‘Soulful Vanilla Child’: When Pink Was Black
Pink’s sound infused R&B and pop with slick production.Entertainment
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Vimeo)
When I was nine years old, I assumed that Pink was a very light-skinned black woman. It sounds ridiculous now, especially considering Pink’s place in pop history. Her 2001 sophomore album, Missundaztood, launched her into superstardom, featuring catchy singles like “Get the Party Started, “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” and “Just Like a Pill” that positioned her as an edgy, but commercial-friendly, pop-rocker. But Missundaztood was at odds with her debut album, Can’t Take Me Home, an undoubtedly R&B and hip-hop influenced vehicle that was an odd preamble to a very different career. That’s the Pink I was introduced to in 2000, raised on a steady diet of MTV. When I saw the music video for the album’s first hit “There You Go,” in which Pink is out for an early aughts version of empowered revenge, I assumed she was a black woman.
The video has all the hallmarks of the era’s R&B/hip-hop tropes. Pink plays a scorned woman who has moved on from her cheating dirtbag of an ex-boyfriend. She rides her motorcycle in a big fur coat, chills at a skate park and basketball court full of shirtless, musclebound men. When her ex-boyfriend tries to get a ride from her, she responds by launching a motorcycle through the window of his spacious loft apartment, but not before telling him off in what can only be described as a bit of a blaccent. The narrative is interspersed with scenes of Pink dancing around in an outfit that Aaliyah herself would endorse: black and baggy with a long plane of exposed midriff and slivers of thong straps.
Naive and narrow perceptions of whiteness and blackness obviously played a role in this confusion. A year or two later, when I saw a profile of Pink in a teenybopper magazine peppered with childhood photos, I realized that the woman was clearly white. But my confusion wasn’t isolated; Pink herself played to the confusion over her race early in her career, and numerous interviews from the early 2000s suggest that she may have relished her racial ambiguity. Even if she was ambivalent toward it, a willing participant or not, she was still lauded by the music press, labelmates, friends, and fans as a down white girl who effortlessly exuded black cool.
As pop stars like Ariana Grande are both scrutinized and celebrated for cultural borrowing, Pink’s early career fits into a familiar narrative, especially now that racial ambiguity is more lucrative than ever. But as Pink says in “There You Go”: “Sometimes it be’s like that.”
Pink’s origin story is, by now, well known: the teenage rebel whose irrepressible talent made her the anti-Britney Spears in a music scene that was slowly starting to face bubblegum pop fatigue.
Pink was born Alecia Moore in 1979, raised by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a middle-class town north of Philadelphia. She was a teen delinquent who drank, ran away from home, and went to drug-fueled raves. According to a 2002 interview with the Honolulu Advertiser, she broke into the home of a girl who stole her diary and stole a copy of Showgirls from a Blockbuster Video store. She also had a penchant for shoplifting trash bags full of clothes and accessories from high-end department stores.
In between shoplifting and raving, she was experimenting with music and adopted the stage name Pink, the origins of which vary from a nod to Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs to a reference to her vagina which, she told Playboy in 2002, dawned on her when she relented to her friend’s pleas to know what a white girl’s vagina looks like (pink, like every other vagina). After that, Moore says that she, the only white girl in her friend group, was dubbed Pink.
She performed at Philly nightclubs, most notably the underground Club Fever which gave her a regular singing spot every Friday night after she belted a Mary J. Blige song during an open mic night, gaining respect from the largely black crowd. She lent her vocals to punk and hip-hop groups that promptly went defunct, including a short-lived girl group called Basic Instinct. Pink claims she was kicked out of the largely black girl group for being white; in 2002, she told The Face, “They said I didn’t fit in. Whatever.” By 16, Pink and two other white girls had formed Choice, a group whose vocals and music direction would confuse even the most adroit ear for a trio of black girls.
Choice’s SWV-sounding song “Key to My Heart” earned the attention of record executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who was also shocked by the fact that the singers were white (in 2018, Reid was dismissed from his position as CEO of Epic Records after sexual harassment allegations). Years later, in an episode of VH1’s Driven, Reid’s assistant recalled: “When I showed [Reid] the photograph of the three white girls, he said, ‘Who’s this?’ And he said, ‘No way, this is an R&B group.’”Reid signed Choice to a record deal in 1996 and, according to Pink’s mother, initially marketed them as a white trio singing black R&B. Choice relocated to Atlanta to work on an album that would never see the light of day. The group performed at the record company’s annual Christmas party in 1998 and bombed, but Pink stood out. Reid allegedly gave Pink an ultimatum: Go solo or go home. Pink chose to go solo, and Choice disbanded, but its single “Key to My Heart” lives on through the Kazaam soundtrack.
After a tumultuous introduction into the music industry, Pink finally released her first album, Can’t Take Me Home, in 2000 under Reid’s label, LaFace. It was a hip-hop and R&B-infused pop vehicle produced by Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and touted songwriting credits from “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “No Scrubs” writers Babyface and Kandi Burruss, a former member of girl group Xscape who now stars in The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The album peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 while the singles “There You Go,” “Most Girls,” and “You Make Me Sick” peaked at seven, four, and 23 respectively.
Can’t Take Me Home received mixed reactions from critics—the notoriously prickly Robert Christgau was charmed, Entertainment Weekly less so, writing that despite the album’s slick production, “there’s hardly an original musical moment on it.” Regardless of the lukewarm reception, Pink’s steady rise as a pop star was set into motion. She won Billboard’s Female New Artist award and opened for *NSYNC on the North American leg of the band’s No Strings Attached tour. Those successes would lead to a 2001 collaboration with Lil’ Kim, Christina Aguilera, Mya, and Missy Eliott on “Lady Marmalade,” the radio hit from the wildly popular Moulin Rouge soundtrack. The song scored Pink her first No. 1 single, MTV Video Music Award, and Grammy. Later that year, she released the critically acclaimed Missundaztood.
Pink was excited by the album’s new direction, which included writing credits from 4 Non Blondes’s Linda Perry. But even Perry was surprised at first when Pink approached her. From Rolling Stone (emphasis mine):
I sent it to Madonna and she passed, but a week later, Alecia [a.k.a. Pink] called. She left me this really crazy message how she would come find me if I didn’t call her back. I saw what she looked like—she was a bling-bling girl—and I said, “I think you have the wrong Linda Perry.” She’s like, “Is this the Linda Perry who sang ‘Dear Mister President’ in 4 Non Blondes?” I’m like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “Well, I have the right person.” I had just written “Get the Party Started” and I go, “Well, I’ve got something I wrote last week,” and sent it to her. I guess she sent it to LA Reid and they said, “Okay we have our first single.”
It’s clear that Pink was associated with hip-hop, and by extension, blackness. She was signed to a black label, worked with black producers and songwriters, and—to some—even passed for a very light-skinned black woman.
There’s little evidence to suggest that Pink actively tried to convince people that she was black. Sure, she had cornrows for a time, but it was the early aughts, and white musicians from Justin Timberlake to Christina Aguilera had them. She sometimes spoke with a blaccent, but so do a lot of corny kids who listen to hip-hop. Still, Pink hesitated to call herself white, and she even winked at racial ambiguity.
During a 2000 interview for Launch—which later became the now-defunct Yahoo! Music—there was a segment titled “Black? White? Pink!” in which Pink, in full blaccent, addressed a question regarding her race (emphasis mine):
People think […] my mom lied to me about who my dad is. They totally think I’m mixed! I’m like, whatever! Like, I’m a mutt. We all are. We all came from the same place: God. That’s how I explain it, we’re all pink on the inside. Whatever you want to call it. I don’t care. If you respect me, I respect you. And if you’re ignorant, then I don’t have anything to do with you, basically. I mean, a lot of people come up to me and they’re like, “What’s your music like? A Portishead kind of thing?” Or else, they’ve heard the song on the radio first and [they’re] like, “She’s not white, she’s not white.” But people need to realize you don’t have to be anything to be anything. It comes from your experiences, it comes from where you’ve been, what you’ve been taught, and what you’ve decided to go with and learn.Pink fan archives also show that during a chat room session between Pink and her fans, one fan asked if she gets less respect because she doesn’t “fit the stereotypical R&B look.” Pink replied, “No, I would say people give me more respect once they hear me.” When asked if she was “white or another nationality” she responded, “I’m Pink.” Later in the chat, another user asked, “Do you get offended when people mistake you for black?” Pink replied, “Of course I don’t get offended. We’re all pink on the inside.”
In Driven, there’s an entire sequence in which the people who knew and worked with Pink describe the ways in which she defied her whiteness. Music video director Dave Meyers, who shot “There You Go,” called Pink “the whitest R&B singer.” Babyface called her a “white-black girl.” And a friend of Pink’s named Mike confirmed that Pink would say, “I’m not white, I’m pink, because everyone’s pink on the inside.”
Pink’s responses to questions about her race suggest a kind of tension that pervaded both pop and politics at the time. Pink’s answers simultaneously claimed blackness—playing into the music industry’s fetish of white artists presenting as black—while refusing to acknowledge the realities, as well as the very existence, of race. For example, in 2001, Pink told the Baltimore Sun, “I don’t choose to get caught up in the whole color scene.”
Meanwhile, the press was busy quantifying Pink’s whiteness. In March 2000, Vibe reported:
Alecia “Pink” Moore grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood in North Philadelphia, where she developed an eclectic taste in music—from Aerosmith to Mary J. Blige. The silky “Leaving for the Last Time” and soulful “Players, which borrows from Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” reflect that varied taste on her tentatively self-titled soul-pop disc, due out in March.
In April 2000, Billboard managed to both imply that Pink was a woman of color and hint that she’s actually white in a single sentence:
In the sugary candyland of pop music, newcomer Pink is prepared to offer a serious shot of adrenaline. Although comparisons have been made to fellow multi-hued sister-in-song Kelis, she’s actually more like Gwen Stefani dipped in a whole lot of soul.
Rolling Stone was more explicit in April 2000:
Pink is twenty-year-old Alecia Moore’s hair dye of choice and, for that matter, her skin color.
And here’s Vibe, March 2001, also on the soul train:
“Who am I? I’m a pink-haired rocker with a big mouth, who likes to sing, and is very opinionated,” says Arista Records’ resident soulful vanilla child, Pink (aka Alicia [sic] Moore).
The same publicity machine that coined and marketed “blue-eyed soul” in the first place was hard at work making Pink seem like an oddity. But it didn’t take long for Pink to distance herself from the album that helped her legitimize her title as a “soulful” white girl in the first place.While she promoted Missundaztood, Pink regularly expressed disdain for Can’t Take Me Home. If this wasn’t obvious enough from a line in “Don’t Let Me Get Me” in which she sings, “L.A. told me, you’ll be a pop star/All you have to change is everything you are,” then it was made abundantly clear when she told the Daily Mail, “There was no blood, sweat or tears on my first album… and no emotional exchange between me and the musicians. R&B is on a conveyor belt.” While she toured Missundaztood, the only songs she performed from her first album were the singles, often exclusively during the encore.
Some months after Missundaztood’s release, Pink was featured on the May 2002 cover of Spin, dubbed “Rock’s Nasty Girl.” From then on, Pink was rarely described as “soulful”—a thinly veiled stand-in for “sounding black”—and references to her racial ambiguity effectively disappeared in the press. The label “rocker” stuck and, as the joke goes, Pink became white with Missundaztood and never looked back.
Take one look at the YouTube comments for “There You Go” and you’ll find a sea of replies to the effect of “RIP black Pink.” It’s an admittedly reductive slight that dismisses Pink’s newfound musical freedom, erases the range of her musical influences, and—on its face—plays into the false notion that rock and pop are distinctly white genres. Even Pink acknowledged the problems with this characterization, as the Baltimore Sun reported in 2001:
[Pink] acknowledges that some listeners may compare her two albums and accuse her of playing with R&B; for commercial gain and media attention, before going back to her “real” white roots. Pink is unfazed. “I just created something musical to open people’s minds. I made something eclectic. That’s my favorite word right now.”
As Pink moved even further away from Can’t Take Me Home, rebranding herself as pop’s bad girl rocker, her intermittent blaccent vanished too. But despite a poppier, punkier, whiter image, she still had an affinity for tokenizing herself. In a 2004 interview following her third album, Try This, Pink compared herself to Janis Joplin. “She was a white girl singin’ the blues and so was I,” Pink said. “And it wasn’t widely accepted.”
A “white girl singin’ the blues” isn’t exactly a historical outlier. Before Pink, there were plenty of white singers who were christened “soulful,” including Dusty Springfield, Lisa Stanfield, Taylor Dayne, and, later, Amy Winehouse. Blue-eyed soul has a long and sometimes—or often, depending on who you ask—sordid history. But the racial dynamics of Pink’s R&B beginnings would be pointless without mentioning Teena Marie, the so-called Ivory Queen of Soul.
Initially, due to her sound, listeners assumed Marie was black. But obscuring her whiteness was intentional on the part of Marie’s then-record label, Motown. The cover of her first album was that of a seascape, not her face. According to Marie, Motown’s Berry Gordy told her that her music was so “soulful” that it deserved an opportunity to stand on its own merit, but it’s also been documented that Gordy was unsure how to market a white artist and feared one may alienate Motown’s black audience.
The mystery didn’t last long. In 1979, Marie appeared on Soul Town and performed her debut hit “I’m a Sucker For Your Love” with her producer and friend Rick James, becoming the first white woman to perform on Soul Train. Several of her subsequent album covers featured her portrait, leaving little doubt about her race. Marie’s career peaked in the ’80s with her hit “Lover Girl,” but she continued to make music until her death in 2010 and remained beloved by black audiences.
Like Pink, Marie’s whiteness was certainly fetishized (as late as 2004, Vibe referred to her as “Sexual (White) Chocolate”), and Marie rarely spoke about race at length. In 2006, she spoke with Jet about raising her black daughter, and there’s the following anecdote from her obituary in The Independent about her upbringing:
[Marie] was raised in Venice, California, two blocks away from a black neighbourhood. “I had a lot of black friends and I learned a lot about blacks and black music,” she said. “All the kids used to call me Off White because I acted sort of black and I was comfortable with the black kids.”[…] “I can remember being chased home a couple of times and being called nigger lover. I was only 13 or 14, and to a young mind, that’s heartbreaking. I can remember going in my house and sitting in my room and crying.”
But perhaps the biggest tell came in 2009, when Marie told Essence that overall race hasn’t been a problem in her career, going so far as to describe herself as a “Black artist with White skin.” It’s an admittedly cringe-worthy quote that evokes long-held concerns about white artists profiting off black art and even displacing black artists along the way. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in The Atlantic following her death, “Teena Marie died with an eternal hood-pass.” Her prevailing legacy is simply not that of someone who brazenly exploited black culture, black music, or black cool, but of someone who seamlessly integrated.
It’s unlikely that Pink will be remembered as an artist who exploited black culture, black music, or black cool. Pink’s responses to questions about race nearly 20 years ago were ignorant, as were the ways her race was characterized in the press, but it was also broadly reflective of the way race was discussed in the mainstream in the early 2000s. This was when Bill Clinton was affectionately known as the “first black president” and just before Justin Timberlake enjoyed a decades-long hood pass for hitting falsettos over some Timbaland beats.
There are also black people who are overly eager to crown white people who excel in shallow signifiers of black cool as honorary blacks; Pink was a recipient of this praise. But even though Pink was described as a “soulful vanilla child” and her R&B was largely embraced by the industry, she still spoke about occupying black spaces with a streak of resentment. For someone who said she was unbothered by color, who allegedly hung out with black kids because white kids didn’t like her, she seemed to be full of stories of black rejection.
The aforementioned all-black girl group that allegedly kicked her out for being white was the first tip-off. Another was from an MTV interview in 2000, when she said “Can’t Take Me Home” (originally titled “Can’t Take Me Home to Momma”) was one of the most personal songs from her debut album because it was about a clandestine interracial relationship. “I wrote when I was very pissed off,” Pink said. “I was with someone of a different race, and he didn’t want to take me home to his mother because he didn’t think that his mother would approve of me, basically.”
And in a 2002 interview with Rolling Stone, she said this:
Rolling Stone: The music industry seems more segregated than ever.
Pink: Yeah, it’s sickening – the same as it is in life. I’ve been at the homes of friends who are black and been kicked out of their house by their grandmother. I’ll walk into a black radio station and know, just from the vibe in the room, that they don’t want me there. It’s something that’s always affected me, and I hate it. I hate the lines that are drawn between people. I hate what society has taught us. I hate history. I didn’t do it, but I can do my little part to change things.
Aside from the strange visual of Pink repeatedly getting kicked out of the homes of black matriarchs of Doylestown, this is a strange stance that complicates the narrative of Pink, the down white girl who is unbothered by race. She did a lot of projecting—“they don’t want me”—without much consideration as to who was drawing those so-called lines and why.
A case can be made that Pink speaking in an off-and-on blaccent and wearing cornrows made her a shameless cultural appropriator, gospel background be damned. But cultural appropriation has been used for both insightful analysis and abused by performative gatekeeping over matters that are simply not that deep. While Pink’s blasé interrogation with race was shallow, elementary, and eye-roll inducing, I’m almost inclined to put Pink’s antics in the “not that deep” category, if only because her reign as the token black-white girl of R&B was blessedly short.
But all of this speaks to how thin and wildly arbitrary the line is when it comes to authenticity. There’s almost an unwritten rule, not unlike the threshold for obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Maybe hearing Pink speak with a blaccent is just so absurd that I’m too busy laughing to be too upset. Or, there are just so many more recent, scornful examples of what bell hooks called “eating the other”— blaccent-touting white musicians like Iggy Azalea who so egregiously use blackness as an accessory and Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz era—to get worked up over Pink circa 2000. But one woman’s hood pass veto is another’s lifetime invite to the so-called cookout. In 2018, soul legend Patti Labelle complimented Ariana Grande—a white woman who loves a sepia spray tan—by calling her a “white-black girl.” This kind of passing continues to persist in the music industry with varying degrees of awareness and acceptance by the public. The hood pass is deeply arbitrary, relying less on a particular rulebook and more on who people—tastemakers, friends, the online peanut gallery—decide to like or dislike.
Was Pink a cultural appropriator? I don’t know, maybe she cited the black church and Mary J. Blige enough to dodge the label, and maybe she had the advantage of rising to fame in an era absent of widespread criticism. Does Pink have a hood pass? My gut says no, especially if visiting a black radio station was enough to trigger a persecution complex. What I do know is that I thought she was a light-skinned black woman when I was nine years old, and it was an impression that the music industry and even Pink were willing to indulge.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)