Sunday, July 18, 2010

Christina Aguilera - "Bionic" (Album Review)

The cover art for Christina Aguilera's formidable fourth studio album Bionic, her first since the sporadically brilliant 2006 release Back to Basics, tells much more about the album within than one might imagine. The classically beautiful singer, platinum blond hair in a tight do Eva Peron would admire, displays a face that's half flawless, airbrushed Aryan headshot and half electronic wiring layout: in other words, half lady, half bot. Of course, the whole supposed concept of the album is in the title, a mildly clever usage of a term that can mean both "anatomical or physiological elements replaced by electronic or mechanical components" and "having superhuman ability or capacity." Since this is, after all, a Christina Aguilera album, the overlengthy epic never entirely commits to its (inherently unnecessary) theme, and although there are numerous instances of greatness and even a couple near genius, the whole inevitably gets bogged down in its overstuffed, overbearing overimportance.

Bionic Album Cover Artwork
Bionic recalls Aguilera's sophomore album Stripped in numerous ways, far more than it does its mature, cooler predecessor Back to Basics, although certain similarities link all three albums produced under Aguilera's relative artistic control. Perhaps the main and most obvious parallel is the sheer size of each product, and none of the three has been the better for Aguilera's preference for lengthy breaks (four years on average) between epic albums over more releases more frequent and of manageable size, if more prone to the use of filler material.

And it is true, of the nearly sixty (!) full tracks across the three albums only a very small handful can really be denigrated as "filler," which is not to say every one is a winner but that each clearly receives the input, production effort and time generally granted to a potential single. But since Aguilera doesn't exactly spend all four years between albums making new music, that means she's preparing, on average, a whopping twenty new tracks for a new release (not counting the now ubiquitous bonus tracks), and even Stuart Price would crumble under that kind of schedule. Hence the hands of several different songwriters and producers evident on each album, only Aguilera has never been as adept as Britney Spears at selecting the best, most cohesive talent for her albums, and the already overlong track listings therefore take on a sometimes jarring rag doll quality.

Never has this been more obvious (nor more distracting) than on Bionic, which utilizes no fewer than eight different production teams for the eighteen primary tracks. The first half of the album, wherein the "bionic" theme remains at least tenuously intact (although sex, not so much electronica, is the aggressively apparent item being sold), is buoyed by the strongest productions on the album and, in some cases, some of the best and most interesting producing yet to come out of the current electronic pop movement. The gold medal goes to Santigold producing team John Hill and Switch, whose two contributions, "Bionic" and "Elastic Love" (hear it below) win them the dubious honor of successfully transforming one middling and one truly awful song into tracks so fascinating in their experimentation and effect that one would be forgiven for not noticing their writing flaws. ("A rubber band was an analogy," Aguilera helpfully explains in the second verse of "Elastic Love:" "Some may even say it's a metaphor.") Agit-pop troublemaker M.I.A. supposedly guests on the latter track, but after multiple listens with headphones I still could not tell you which of the two ladies is "singing" at which moment, so thoroughly does Aguilera commit to the "Paper Planes" songstress' amateurish, tonal accuracy-optional vocal style. Still, especially if you happen to be lucky enough not to understand English, the track is a thrilling, off-the-wall highlight of production and robotic melange, although as I unfortunately did hear the lyrics I cannot often bring myself to play the track even on my own.

Polow Da Don helms two of the most solidly successful tracks on the album and certainly two of the highlights of the first half: the underperforming lead single "Not Myself Tonight" and its even poorer-performing followup single "Woohoo," the latter featuring the fabulous and exciting new rap girl on the scene, Nicki Minaj, whose presence is always welcome on any track and is especially effective here. "Not Myself Tonight" is another example of cutting-edge production whose weaknesses lie elsewhere, this time not so much in the song itself but in the singer. If anyone believes the girl behind "Dirrty" is "normally in the corner just standing" or that really any of the supposedly wild things covered in the song are anything close to shocking or "outside the norm" for Xtina, I haven't met him. (The track took on an even less veracious air upon release of the not-at-all shocking one-upmanship music video, in which Aguilera takes the sexualities of Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Janet Jackson and strips them of any and all of the teasing, holding back and calculated non-explicitness that made them so effective, out-sexing them indeed but without being the least bit sexy.)

"Woohoo," on the other hand, is one of the better tracks Aguilera has put out, with its schoolgirl chant cleverly recalling Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" or Lil' Mama's "Lip Gloss," its refreshingly fun and frank demonstration of female sexuality serving a rebuttal to hip hop chauvinism like "Say Aah" and "Lollipop" that their male counterparts have been getting away with for years, and Minaj's hilarious and wacky accent-shifting rap verse. The only track on the brazen, sexualized first half as strong is Tricky Stewart's sexy Spanglish strip-club track "Desnudate," (hear it below) notably the first time on the album Aguilera's voice displays its usual aesthetic quality (it's the fifth track), and it comes as an odd surprise, really...not that this detracts from "Desnudate," instead fueling the sensuality of the sexual song, one of the few times on the album Aguilera actually manages to be appealing. Of course, a good Britney fan will instantly notice the song as a rewrite of "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" with a faux Latin twist, but that was a pretty great song to begin with, and Aguilera's take on the disrobing question is nearly as enjoyable regardless. Stewart's other two tracks, "Glam" and "Prima Donna," are similarly competent if slightly tame following the delirious excitement of the opening five.

Barely do you have time to enjoy the sensual new wave sounds of "Sex for Breakfast," which is about exactly what it sounds and would have fit comfortably on No Doubt's new wave masterpiece Return of Saturn or even on Aguilera's own Stripped, when suddenly Bionic switches gears dramatically, and it takes a few tracks to fully recover. This means that the decent Linda Perry ballad "Lift Me Up" might easily go unappreciated, a fate much more suitable for the wretchedly sappy interlude and song that follow. It seems to me that if you don't want to seem like you're copying your career-long rival, in this case Spears, you oughtn't ignore what made her successful while stumbling over the same ridiculous missteps as she, especially if you're going to out-stumble her. I understand that mothers, particularly new mothers, are required to think of their offspring as royalty, but did Aguilera really think we needed not just a syrupy ballad of love for her toddler but also, worst of all, an interlude in which presumably his father coaxes the child to talk or sing or babble or whatever it can do for the microphone? This coming, not to mention, not five minutes after the diva was still singing about the filthy sexual side orders she planned to offer with her eggs? Sure, it's much more accomplished musically than Spears' deadly "My Baby," but even if you manage to make it through the tune the taste of vomit can't help but cancel out anything good about "All I Need."

Fortunately, Aguilera redeems herself, and her much celebrated new collaborator Sia, with the two ballads that follow (Sia also wrote "All I Need"); "I Am" is a beautiful if somewhat unconvincing display of emotional vulnerability that Aguilera interestingly and effectively delivers in a voice noticeably stronger and less emotional than she's displayed in the past, and the many contradictions within the track somehow create a compelling and beautiful result. "You Lost Me," which has quickly become the go-to vocal showcase in the wake of "Not Myself Tonight" and "Woohoo"'s chart struggles (in other words, it's the "Beautiful" to the latter two's "Dirrty"), is admittedly the best ballad of the four, and Aguilera delivers it with a mixture of uncharacteristic restraint and pure, clandestine vocal power: she still belts the pants off anyone in the business, but it's almost as if she is no longer trying to show off, shelving the overdramatic melisma and shouty high notes that have peppered if not defined her previous work. The only thing working against "You Lost Me" is the singer herself, in terms of persona and not musicality, and quite unfairly I might add. Should the perhaps inescapable difficulty of being famous enough that certain aspects of one's life - for instance, marital status - are common knowledge preclude an artist of Aguilera's caliber from performing a heart-wrenching tour-de-force power ballad about a man who done her wrong when we know there "ain't no other man can stand up next to" her real life husband? [Edit: Obviously the news of Aguilera's recent divorce from husband Jordan Bratman has made me look like a fool with that last little know-it-all moment...touché. (12/17/10)]

Aguilera has never been terribly adept at knowing when to stop, and she stays true to form on Bionic, with the three final uptempo tracks feeling as haphazard and sloppily placed as the three superfluous ballads with which Stripped limps to the finish (Back to Basics handled its overload more deftly, aided by the use of two disks). None of them is as good as any of the tracks of the hard-pounding first half, although the disparity would hardly have been as obvious had they been included with their stylistic peers. The effect is not only musically distracting, but any credibility Aguilera has left with the more soulful subject matter of the early second half is dissolved handily by the puerile "I Hate Boys," another drumline/cheer style track with a subject just about as polarizing as "Woohoo" and with none of the redeeming qualities of the earlier, far superior track. A note to dance-pop divas: for your tracks to chart as singles in a still largely R&B/hip hop/male band-dominated industry, the gays are key; alienate them at your peril. You know, gays: "boys" who tend to regard the female genitalia with queasiness.) The song might have worked on Aguilera's debut album, or even on Stripped, when her audience still included young and teenage girls; is she so out of it that she still believes that demographic is among her major followers? If not, at whom, then, are "I Hate Boys" and the energetic but ill-placed Peaches collaboration "My Girls" aimed? The gays, men in general, and women put off by the rampant egotism that abounds in Bionic are out, so who's left?

The first five seconds of the closer, "Vanity," (hear it below) may hold the answer: on my second listen I had a sudden epiphany in these meager moments as Aguilera growls "I ain't cocky.... I just loooove mah-self.... Bitch!" As one hears "Vanity," especially after the seventeen tracks that precede it, one can't help wondering if the only demographic who might potentially make it through Bionic unscathed is drag queens. This brings up a main flaw of Bionic: there is a noticeable lack of regard for or even concern about the audience, whether in decisively adapting to one in particular or casting a broad enough net to attract and accommodate a wider range. Artists, certainly ones with the talent Aguilera has, are certainly permitted to decide at some point to make music however the hell they want to without catering to consumers, but such rebellions typically come with a realistic expectation of the likely effect on sales figures. It has been partly entertaining and partly disheartening to watch Aguilera's camp reacting to undeniably disappointing critical and commercial response when little to nothing that has happened thus far with the album's reception would have surprised most moderately aware spectators. As for content, the uncanny similarities Bionic and its release have had with the shaky stumbling surrounding Stripped (oops...she did it again!) are especially concerning in the wake of an artistic achievement on the level of Back to Basics: surely a major talent like Aguilera should have no trouble moving forward, not tumbling backward.

The thing is, within this overlarge average-to-good album are two potentially great albums: imagine the opening half along with the intoxicating experimentation of bonus track "Bobblehead" and the comfortable electro-pop mood elevator bonus track "Monday Morning," and see a techo-dance pop album that could have been a trendsetter like The E.N.D. or The Fame Monster and greater than either. Alternately, the three top-notch ballads and even the gross baby one when removed from context would couple handsomely with "Sex for Breakfast" and perhaps a couple more of the smoother but still compelling and modern torch songs and piano numbers from Back to Basics to make an adult contemporary pop gem to rival Madonna's Something to Remember. But that's not how Christina Aguilera operates, and unfortunately her potentially great, barrier-breaking bionic ideas become buried in the muck of ego, overzealous competitiveness, and questionable choices. As rocky as Stripped was, there was at least never any doubt that Aguilera was running things, or at least thought so; Back to Basics succeeded despite its own imperfections partly due to Aguilera's veteran-worthy confidence and ownership of material that was foreign to many pop consumers. Bionic suffers from a lack of control, and a lack of ownership, that raise the question of how involved Aguilera was in the process, or how much she really gave this time around. It is perfectly acceptable to give birth and decide to pour all one's creative and physical energy into the family, but less so if you release subpar work back at your old job and assume no one will notice the difference.

Christina Aguilera may well return four or eight years from now with her masterpiece, a manifesto with the artistic ingenuity and skill of Back to Basics with the loose ends tightened and the edges polished up, and on that day I will doubtless be over the moon as a longtime fan of the artist side of Christina Aguilera. And in five or ten years know-it-all critics will probably look back at Bionic and pompously extol it as a trailblazing, underappreciated classic that was simply before its time. That's all well and good, and better than most pop stars ever manage in their careers. But in order to truly blow it out of the water, the bionic elements alone are insufficient: the human touch is the key to taking a technical triumph to the level of great music.

Read More about Bionic on Vertigo Shtick:

Song for the Day: Christina Aguilera "Monday Morning"

New Singles from Christina Aguilera, Robyn ("Not Myself Tonight")

The Joy of Cooking: Aguilera Not-So-Surprise ("Not Myself Tonight" Music Video)

New Videos from Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj ("You Lost Me" Music Video)
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