GLEN BALLARD, Ron Fair, Linda Perry, Scott Storch, Steve Morales, Balewa Muhammad, Rob Hoffman, E. Dawk, Heather Holley, and Christina Aguilera are all labeled on Stripped as producers. Just as numerous are the engineers and arrangers on the album.
With so much help to flesh out a response to Britney Spears and Pink’s success as pop stars, Christina Aguilera seemed to be in a win-win position. She could requisition the songs, let the songwriters do their work, she could come in with her lyrics and sing as extraordinarily as ever and poof! Another hit album. There seems to be one catch within the perfect formula, however. Christina came in with the lyrics, a distinct confidence in her own judgment (read: diva’s ego), and left her previous image at the door.
Moving forward with an artist’s image is usually not such a problematic venture. Britney has bridged the gap between knowing teenage waif and sex bomb. Pink has gone from R & B princess to an earnest shemo proponent. And Christina has made her move from naïve teenage waif to, as Rockwilder so eloquently puts it, “(a girl that) got her driver’s license and…crashed her car down the block.” Yes, Aguilera’s new album is just that: a car wreck. The question after making way through its labyrinth 20 tracks and 77 minutes is whether this will be a career ending maneuver or an exciting sideline to her career. In either case, a dedicated following of people (for whatever reason) will be watching with great interest to see what happens.
It doesn’t start off terribly. ‘Stripped (Intro)’ begins with a futuristic collage of sound bites regarding Fred Durst, TRL, and the Britney/Christina rivalry. The collage clears out to allow the sound of a news announcer saying, “We’re going to let Christina tell her side of the story.” The intro begins in earnest with a soulful bed of bass and piano in which Christina apologizes for a myriad of things. First, she is “sorry for breaking the mold”. Second, she is “sorry I don’t do what I’m told.” While the first assertion may be wildly presumptuous (what mold are we talking about here? You seem to, instead, fill many different molds on this album), the second seems to be unfortunately true.
In a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, during the week of the release of her new album, both Linda Perry and Rockwilder expressed their shock at the selection of ‘Dirrty’ as the first single. Sounding like nothing else on the record, ‘Dirrty’ is surely one of the most interesting songs of the year, but it surely doesn’t scream anything but vainly attempting to cop Britney Spears’ image transformation on ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’.
The single that Perry (formerly of 4 Non Blondes and heavily responsible for the songwriting and production on Pink’s most recent album) would have chosen is ‘Beautiful’. And it seems that the song would have been a better choice. Mining the same sort of territory that many pop singers face (the crush of celebrity and the trials that go with it), the song is a typical ballad that actually tastefully reins in Aguilera’s frequent vocal acrobatics. The song, lyrically, also explores the main theme of the record, being stripped bare in front of the public, far better than ‘Dirrty’. Because of the dismal showing of the single on the charts (not TRL, however), ‘Beautiful’ was rush released as the second single recently.
There shouldn’t be any problem finding a third single, either, considering the length of the record and the quantity of songs. This, however, is more of a hindrance than anything. In attempting to show all of the things she has been doing since we heard her last, Aguilera lessens the impact of the better songs on the record. Instead, in between ten to twelve mediocre/good songs, we have eight to ten songs that would be better served as B-sides.
These B-sides fill the record up with generic song structures and even more bland lyrics that overshadow some of the more interesting things going on in songs such as ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’, which features Lil’ Kim, and ‘Keep on Singin’ My Song’. Each song flirts with, in the final minute of the track, with dancehall and drum ‘n bass, respectively. These sonically pleasurable changes are relegated to outro status and only serve as a footnote as to what might have been.
Instead, the this record feels like a failure of self-censorship. Aguilera, in her quest to be up front and real, is far more stripped than anyone wants to see her. She would be well advised to rein in her artistic freedom and heed the advice of record executives who actually do sometimes know best. But, just make sure it doesn’t look like you’re telling her what to do. She doesn’t seem to like that.
© Todd L. Burns, Stylus, 1 September 2003