Sounding older and more confident than early, effortful works such as ‘Genie in Bottle’, the singer puts the X in Xtina.
THE TRANSITION from teen stardom to something less ephemeral isn’t easy at the best of times. For the Mickey Mouse Club alumnus Christina Aguilera, it’s a transition that has inevitably involved the jettisoning of clothes for high-profile video shoots. “I nearly died when I saw she was wearing so little,” said Delci Fidler, the singer’s grandmother back in 2001, on seeing Aguilera perform ‘Lady Marmalade’ wearing make-up whose total weight exceeded that of her clothes.
Semi-naked album shoots (Stripped in 2001) and Rolling Stone covers followed. But with Back to Basics in 2006 Aguilera seemed to turn a corner. Addressing her marketing executive fiancé Jordan Bratman on the album’s final song, ‘The Right Man’, Aguilera’s formidable pipes cannoned their way through a wall of choral harmonies and right into the chapel where her future husband awaited her.
If nothing else, you imagine Fidler must have been delighted to see someone make an honest woman of her granddaughter. Should she want to keep it that way, it’s perhaps best that Aguilera avoid offering her gran a copy of her fourth album, coming with what must rank as some of the singer’s most explicit songs to date.
Admittedly, there are no profanities on the digitised hump-tempo beats of ‘Woohoo’. But with such lines as, “All the boys think it’s cake when they taste my woohoo/ You don’t even need a plate/ Just ya face,” she’s clearly not talking about Kelloggs Rice Krispies Squares. As a marginally less silly companion piece to Flight of the Conchords’ horny ragga-pop explosion ‘Boom’, you really can’t fault it.
The good news is that, on what ranks as the most straight-up enjoyable album of her career, it’s not so out of place either. Whatever she’s baring on the mechanised hook-and-pull of the title track or the warped robo-pop of ‘Elastic Love’ — the latter featuring the line, “If I was a ruler I’d set you straight” — it’s not her soul.
Far from being a problem, that might be the key to what makes them so likeable. If motherhood has relaxed her, then the maternal, mawkish sopfest of ‘Lift Me Up’ is a small price to pay for what surrounds it. Percussive whip-cracks vie with mariachi horns that seem to ape cries of pain on the Latino sado-disco of ‘Desnudate’, while ‘My Girls’ pays host to an alliance between Aguilera and celebrated Canadian gender-transgressor Peaches. Tempting as it is to imagine that Aguilera freighted in the creator of ‘Fuck the Pain Away’ and ‘Diddle My Skittle’ for extra shock value, the fact is that Aguilera needs no help in that regard. The singer who famously sang, “I am beautiful/ No matter what they say” on her 2001 hit ‘Beautiful’, casts those sentiments in a more literal light on ‘Vanity’, a song about being “lawfully vetted” to the sight of your own reflection.
Presumably written for anyone who still didn’t know quite what she was getting at with ‘Woohoo’, ‘Sex for Breakfast’ is better still — eliciting a gauzy post-coital performance from Aguilera as great in its way as the songs whose DNA it seems to share: Smokey Robinson’s ‘Cruising’ and TLC’s ‘Red Light Special’.
For the measure of her progress, it’s worth contrasting the effortlessness of the execution here to early singles such as ‘Genie in a Bottle’. As early as 1999 Aguilera’s voice sounded as if it was straining to be more substantial than mere pop. By contrast, Bionic is the sound of a woman having far too much fun to give a stuff what you think. Which, needless to say, compounds its allure.
© Pete Paphides, The Times, 4 June 2010