At YouTube.com, the popular video upload site, sandwiched between Natalie Portman's obscene Saturday Night Live rap and the Rolling Stones' 1963 Rice Krispies ad, are numerous amateur videos of adolescent females lip-synching to Pink's “Stupid Girls.” This single from her new album, I'm Not Dead, is a forthright denunciation of celebrity-obsessed, fashion-besotted, weight-anxious, cerebrally-challenged young American females, and a lament for the progressive aspirations that die with each dormant brain cell: What happened to the dreams of a girl President / She's dancing in the video next to 50 Cent . . .
The song's accompanying video is an even more pointed harangue, funnier and more vicious -- which qualities doubtless account for the high volume of YouTube take-offs. In it Pink, like a distaff Eminem, dons elaborate costumery to send up her airhead contemporaries (Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton). The rapid montage racks up real-life reference points -- we all recognize that fake tan, those huge sunglasses, that high-heel wobble -- and fills out the song's hate-spray with satirical specificity, puts teeth on its rant: The disease is growing, it's epidemic / I'm scared that there ain't a cure / The world believes it and I'm going crazy / I cannot take any more!
In a way, “Stupid Girls” picks up from a lyric in “Don't Let Me Get Me,” from Pink's 2001 debut album: Every day I fight a war against the mirror / I can't take the person starin' back at me . . . Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears / She's so pretty, that just ain't me. Pink is very nearly the sole female pop star saying such things today -- consistently singing for the girl who feels inadequate, out of place, or just different -- and they express feelings she carried long before Paris Hilton began living The Simple Life. Pink the social commentator has a point to make, but Pink the social misfit has an axe to grind -- and it's her personal investment, the outcast's bilious resentment against the fashionable, that focuses her vocal and makes each inflection as uniquely angry as the video's images.
But how are teenage girls themselves -- who are, after all, Pink's fan base -- taking the song? The amateur videos on YouTube break roughly into two categories: “Right on” and “Yeah, whatever.” Some of the teenage lip-synchers make clear, by exaggerated manner or explicit commentary, their support of the song's critique. But most feature two or three gal pals posing, strutting, cell-phoning and hair-flipping as “Stupid Girls” issues from a nearby computer screen or mini-system, and you can't tell if these mirror starlets are making fun of stupid girls or being them -- recasting Pink's wrathful screed as their sitcom theme, their vindication as a subspecies of modern celebrity: stupid girls who emulate stupid girls to the tune of “Stupid Girls.”
Yes, it's all fashion and frolic, and might not seem so important (kids do dumb things, period: it's in the job description) if so many stupid girls didn't grow, or merely age, into stupid women. Such as those women, now in the 30-40 age range, who were in the first generation of American girls to grow up with real feminist consciousness in the philosophical mix, yet now abhor any identification with feminism. Who equate it with hairy-legged, man-hating, radical-lesbian party-poopers, while taking as their birthright the rejection of every prerogative feminism fought for. And neither is theirs a bold, confrontational, Camille Paglia-style critique of outdated feminist perception. These aging girl-women -- who may be enacting a normal generational recoil against their mothers' beliefs but are also fulfilling the conservative fantasies of stupid-girl emeriti like Phyllis Schlafly and Ann Coulter -- increasingly devalue feminism as not just a historical movement but a humanistic ideal.
Stupid-girlism might not seem so important, then, if it didn't feed into all the worst tendencies our society already encourages in girls. America may be in an almost unprecedented slough of anti-intellectualism right now, but girls have a doubly tough time holding onto, let alone being proud of, their smarts. It's long been axiomatic that many girls, at a certain age, stop raising their hands in class so much. As they become teenagers they begin deferring to boys intellectually and socially, “dumbing down” in male company for fear of intimidating those jocks and studs who might favor them with a sleazy come-on, clumsy grope, or request for oral sex.
Meanwhile girls corrode their throats and gut their frames with eating disorders, and teach themselves to conceive of other women as potential usurpers of sexual power and male attention. By the time they've reached legal majority, it's become the easiest thing in the world for these girl-women to take the man's lead in everything but shopping; to acquiesce to mental mummification via consumerism and mommyism; to bow to physical self-loathing and even domestic abuse; and to accept as natural the oppressions of a world run almost completely on phallic principles.
That's alarmism, granted. Many teenagers manage to elude the stupid-girl virus. But as many as escaped it 30 years ago? Pink's song asks precisely the right question -- are we going forward or back? -- and spots the single salient detail in what seems to be no more than the latest pop style for girls. Namely, that vapidity and vacuity are not mere byproducts of stupid-girl style -- they are key to its chic. Where competence and self-sufficiency were once considered essential to the pop-cultural female image, now the behavioral accessories are docility, ditziness, and a dazed willingness to spread -- with maybe a dash of diva sass for tossing at some predatory ‘ho. Next to Paris, Nicole, and the halter-hoisting legions of Girls Gone Wild, Charlie's Angels look like models of womanly self-determination.
Oh, to be giddy and giggly, gawky and feathery, bony and brainless, as dim, limp, and inconsequential as a hologram! It's the bottoming-out of the diva mentality: in contrast to the shrieking, phone-throwing harridan who is at least active, who sweats for her diamonds and furs, the undernourished, teddy-wearing, Roofie-doped princess has grown too sated with comfort and convenience to even spit on the peasantry. Stupid-girlism is diva arrogance sucking itself inward to nothingness.
But this is pop culture, where signals are always mixed and nothing is only what it appears to be. Pink has spent all of April on the talk-show circuit, as often as not hooking her appearance on a discussion of this “epidemic”: she's not just promoting her new album, she's getting out her message. But “Stupid Girls” is not only an effort at consciousness-raising; it's also an attempt at a hit. It wants to do good; additionally, it wants to sell a million. The video excoriates the female obsessions with weight, clothing, fame, and status objects, but is sung by a young woman who we may assume has some interest in those things herself -- and who, in the video's uncensored version, goes every bit as topless and tongue-crazy as her targets. It even sports a self-satirizing cameo by 50 Cent, which enables that gifted gangsta rapper and tired old booty-pusher to have his cake and eat it too.
So it's all very ambiguous, double-edged, many-sided, as pop culture discussions worth having usually are. While it helps Pink's credibility as an artist and provocateur that she is aware of such contradictions, that in itself doesn't clear the contradictions away. Nor should it: that's our job as thinking consumers, skeptical receptors of cultural artifacts. “Stupid Girls” scores hits on targets that are no less hit-worthy for being sitting ducks. But Pink should also be thanked for churning up something we pluralistic pop punters don't always like to admit: that, as liberating as it can be for some, for others popular culture is a plastic bag over the mouth, a caul suffocating the abilities and the imagination, allowing only the merest possibility of escape from the blandishments of consumerism and the brain-dead end of tabloid celebrity. The way it happens, these “others” are usually girls.
Girls who need to be encouraged to learn, think, and act for themselves; but who also need, more than ever right now, to be urged to wake up and fight. Pink fought her way through to intelligence and skepticism. I hope my two young nieces will. How's your daughter doing?
Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard). His piece on Matisyahu is in the May issue of The American Prospect.