“What’s in the box?”
–Frank Herbert, Dune
Pink has released an album titled The Truth About Love, and that’s what I’m going to be dissecting here. I’m not going to be running a claim to truth, and I’ll be avoiding monogamy-based sexual moralizing, or even critiquing the misdirected expletives running rampant throughout the lyrics, but The Truth About Love strikes me as wrong on multiple levels: the individual songs lack a sense of self to which action can appeal as duty, indeed they generally focus on irresponsibility, with the album teleology focusing on survival and continuance — that is, a deontological conclusion rather than starting point.
Put simply, the point of the album is that all of the highs and lows of romance that people inflict upon each other are necessary to help people get through the highs and lows of romance that people inflict upon each other.
I’ve got a better idea: let’s not irresponsibly add cruelty to the absurdity of existence, and certainly not do it to the people we claim to love. And I’m starting with the word “irresponsible” because the first and most grating aspect of Pink’s album is the incessant disavowal of personal responsibility or even participation that the lyrics express. If you want to know what responsibility sounds like, I recommend Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity” in terms of popular music or Lucia’s “Monkey Puzzle Tree” which I think is better, but is also not popular. Spektor avoids giving over to irresponsibility by consistently maintaining an introspective element; Lucia expects the grounding consequences of romantic entanglements and willfully accepts them based on the quality of her beloved.
And that brings us to the first crucial flaw of The Truth About Love: Pink, as a lyricist, does not consider the qualities of her beloved, explicitly objectifying her particular mark so she can avoid disillusionment (2:30-2:40). While some people may consider “Slut Like You” empowering in the vein of the woman Ariel Levy quoted near the end of Female Chauvinist Pigs (“I look at my daughter and her friends in their twenties and they are reveling in their sexuality. They don’t feel guilty, and why should they? Men never did.”), the faux-deconstruction of sexual inequality merely serves to accelerate everybody on a race to the emotionally vapid bottom. The actual argument is that the brazenly insensitive and thus evil, or at least bastardly, behaviors previously associated with men are now accessible to women, and the equality of opportunity neutralizes the evil of the brazen insensitivity.
Let me pause here to call upon a definition of morality: “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.” Suffice to say, “well if that womanizing prick can do it, why can’t I?” isn’t the kind of justification that puts a moral sheen on promiscuity for either sex or any gender. But that’s the line of reasoning this song is running with, and I’m unsurprised to have seen it called out as “empowering” to women who want to live (or are living) that way, most of whom probably didn’t think they were the ones being ridiculed in “Stupid Girls” (or “Stupid Girl,” either).
To her credit, Pink reverses this seemingly pro-ho position immediately with “The Truth About Love” (which kind of reminds me of an Annie Lennox track), but the confused melange of both pleasant sensations and wretched realities listed as “The Truth About Love” should give pause — but it instead appeals to what will be the thesis of the album: “It takes your breath, ‘cuz it leaves a scar — but those untouched never got, never got very far.” So going from “Slut Like You” which revels in promiscuity into “The Truth About Love,” we have to resolve the question of why somebody would want to be a “Slut Like You” when the truth about love is “it’s nasty, it’s gross”? Oh, it’s also a prerequisite to some vague notion of accomplishment. Pinterest that; we’ll come back to it.
This reversal style follows a previous and similar reversal on the album: “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” to “Try.” “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” is the bitter stupid end of a relationship — both people are independently fed up and take it out on each other for reasons unspecific though probably just proximal convenience (“I had a shit day, you had a shit day, [ergo] we had a shit day…”) so the ostensibly female singer blames the partner (“you will pay for your sins”) while anticipating her freedom to do whatever she wants, except what she wants is to get back her — psychologists would describe it as infantile — “ignorance and bliss.” In short, this song is the lyricist not wanting to learn from her mistakes. (But I thought she didn’t want to be a stupid girl?) And while walking away from a relationship is handily disavowed as an acceptable coping mechanism in the next track, “Try,” she still lingers on a dubious notion: “Where there is desire, there’s going to be a flame. Where there’s a flame, somebody’s bound to get burned. But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re going to die: you’ve got to get up and try, try, try.” Which is a beautiful sentiment except for two things: First, there are lots of fires that don’t incinerate anybody because we can take responsible precautions or maybe even just act with common sense around known-hazardous elements. But secondly, and this goes to the unleashed sexuality of the album marked with aggressive relations (which carried over from Funhouse and might indicate a deeper complex and here is the basis of “True Love”) is that chemicals can burn people too — no fire required. (Seen Fight Club lately? Or just listen to “Where Did the Beat Go?” because it’s mentioned in there too.) And reveling in chemistry, possibly inclusive of stress-related endorphins, sounds like just as an effective way to get consistently burned as playing with fire.
To be fair, the denouement of the album, “The Great Escape,” reiterates the claim that the scar tissue is necessary for survival and therefore (presumably) good. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Before we go there, the other big reversal comes between “Walk of Shame” — which I actually like as a bit of self-ridiculing bathos — and the nigh-unlistenable “Here Comes the Weekend” which promptly demonstrates that exactly nothing was retained from “Walk of Shame.” This shouldn’t be surprising anyway — going from “I promise: no more walks of shame!” to “my friends, they hung me out to dry; it’s not my fault!” tells us that the lyricist’s moment of lucidity in “Walk of Shame” is going to pass because even in the middle of it, she’s claiming irresponsibility. The delectable irony would be pairing “Walk of Shame” with “Bad Influence” (which I detested) from Funhouse, resulting in a Trainspotting kind of vibe: “Don’t let your friends tie you to the tracks.” And, for the record, I believe that Trainspotting is probably the best 90 minutes of astoundingly wretched film, ever, specifically because of the increasing responsibility — both in failed attempts and actual achievements — of the lead character through the progression of the film.
What Pink gives us is Not That, though. In “Where Did the Beat Go?” which I accept as lyrically interesting and well-composed, a hollow adultress suspends her identity between two lovers — she acknowledges the trauma she’s inflicting, but essentially blames her first lover for leaving her subconsciousness in a state where she’ll actively hurt him. (The qualities of the second lover are non-specific and pretty much dropped after the first verse.) We again hear advocacy for people getting burned, but a disavowal of any personal responsibility. By way of counterpoint, Lucia’s “Monkey Puzzle Tree” features self-immolation, noting that it’s romance that could drag down personal power, only made acceptable by the similar personal power of the beloved: “The phoenix fights desire; you know just what I mean.”
Back on topic, “The Great Escape” concludes the album, picking up the thread from “Try” and “The Truth About Love” with the claim that “passion and pain will keep you alive someday.” It’s a great song on its own, and it gets into the personal territory that most of this album was too generic to really tread upon. But it is also the closing argument of the album and the argument hasn’t improved by the time we’ve gotten to the conclusion: there’s no clear vision of a love higher or deeper and certainly not more radiant than mere chemicals, and the point of living through the experience isn’t to build out from the experience, but to do it again. And while it may be reasonably stated that if love can be reduced to chemistry in an absurd existence, then we have no hope of actually achieving anything higher or deeper or whatever. But, on that same absurdist framework, the claim that we have to subject ourselves to those passions and pains is flatly wrong: the absurd denies ground to force any directive other than “don’t compound the absurd,” (that’s Camus) which is exactly what a directive to both repeatedly engage in and avoid learning from mistakes is doing. This is what’s truly absurd. Even Jes can nail down the forward-thinking in the simple refrain of “My Blue Heart“: “I’ve been here before; I’ve seen what it does.”
And that’s why I don’t like Pink’s The Truth About Love. I don’t think she’s actually advocating for raunch culture based on the track-to-track reversals she makes throughout the album, though her fans with those proclivities will probably take it as such anyway. The problem, even with the reversals, is that she’s still basing the justification of wanton pain and suffering on a claim that it’s a necessary evil, with necessity neutralizing the evil of it. Which it might if it were actually a necessary evil. But the only reason it appears to be a necessary evil is because the running infantile irresponsibility is precluding the crucial question of whether or not it actually is necessary — and this from the artist who previously asked “how did you know to get out of a world gone mad?” Thus, instead of new insights into the truth about love, we are left with the musical rendition of Crazy, Stupid, Love where the couplings continue not on the merits of anybody involved, individually or as pairs, but because they can’t figure out what else to do with their lives.
To be fair to the film, I liked Emma Stone’s character right up until Ryan Gosling’s character started having a sensitive — or maybe just damaged — side such that she fell for him blithely ignoring that he’s clearly a Don Juan type that won’t be able to maintain a relationship for more than a few months. His claim was that she was a “game-changer,” not a game-ender, and that’s even before I start digging into the virginal female-of-grace redeeming the roguish male trope. There was a lot to like about that movie, but by the time the closing credits rolled it had managed to ruin everything with cliches and wishful thinking.
But let’s ask directly about the claims of necessity. Last time I was on a plane to Sydney — where I met an amazingly beautiful woman with a radiant smile who caused me no grief or misery whatsoever — I was reading Dr. DePaulo’s Singled Out (while the in-flight movie Crazy, Stupid, Love was playing, go figure) and Dr. DePaulo points out that in 2003 there were 76 million really single adults in the US, or 87 million — roughly 40% of the adult population — if you count the co-habitors as single, since they legally are single. The point of her book, and my annoyance with The Truth About Love and also Crazy, Stupid, Love, would be that “my problem is not with our current interest in coupling or our valuing it, but in our overvaluing it and our undervaluing so many other important relationships and life pursuits.” Put another way, if you’re treating some degree of chemistry-fueled romantic love as a necessary prerequisite for some manner of personal achievement and thus pursuing it to no end, you’re probably missing out on a lot of other opportunities available to you.
Overall, I found so much in DePaulo’s writing and argumentation style to love that I can’t do much more than recommend her book here. But I will quote her on one other rhetorical question:
Who has the narrower heart—the husband who has invested his entire emotional portfolio in his wife and his children, or the single man who can value the people he finds valuable, whether friends or kin or colleagues, and can evenhandedly weigh the health and well-being of all the world’s children?
It may sound like a false choice, but it isn’t much of one: now that I’m free of the emotional consumption of revolving in-law drama-queenery — and yes, I was dumb to have married into a family featuring seven sisters — I’m a lot more free to sympathize and empathize with people I resonate with in the priority-order I deem fitting.
“Oh, you want the truth? The truth about love…” asks Pink. DePaulo’s evidence shows that the truth is that
If you are not already a happy person, don’t count on marriage to transform you into one. If you are already happy, don’t expect marriage to make you even happier. Chances are, it won’t. Finally, if you are single and happy, do not fret that you will descend into despair if you dare to stay single. That’s not likely, either.
“And the truth, the truth, the truth” about The Truth About Love is that if The Truth About Love is really resonating for you or speaking to you, you might be pursuing nothing valuable rather poorly. And if you really think about it, you’re better off with me telling you that, as painful as it is, than reveling in The Truth About Love.