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— by Jennifer Vineyard

"Is my hair OK?" Pink asks.

The question's only half-serious: Pink's backstage at "TRL" and is about to appear live on national television, so obviously she wants to look her best. And she does — her bleached-out blond strands are swept up, just enough to reveal a patch of shocking hot pink in the back.

Pink At Her Surprise New York Concert And Afterparty

But since the singer is promoting not just her "Stupid Girls" single but also the idea behind the song — that a woman's appearance shouldn't be the main thing on her mind — she's laughing at the irony. If she practiced what she's preaching, she wouldn't be asking the question in the first place.

As she explained to Matt Lauer on "Dateline" later in the week, "It's just this force-fed image: [You're supposed to be a] size zero, have a certain kind of bag, not contribute anything to the world, and dumb yourself down to be cute because it makes you less challenging as a female."

That's a strikingly candid observation coming from a pop star, but this unusually self-aware pop star is all too conscious of the irony inherent in delivering it via a media blitz — with appearances on "TRL," "Dateline," "Oprah," "Live With Regis & Kelly" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in the space of one week. She's got to be camera-ready to deliver her message — even if that message is that the magic isn't in the makeup.

So by the time she stomps onstage at New York's Crobar for a surprise show later that night — and stomp she does, accompanied by two high-stepping backup dancers in combat boots — Pink is essentially at war with herself. Her hair now in curls, she purposely tweaks the anti-consumerism agenda of "Stupid Girls" by wearing diamond studs on her teeth and boasting about her bling during "Cuz I Can" ("My ice is making me freeze!"). At the same time, she's bouncing around in a bright orange dress, in support of April being Prevention of Animal Cruelty month (the wearing of orange being a sign of solidarity with the ASPCA), a connection she reinforces mid-set by saying "Do it for the doggies!" And any contradictions inherent in her many messages are explained away with the song's ready-made excuse: "I don't play your rules, I make my own/ Tonight, I'll do what I want/ Cuz I can."

"I'm a walking contradiction," she acknowledges. "I'm a hypocrite sometimes."

Pink rocked New York's Crobar. Watch the full concert now, on Overdrive.

"Stupid Girls" — and the discussion around it — has gotten Pink back on point and back on our radar, with I'm Not Dead scoring her highest-ever chart opening at #6. Some might consider that more fizzle than fire, just as they considered 2003's Try This, her follow-up to Missundaztood, a flop because it sold 700,000 copies, according to SoundScan, to Missundaztood's 5.2 million. But even Missundaztood didn't have a spectacular opening week, debuting at #8. And as Pink told "Dateline" — to Lauer's considerable surprise — she wishes Missundaztood hadn't been such a big success: "Where do you go from that? Anything you do after, that's a failure."

Conversely, Pink puts a positive spin on the comparative failure of Try This, which was beset by a perfect storm of factors that were largely separate from the music on the disc: Poor single choices (like promoting the flimsy "God Is a DJ" over the more substantial "Save My Life" or "Last to Know"), bad marketing and the collapse of her label, Arista Records. This latter event had a significant effect, as it resulted in the dismissal of the label's CEO and longtime Pink champion L.A. Reid (who appears in the "Don't Let Me Get Me" song and video; he soon resurfaced as chairman of Island Def Jam). While all of those factors contributed to the album's middling commercial performance, Pink considers it a success for other reasons. "I wanted respect from the critics and I got it," she says. "I got my Grammy" — Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 2003 for "Trouble."

Try This was also recorded quickly: Most of the album was written and produced with Rancid guitarist Tim Armstrong in the studio on his tour bus while he was on the road with his (since disbanded) side project, the Transplants. Perhaps as a result, for the new album, Pink chose to work with a slew of collaborators — including Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne), Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and Max Martin (Kelly Clarkson, 'NSYNC) — and took her time, spending over a year writing songs that she felt said something. "At first, I thought I had nothing important to say," Pink recalls. "And then the record company was like, 'All right, we need to wrap it up,' and I was like, 'Two more subjects! Two more subjects!' " Pink says. "It was the first time that I've really taken my time with a record and said, 'Screw the deadline.' "

On one of these Not Dead songs, "U and Ur Hand," Pink declares "I'm not here for your entertainment" — it's a kiss-off to a guy who's trying to pick her up, but it might as well be the motto for the album's more substantial subject matter. The songs are personal ("Conversations With My 13-Year-Old Self"), political ("Dear Mr. President") and, of course, both ("Stupid Girls").

"So you might have seen this video ..." Pink says onstage at Crobar, as she sits with her legs crossed, flipping through a fashion magazine, while two mini-skirted backup dancers help re-enact the non-celebrity-spoof portion of the "Stupid Girls" video. A fan gasps when she catches Pink's green toothbrush, thrown into the crowd after the singer fakes using it to force a bulimic episode. (After the video was released, the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals praised the clip for "highlighting the culture's relentless and unrealistic pursuit of thinness." Even "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling weighed in, calling it the "antidote anthem" to our overly thin-fixated culture.)

But for all the song's impact, it very nearly wasn't the album's first single: Pink's team was considering leading with the Max Martin track "U and Ur Hand" — a fan favorite well in advance of the album's release, thanks to whomever leaked the song onto the Internet. Pink didn't even have to include the song in her set at Crobar because the fans started singing it spontaneously — she just held the mic over the crowd.

Photos of Pink in "Stupid Girls"

"Stupid Girls" Music Video

"It's funny, that damn Internet," Pink says. "People are already singing along when the album ain't even out yet. You don't even have to put a record out — just record music and the world will hear it."

But even if "Stupid Girls" had leaked, it almost definitely wouldn't have had the same impact without the video, a concept Pink envisioned as she was writing the song. The video inspired Oprah Winfrey to make the song the whole theme of her April 10 show and invite guests to prove Pink's point, such as authors Naomi Wolf ("The Beauty Myth," "Misconceptions") and Ariel Levy ("Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," which Pink calls "an awesome book"). "I wanted us to do this show to start paying attention to what is happening to us and what are the role models we are projecting around this world," Winfrey says on the show. "It's the marginalization of women."

What gives Oprah's "Stupid Girls" show its punch is the presence of teenage girls in the audience — who admit they deliberately act dumb around boys and imitate the celebrities Pink spoofs in the song's video. Pink then breaks it down for them: "If you are going to be the future rock stars or whatever you want to be, then you're wasting your time trying to be somebody else — because you'll never get to you." The girls nod and smile, but it's anyone's guess whether the message is sinking in. Pink's not going to give up that easily, though — her message has become a mission.

"Just because I put a ring on my finger and got married, everyone thinks I'm this happy, steady, adjusted person who has no more opinions," she explains. "Or I have money and I'm a pop star, so I shouldn't contribute to the world. People would be a lot more comfortable if I sat down and shut up, but that's never going to happen."

Fair warning for the White House, the occupants of which evidently haven't yet heard "Dear Mr. President." The song, in letter form to the president, addresses homelessness, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his rumored past substance abuse, and concludes by asking, "How do you sleep at night?/ How do you walk with head held high?"

"I just got invited to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner," Pink crows. "We'll see how it goes!"

While Pink says it's "narcissistic" to think that the president would listen to what she has to say, she certainly won't be shy if the opportunity presents itself.

And you know she'll look just right for the part.

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Photo: La Face Records/ MTV News

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"Stupid Girls"
I'm Not Dead
(Sony BMG)

"God Is A DJ"
Try This
(Arista Records)

"Family Portrait"
(Arista Records)

"Just Like a Pill"
(Arista Records)

"Don't Let Me Get Me"
(Arista Records)

"Get the Party Started"
(Arista Records)

"You Make Me Sick"
Can't Take Me Home