop divas prepare to duke it out on the charts -- Pink's third album, "Try This," arrived in stores Tuesday, while Spears' fourth disc, "In the Zone," will be released next Tuesday -- the former Alecia Moore remains the anti-Britney.

Make no mistake: Moore/Pink has benefitted from a pop hype machine nearly as efficient and aggressive as the one behind Spears. But Spears is polyester, where Pink is 100 percent cotton denim; Spears is cubic zirconium, while Pink is a rough-hewn gem.

Lyrically and imagewise, Spears remains a tanned, belly-button-baring cipher -- a blank screen ready to project whatever sexual fantasies she thinks will sell her music. At 21, she's too old to play the Lolita role any more -- she's no longer straddling the fence of "Not a girl, not yet a woman" -- so she's going more traditional supermodel/sexpot.

In contrast, Pink, 24, is defiantly individualistic and proudly nonconformist, and her sex appeal stems from that attitude. More importantly, though, she has the goods musically -- a bold, brash, powerhouse of a voice compared to Spears' shrill, tinny chirp.

Part of the success of "M!ssundaztood" was due to Pink's primary collaborator on that disc, former 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry. (After it became a hit, Perry went off to work with Christina Aguilera and Courtney Love, among others.) Perry returns to co-write and produce four tracks here, but Pink also finds a new partner in Tim Armstrong of the punk band Rancid, who worked on nine of the 14 songs.

There are no straight-up fake skate-punk tunes a la Avril Lavigne, but not surprisingly, "Try This" boasts a healthy dollop of rock 'n' roll energy in even its funkiest dance grooves ("God Is a DJ," "Tonight's the Night") and sweetest ballads ("Catch Me While I'm Sleeping" and "Waiting for Love," which sounds like a psychedelic-folk outtake from "Led Zeppelin III").

As sharp as the songwriting and production are, though, the album succeeds because of Pink's exuberant personality. "I've been the girl with her skirt pulled high/ Been the outcast never running with mascara eyes," she sings in the opening track, "Trouble." "Now I see the world as a candy store/With a cigarette smile, saying things you can't ignore."

Some teenyboppers' parents may be alarmed by this troublesome girl's sassy persona and liberal use of cuss words (you should hear her go off on a beau who stands her up in "Last to Know").

But face it: Your kids have heard all of these words, and they probably use them when you're out of earshot. And who would you rather laud as a role model: a strong example of take-no-crap self-empowerment or an X-rated Barbie doll?

Despite her attempt to go "street" on "In the Zone" (a well-calculated move after three discs of saccharine pop that moved some 23 million units), Spears remains a stiff, cardboard caricature of a sexy dance diva on her first new album in two years.

Lyrically, she offers nothing beyond cooed come-ons and sweet nothings whispered to her imaginary lovers. Imagine a pornographic version of a doll that, when you pull its string, says things like, "Ooh, don't stop, because I'm halfway there," rather than, "I love you, Mommy."

Even if you discount that fingernails-on-a-blackboard voice (which benefits from more computer tweaking than the special effects for "The Matrix" films), the grooves are super-slick, soulless and lowest-common-denominator imitations of real, sweaty, funky hip-hop and R&B jams. And big-name collaborators like Moby ("Early Mornin'") and her Jive Records label mate R. Kelly ("Outrageous") do nothing to elevate the proceedings.

(Kelly's track is an odd, Middle Eastern-tinged bedroom groove that finds Britney bragging that "My sex drive ... my shopping spree" are both equally "Outrageous!" It would be interesting to hear the "still snow white despite it all" Spears' thoughts on the fact that Kelly is indicted in two states on charges of making child pornography.)

It's ironic that Madonna chose to pass her maternal blessings on to Spears via that infamous kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards and her appearance on "Me Against the Music," the lead track and first single from the new disc.

Yes, Madonna was always as crass and calculating as Spears in using sex as a sales tool (and she really couldn't sing very well, either). But Maddy had much better taste in plundering the underground dance scene for fresh grooves. And in terms of being a woman who is really in control, Pink is much more her kind of girl.