Saturday, July 21, 2012

'Blow Me' Twice - Pink & Jeffree Star as Contrasting Pop Provocateurs

I'm not sure oral sex ever went out of style, but if it did it's currently enjoying a sort of - ahem - comeback in the pop music scene. A pair of pop provocateurs recently released fellatically (and almost identically) titled new singles whose shared nomenclature invites further comparisons that reveal much more than the basic which-one-is-better. Hearing Pink's newest single "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" alongside Jeffree Star's "Blow Me" exposes a significant difference between a skilled provocateur committed to his mission and a skilled provocateur who shirks it while still attempting to wear the uniform.

Pink, to her credit, has been a bonafide rebel at several points in her career. With her 2000 debut album Can't Take Me Home, Pink presented herself as an anti-pop starlet, defiantly eschewing the bubblegum pop of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (or appearing to) with poppy R&B, produced by the likes of Babyface and Tricky Stewart, that anticipated the blend of hip-hop and pop that would become the mainstream norm a few years later. She did this effectively because in most respects she really wasn't very different from Spears and the rest, with her platinum blonde hair and youthful white girl looks, her slickly crafted pop-based songs, even her voice, a low alto like Spears but with range like Aguilera. Her point was that white girls could be something in the music industry besides typical pop divas or sensitive singer-songwriters, following a path blazed by Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani in the late 1990s.

Pink's next two albums, M!ssundaztood (2001) and Try This (2003), were fiercely original collections of pop-rock songs oozing with anger, playfulness, and confrontation. The former included lyrics like "Tired of being compared/ To damn Britney Spears," while the latter spawned a music video viciously (and hilariously) lampooning celebutantes like Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson and Fergie. M!ssundaztood was a smash; Try This, released just as pop headed toward the streets and music headed toward the world wide web, was not. After that Pink went the safe route on her fourth and fifth albums, I'm Not Dead (2006) and Funhouse (2008), teaming up with the very people behind Britney Spears' early work against which she had so rebelled. It worked, with good but not exactly rebellious hit singles like "Who Knew" and "So What" that she performed well and seemed comfortable with, but then again Pink, like Spears, has always seemed comfortable no matter what she performed - a key trait that has allowed her such longevity through such a volatile period in the business. The last truly in-your-face think that Pink did was when she performed at the 2010 Grammy Awards, despite being snubbed in nominations, and simply blew the roof off the Staples Center with a midair ballad almost nobody had ever heard, sung live while spinning amongst aerial silks and spraying water all over the big nominees in the front rows.

Pink lampoons fellow pop star Jessica Simpson in the video for "Stupid Girls"
Now, Pink has crossed over into her 30s, reconciled with her husband, and popped out a baby, though she insists none of this has mellowed her out. That's probably true, since it was more likely the low sales of Try This that mellowed Pink out long ago. The fact is that Pink no longer provokes, even though she still acts as though she were. On "So What," she plays the role of the unhinged, jilted tough gal over tried and true Max Martin production effectively engineered for mainstream pop success. Her most recent single, the deceptively named "Fuckin' Perfect" (2011), was simply a ballad version of its companion piece, the underdog anthem "Raise Your Glass" - both of them Martin productions for Pink's 2010 compilation Greatest Hits... So Far!!! 

The best part of "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" is the title. That's a dubious trait for a pop song, and sure enough, it's all a snoozy ride downhill from there. It's telling that the song sounds like a mid-tier Martin tune, catchy but mostly ho-hum, when in fact the single is the work of Greg Kurstin. (Kurstin might be the Pepsi to Martin's Coke - hardcore fans can taste the difference, but in the end they're both cola, albeit the best on the market.) The single is disappointingly safe and conventional, even for a mainstream radio single, and these days that approach only works for Katy Perry and alt-rock/pop groups like Train and Maroon 5 - certainly not for a veteran like Pink, whose very brand was founded on rebelliousness and whose biggest recent hit celebrated being a "dirty little freak."

Judging from the song's wink-wink title and the three "shit"s in the chorus (conveniently able to be bleeped on radio without taking anything away from the song - another hint), Pink seems to have confused profanity with provocation and so she sprinkles it here and there after it's been baked like a housewife trying to jazz up a bland white cake from the box. This would all be fine, even unnecessary, if she weren't still trying to sell herself as a provocateur; Katy Perry and Rihanna have shown that it's okay to be up front about simply wanting to be a pop star who makes hit singles. She's taken a bit of her own advice: "don't be fancy, just get dance-y!" It's her prerogative, but she can't rely on half-baked shock value to sell a middling, dull single, much less her upcoming album (her sixth studio album, The Truth About Love, is due in September).

Jeffree Star is a provocateur not just in message but in his entire being. With neon pink hair, aggressively androgynous look, and confrontational lyrics, Star challenges homophobia, arbitrary standards of propriety, and societal notions of gender, all to great effect. It might be jarring to think of a man reclaiming the word "cunt," but he does so, largely by demonstrating that there is a woman inside every man and that one doesn't have to surrender entirely to his femininity (a la drag queens/transvestites) in order to express it fully. Star embodies a good deal of femininity while remaining outwardly male, not simply by acting effete - his voice, like many drag performers, remains unchanged from its natural baritone, and his male sexuality is fully represented in his lyrics (sort of an extreme extension of androgynous acts like David Bowie, Boy George, and Marilyn Manson). "I know you wanna suck me; what you waiting for?" he gloats in his tongue-in-cheek 2008 single "Lollipop Luxury," a song he performs in such a way that if you didn't know what he looked like you might easily mistake him for a lead singer from a pop/punk rock band like Panic! At the Disco (I certainly did).

Star's single, "Blow Me," off the upcoming set Virginity, is unquestionably more rebellious than Pink's tune of the same name, not just because it doesn't aim for mainstream radio but also because it at least attempts to venture beyond the mold. While that intent is clear and pure, its methods aren't always successful - the saxophone riff that introduces the song and reappears here and there throughout is so evocative of summer 2011 that is seems embarrassingly late to the party in July 2012, like that nerdy guy who still pops the collar of his polo shirt. But the techno bits between the choruses are legitimately fresh and savvy, and the verses are deliciously crafted and performed (Star gets bonus points for telling "haters who hate" to kiss his "flesh" rather than the more predictable and therefore less powerful "ass").

Where Pink uses "Blow Me" in a double entendre that might have come from Britney Spears' cutting room floor, Star uses it as a techno punch line, a la Duck Sauce's "Barbra Streisand" or Sak Noel's "What the fuck?" It's just after it, though, that Star throws his real punches in relaying the message of the song, and it's expertly done. "Faggot... You fucking fag!" he taunts repeatedly, defending himself against these "haters" by assuming their role and stealing their lines and turning them into parody. He does this with such confident yet understated mockery that the defendant becomes the aggressor, and there is no comeback for your own words used back at you that wouldn't simply counteract the insult flung in the first place. To be quite honest, hearing Jeffree Star spouting "faggot" around right and left manages to be far more empowering than Lady Gaga reassuring that we were born this way or Katy Perry screaming that baby, you're a firework.

When considered alongside Jeffree Star's single, Pink's lazy abuse of this particular sexual phrase doesn't look quite as destructive to its reputation, which is a good thing in that it allows her uninspired, unremarkable misfire to drift by us benignly and eventually disappear without leaving much damage in its wake. It does merit noting, though, that while Pink has laid claim to a leading role in the ongoing fight of the underdogs, in this round at least the charge is being led by a new warrior (whose hair actually is pink) whose particular effectiveness in the role adds sharp contrast to the self-serving, shallow nature of Pink's first new release in two years. Pink hasn't really done anyone wrong with "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" per se. But with his own single "Blow Me," Jeffree Star, in a provocative twist he surely never intended, has not only solidified his credibility as a leading pop provocateur, but also shone a light on another provocateur who right now needs to step up her game or change what game she wants to play. Hopefully the message will reach the right ears at some point, because any cause with both Pink and Jeffree Star at the helm would be the sort of force with which "haters who hate" would have trouble reckoning.

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