The four blondes of the late 90’s pop boom didn’t necessarily broadcast longevity at first glance. Time proved to be kind, somewhat, to three of the four women. Where one ended up pulling off a major creative coup, the other two went onto become the commercial contenders for millennial pop glory.
Christina Aguilera was the girl with the “obvious” voice that could blow you away. Looking back 14 years, as the dust settles around her sixth long player Lotus (2012), it becomes clear that Aguilera has made a mark. Her struggle for a clear-cut oneness as an artist remains an elusive prize; it has claimed her commercial, creative and critical spoils of the music battle she wages into a new decade.
The collapse of Aguilera’s recent record has been the product of several longstanding issues; the problems range from environmental to personal. Her rise from the prison of pre-fab pop has become legend, but it seems to have become the catspaw of her inability to move beyond the space of leaving one persona behind. Aguilera shattered her soft and inoffensive image with Stripped (2002).
In a dizzying Erotica-esque (1992) move, Aguilera attempted to meld both a musical and visual guidepost to her emergent sexuality and thoughts. Reinvention isn’t confined to pop, but often it’s touted as a larger force to behold in pop because no one suspects that genre to generate art. Aguilera’s dilemma is that she never left the dimension of Stripped.
The (still) reigning pop princess Kylie Minogue had a similar concern when she desired to shake the stalls of S.A.W. in the early 90’s; the production trio fought Minogue’s musical musings. So, she began toying with her image. What Minogue realized early on is that the visual and musical must always work in unison, not one exceeding the other. When Minogue ventured into the dance fields with “Shocked” and “What Do I Have To Do,” it was with a sound that was as edgy as the fishnets, lipstick and four-inch heels she adorned in their subsequent music videos. She perfected the formula with Kylie Minogue (1994); once Minogue had the creative capital to spend, she never looked back.
But Aguilera’s constant need to show how grown, free and uninhibited she was (and is) all the time doesn’t make her anything but someone seeking validation. Further, many of her executions of these principles come across stiff due to a perspective that switches between martyrdom and entitlement. Many “sangers” are told that they have a gift that only requires them to just stand there and emit a sound at a certain volume, extended over time.
The best sangers, singers and stylists aren’t encumbered by technique, instead they work to keep their instrument in fresh, challenging situations. It isn’t about how many runs one can complete to resonate with audiences. That aesthetic can be pleasing, yet if one relies on it too much the carnival trick is seen for what it is, a trick.
When Aguilera decided to take a step into vintage vistas with Back to Basics (2006), her hubris allowed her to think that it was enough to name-check soul greats over snazzy hip-pop-lite productions (“Back In the Day”). Now, this isn’t to say that Back to Basics didn’t have its fair share of artistic triumphs; Aguilera jump-roped from the spiciness of “Ain’t No Other Man” to the ache of “Hurt”. The main conditions that plagued Back to Basics was too much of one thing and not enough of another. The former focused on material that had no business making the cut (“F.U.S.S.,” “Welcome”), whereas the latter period evocations (“I Got Trouble,” “The Right Man”) were lost amid the mentioned excess.
The album swelled to a two-disc bloat, one that didn’t have a foundation to support itself. When its modest sales checked-in, it caused bankruptcy for the freedom needed to make her definitive statement with 2010’s Bionic. The electro-pop posturing of “Keeps Gettin’ Better” and “Dynamite,” both on Keeps Gettin’ Better: A Decade of Hits (2008), set the bar for Bionic to be that big pop revelation.
But label wrangling and Aguilera’s inability to realize that hype has to be backed up by work (not just vocal volume), sank the project. Thankfully, Aguilera doesn’t make bad records, usually just uneven ones. The albums always hold potential making them that more frustrating to entertain at times. For every “Bionic” and “You Lost Me,” there was a mundane member rearing its head, like “Vanity.”
Again, everything circles back to Aguilera’s own attitude. Her lack of humility, the key to the door of vulnerability, has drained the believability and spirit from her recent slower numbers. On Lotus, songs like “Army of Me,” “Sing For Me” and “Light Up the Sky” flatline because of her victim-turned-bully mentality. This isn’t saying that having a bit of a ‘tude isn’t good, “Dirrty” remains one of the sexiest, unapologetic urban-pop bangers of the last decade. Moderation is required, as is context. Attitude needs the proper lighting and staging; when these rules are followed you get Aguilera in fantastic form on athletic numbers like “Your Body” and “Red Hot Kinda Love.”
Directed By: Melina Matsoukas
That Christina Aguilera (1999) remains, despite its own inherent beginner flaws, her most unified album is telling. The warmth and control that underscored “Genie in a Bottle” is what made it an equal generational gladiator against Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.” Not that Aguilera hasn’t had personal hiccups that may have derailed her creative endeavors, but like the greats before her (Donna Summer, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Kylie Minogue) she has the chance to turn it into aural therapy and make it her art. Miles beyond the soulless pop favored by Spears, Aguilera hasn’t achieved the transformation that Mandy Moore so elegantly garnered 10 years ago.
If Aguilera can learn to be a bit less defensive and fix on a narrative that can house her sexuality and spirituality, she could be brilliant. That brilliancy will overcome any commercial or critical (identity) crises, because creatively she’ll be fulfilled like the best parts of her last four albums.
[Editor’s Note: Lotus, standard and deluxe editions, available in all digital and physical retailers. For current information on Christina Aguilera, visit her official site.-QH]