The Number Ones: Pink’s “So What”

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The Number Ones: Pink’s “So What”


In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Does Pink count as a rock star? The term “rock star” has been basically meaningless for as long as I can remember, so I don’t have a problem with Pink claiming rock-star status, especially in the year after the Shop Boyz’ “Party Like A Rock Star” and Nickelback’s “Rockstar” were both top-10 hits. Pink first rose to fame by making R&B-adjacent teen pop in the Destiny’s Child mode, and she’s never really gotten play on rock radio. As soon as she reached the point where she could assert some career control, though, Pink reinvented herself as a husky-voiced growler of hard emotional truths — something not altogether unlike a rock star.

Maybe Pink was being deliberately provocative when she called herself a rock star on “So What,” her first solo chart-topper. But everything that Pink did in those days was some type of provocation. In an era when rock stars were becoming an endangered species, maybe Pink reflected some new evolution of the term.

When Pink calls herself a rock star on “So What,” the “rock” part might be up for debate, but the “star” part is not. Pink has had a long, strange career, but she’s a remarkably consistent presence. At this point, Pink hasn’t had a massive chart hit in a while, but she can still pack arenas whenever she wants. Anyway, the line about being a rock star isn’t really the point of “So What.” Instead, it’s a song about going on a hedonistic bender after a bad breakup. There’s some serious emotional stuff happening on “So What,” but the song remains big and bright and silly. Pink recorded “So What” when she was going through a heavy time, but she still turned the song into a fists-up singalong. Maybe that’s what rock stars do.

“So What” sounds nothing like the music that Pink made when she first appeared on the pop landscape, but the song is still philosophically aligned with her earliest material. Pink arrived in the wake of the late-’90s teen-pop boom, and she made an immediate impact on TRL, where she was presented as a clubby and racially ambiguous R&B singer. Even in the beginning, though, Pink was making hits that dismissed clueless chumps and materialistic girls. Pink co-wrote most of those hits, too. One notable exception was “Most Girls,” the biggest hit from Pink’s 2000 debut Can’t Take Me Home, which peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) Pink didn’t have anything to do with writing that song, a Babyface production. Even on “Most Girls,” though, you can see an early version of Pink’s persona. The music changed, but that persona stood strong for decades.

Pink has already been in this column once, as one of the four singers on the version of “Lady Marmalade” from the 2001 Moulin Rouge soundtrack. Pink did good work on that record; her vocal is probably my favorite of the four. But Pink wasn’t terribly comfortable among her teen-pop peers at the time; she and Christina Aguilera famously butted heads. Later that year, Pink would dramatically reinvent herself, taking pains to distance herself from everyone else in the TRL ecosystem.

“Get The Party Started” was the bridge record. Pink had always been a huge fan of 4 Non Blondes, the ’90s alt-rock one-hit wonders. When she got to work on her 2001 sophomore LP Missundaztood, Pink called up former 4 Non Blondes leader Linda Perry, who was surprised that Pink wanted to work with her. (Pink likes to tell the story about how she stole Perry’s phone number from her hairdresser.) Perry wrote and produced the funky, cartoonish club-jam “Get The Party Started,” which wasn’t too far from Pink’s first-album singles and which peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) But “Get The Party Started” was also a red herring. Most of Missundaztood was Pink in the sincere singer-songwriter confessional zone, and a lot of the album is even about how hard it was to get the album made.

On her follow-up single “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” Pink sang about not wanting to be “compared to damn Britney Spears” and about the vision of pop stardom imposed by her label boss LA Reid, who gamely appeared in the video. Pink fought to record songs like “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” which sounds like an extremely bright and polished take on ’90s Lilith Fair music. “Don’t Let Me Get Me” is closer to what you’d imagine from a Linda Perry song than “Get The Party Started,” but Perry didn’t have anything to do with it. Instead, Pink co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Get Me” with producer and TLC collaborator Dallas Austin, who reached deep into his “Unpretty” bag. Dallas Austin also produced and co-wrote Pink’s likeminded follow-up “Just Like A Pill.” That’s a nice little encapsulation of how Pink’s career would go — making pop songs with rock producers and rock songs with pop producers.

“Don’t Let Me Get Me” and “Just Like A Pill” both peaked at #8 on the Hot 100. (“Don’t Let Me Get Me” is a 6, and “Just Like A Pill” is a 7.) Those songs got people emotionally involved in Pink’s whole story, and Missundaztood sold more than twice as much as Pink’s debut, eventually going quintuple platinum. Pink’s relatively risky choices had paid off. But when Pink tried to push things further on her next record, she fell on her face, though she did it in a cool way. Pink’s main collaborator on her 2003 LP Try This was motherfucking Tim Armstrong from Rancid, my favorite band of all time. Armstrong has hooks for days, but it takes real gumption to hear that guy’s broken-tooth gurgle-slur and to think that he’s going to help you crank out some hits. (Rancid, it’s worth mentioning, have never once been on the Hot 100.)

I think about Try This all the time. It’s a fascinating what-if album, a strange look into an alternate world where Rancid’s adrenaline-smashed gutter-punk style could work as juiced-up pop music. But that’s not what happened. Try This bricked, barely limping to platinum status. Tim Armstrong produced and co-wrote lead single “Trouble,” and that song only got to #68. (Good song, though.) After that massive career setback, Pink felt compelled to call her next album I’m Not Dead. She bounced back a bit when the not-very-good lead single “Stupid Girls” made it to #13, mostly by pulling the popular move of targeting the Paris Hilton/Lindsay Lohan types who were so prevalent in pop culture at the time.

I saw Pink open for Justin Timberlake when he was on the FutureSex/LoveSounds tour, and the pairing seemed weird. Timberlake was dominating the pop universe, while Pink’s career seemed to be on the wane. Her set was truly impressive, and it included a version of the aerial-gymnastics act that she’d later bring to awards-show stages, but a good live show won’t get you back on the radio. Instead, Pink got back on the radio thanks to her work with Justin Timberlake’s old *NSYNC collaborator Max Martin. Martin and his protege Dr. Luke had already made some major hits with Kelly Clarkson, and they’d developed a version of Martin’s gleaming teen-pop sound that brought charged-up guitars into the mix. That combination turned out to be perfect for Pink.

Max Martin and Dr. Luke produced three of the songs on I’m Not Dead, and they co-wrote all of them with Pink. Two of those songs became hits. “Who Knew” is the same kind of rousing anthem that Martin and Luke made with Kelly Clarkson, while the raunchier “U + Ur Hand” is about telling some jerkoff to go jerk off. Both songs peaked at #9, and I’m Not Dead went double platinum. (“Who Knew” is a 7. “U + Ur Hand” is an 8.)

Those two hits fueled a major Pink comeback, and they set her up nicely for the moment when Max Martin and Dr. Luke took over the charts. But Pink hated working with Dr. Luke. Years later, Kesha, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, accused Luke of all kinds of abuses. Pink said that she didn’t know what had happened between Luke and Kesha but that Luke, in her experience, was “not a good person… I have told him that to his face, and I do not work with him.” Pink has kept working with Max Martin consistently over the years, but she never did anything with Dr. Luke again.

“So What,” the song that took Pink to #1, is a Max Martin track, but Martin didn’t make it with Dr. Luke. Instead, Martin and Pink co-wrote the track with another Martin protege. Karl Johan Schuster, better known to the world as Shellback, is another Swede. Like Max Martin before him, Shellback came up in metal, though his version of metal wasn’t anything like the Bon Jovi-type stuff that Martin made in his old band It’s Alive. When Shellback was a teenager, he had a solo black metal project called Meriah. Eventually, Shellback became the singer for Blinded Colony, a band who made melodic death metal of the distinctly Swedish At The Gates/In Flames variety.

Max Martin heard something in the metal stuff that Shellback was making, and he brought the 21-year-old Shellback to record demos at his studio in 2006. A year later, Martin signed Shellback to his Maratone production company. “So What” was one of the first songs that Shellback worked on with Martin. Shellback came up with the main “So What” riff, which sounds like a bully making fun of you on the playground, while he was touring with Blinded Colony. Martin and Shellback put a backing track together and sent it to Pink, and she loved it. The song became a vehicle for Pink to talk some shit.

In 2001, Pink started dating the motocross racer Carey Hart, and they got married in 2006. Early in 2008, though, Pink and Hart separated, and “So What” is all about going out of control post-breakup. Even when she’s writing about tough, emotional situations, Pink generally doesn’t take herself too seriously. “So What” is almost a cartoonish version of how it feels to snap into fuck-you mode when you suddenly find yourself single again. Pink just lost her husband; she don’t know where he went. So she’s gonna drink her money; she’s not gonna pay his rent. She’s got a brand-new attitude, and she wants to wear it tonight. She wants to get in trouble. She wants to start a fight.

Pink gets knowingly bratty and childish on “So What,” and that’s the fun of it. The song is self-aware. Pink knows that she’s being ridiculous, and she cranks that up to Looney Tunes levels in the video. On the second verse, Pink gets pissed off at a waiter giving her table to Jessica Simpson; she can’t resist one more shot at a former TRL peer. She’ll go sit with a drummer, and I always took that line to mean that she could always go fuck Tommy Lee, though maybe I’m reading too much into it. On the bridge, Pink suddenly gets raw and wounded, howling that this guy was never there for her. By the time the song ends, though, she’s back to clowning him; the last sound on the track is her blowing a literal raspberry.

“So What” veers in different directions emotionally, but Pink sells the whole song with gusto. She sounds great, leaning hard into the raspy and Pat Benatar-esque grain of her voice. You have to act to sing a song like “So What.” It’s a fun song, so you need to sound like you’re having a blast singing it. But you also need to sound like you’re one flat tire or lost phone bill away from a panic attack. Pink sells all of that. I don’t really like all her goofy little asides — “check my flow,” the Jessica Simpson line — but she throws herself into that melody.

As with every Max Martin track, the melody lands harder than the lyrics. The track is all hooky, maximal precision. This was a pop moment when even a halfway-rock song like this one didn’t sound anything like musicians in a room together. The sound on “So What” is hermetically sealed; you can practically smell the ProTools. The beat is the same kind of gleaming glam-rock stomp that Martin and his collaborators brought to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” and all the little production choices — the rising guitar drone leading into the chorus, the rave-style keyboards on the hook — heedlessly mash all my pleasure receptors.

I appreciate that kind of sugar-bomb construction. I don’t have to do any work to get into “So What.” The song exists entirely to jam an adrenaline needle into my heart. That kind of track has a practical utility; there’s a reason why body-pump classes always use songs like “So What.” If you’re looking for an honest look at the fallout from a breakup, then “So What” might not work for you. That’s not the point. The point is the sudden burst of empowering energy.

With the “So What” video, director Dave Meyers puts Pink in all the most ridiculous situations. The clip opens with what must be a George Jones homage: Pink piloting a riding mower to a Sunset Boulevard liquor store. Then Pink smashes a guitar in a music store. She chops a tree onto her neighbor’s front lawn and humps the air with her chainsaw. She gets naked and does the “Thriller” dance in front of red-carpet paparazzi. She eggs a newlywed couple’s car and tricks some rocker guys into drinking piss. Pink’s performance of “So What” at the VMAs isn’t online anywhere, but she sang the song on a Hollywood backlot, and it climaxed when she blew up a building. In the video and that performance, Pink is a ridiculous chaos agent, a Tasmanian Devil or a Cookie Monster.

In the video, when Pink hits the “So What” bridge, her husband Carey Hart shows up, looking about as 2008 as one man could possibly look. Pink and Hart have a sweet little moment together. That tiny scene makes “So What” feel that much more genuine, and it also takes some of the sting away from Pink repeatedly calling Hart a tool. Years later, Pink told Entertainment Weekly, “I had to drink a beer at 7AM, I was so nervous the day of the shoot. I hadn’t seen him in six months. I looked good that day! I made sure of it.” Pink and Carey Hart got back together soon afterward, and they’re still together today.

“So What” only topped the Hot 100 for a week, but it was still a huge moment for Pink. She was nearly a decade into her career, and she suddenly had her biggest-ever hit. None of the other songs from Pink’s Funhouse album made the top 10. The LP’s second single, the relatively serious “Sober,” came closest, peaking at #15. Still, the album went triple platinum, and it took Pink to a whole new career high. Pink didn’t fall from that high. We’ll see her in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

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