She still has her powers, but her recent artistic choices—and the media's depiction of them—have made it hard to tell.
Christina Aguilera hasn't been able to stick a landing lately.
Her last album, 2010's Bionic, kicked up a nanostorm of pre-release hype with outré collaborators (M.I.A., Santigold, Ladytron, Peaches, Le Tigre) and a strong-selling predecessor (2006's jazzy, acclaimed Back to Basics)—and then flopped, becoming her worst-selling record yet and spawning a failed movie, Burlesque.
But a comeback seemed possible. The intervening years up saw Aguilera renew her relevance with a stint judging The Voice that brought her a bona fide (if not universally loved) hit, "Moves Like Jagger." For her new album Lotus, she lined up an unexciting but reliable slate of songwriters and producers: Max Martin (the most successful hitmaker of the past decade), Sia (Australian indie-pop singer turned solid purveyor of demos for Rihanna, David Guetta and others), and Alex da Kid (who was behind one of the biggest songs of 2010, Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie," and T.I.'s well-liked collaboration with Aguilera, "Castle Walls").
Pop is a personality-driven market, after all, and the whims of the public can quickly turn empowerment into a personality problem.
And yet two weeks since its release, Lotus seems consigned to disappointment status. Lead single "Your Body," a Martin track with production as brash as its come-ons ("don't even tell me your name, all I need to know is whose place, then let's get walking"), peaked at a dull No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100, worse by far than her last underperforming single, "Not Myself Tonight." The album itself sold in its first week a meager 73,000 copies—as MTV points out, less than a Soundgarden album nobody had heard of and a Weeknd compilation everyone had already heard for free. Not catastrophic, and nothing artists haven't bounced back from, but hardly the stuff of a triumphant comeback.
It's strange. Other survivors of the turn-of-the-millennium teen-pop boom—particularly Aguilera's one-time nemesis Britney Spears—are still doing fine. Why has Aguilera so often recently seemed on the cusp of a big return, only to see that return botched? Her story is largely of an artist whose public persona and sound have no obvious place in pop today—and who, facing redundancy, has opted for a not particularly compelling, all-of-the-above approach to her career.
Bionic wasn't that bad, but its standouts were mostly relegated to the bonus disc—something many, including Ladytron's Daniel Hunt, blame for the album's failure. Santigold/Switch collaboration "Monday Morning" sounds nothing like Christina Aguilera, but it's appealingly laid-back, speckled with funk guitar and handclaps. The Ladytron track, "Birds of Prey," sounds nothing like Aguilera either—it sounds like Aguilera's engineers systematically pumped sedatives and smoke into the studio until she started sighing like Helen Marnie—but it's also a track by Cathy Dennis ("Toxic"), who adds considerable pop instincts. Even the main disc has its moments. "Elastic Love" sounds like cowriter M.I.A. taking on Robyn's "Fembot," and Bionic's title track makes a lot more sense in 2012, where the strobing-and-ricocheting vocals in the prechorus are practically standard issue.
But the binding thread on that album was Aguilera sounding, well, not herself. It's common enough for pop singers to solicit multiple songwriters then slavishly imitate the voice on the demo—Rihanna, for one, has made a career of it. But Aguilera's voice is tantamount to her brand, and for listeners who lionize big voices, undersinging and overprocessing come off as so much tampering.
That doesn't quite explain, though, why so many people saw Bionic as not merely bad but embarrassing. As is usually the case with embarrassment, the answer is sex, a subject Aguilera's album rather liked. She liked it blunt ("Sex for Breakfast,"), or euphemistic ("Woohoo"), or bilingual ("Desnudate"), and in all cases frequently. This was distressing news, apparently; the raunchiest tracks were the most often castigated, leading to sexbot references, hysteria allusions, and yeast infection jokes. It didn't help matters that Aguilera's "Not Myself Tonight" video was a virtual fetish shoot, or that next big project was Burlesque, a punctured star vessel of a movie that tried to cast Aguilera as a successor to costar Cher but, in translation, lost everything but the pasties. The fact that every move in "Not Myself Tonight" was made kinkier in Madonna's "Human Nature"—or for that matter, the fact that Aguilera had already made an entire album, Stripped, themed around sex and performed in chaps—was evidently lost on everyone.
Or perhaps it wasn't. Stripped made sense, after all, in the narrative: It was Aguilera's good-girl-gone-bad album, the one where the genie left the bottle. Every pop princess gets one. The saucier tracks on Back to Basics—"Candyman," a tarted-up "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and the aptly titled "Still Dirrty"—were fine, too, as little teases permitted between ballads and classy retro. But then they stopped being occasional and were set to chart-standard music, and listeners' patience ran out.
The criticisms took on certain gendered undertones. Her move toward electro was called desperate or calculating. Her vocals were called showy or brash, even histrionic. Her demeanor was called vain or mean—fair enough for Bionic, with track titles "Vanity" or "Glam," but more dubious on The Voice, a show in a genre spearheaded by Simon Cowell. Even when detractors didn't explicitly snipe at her body, her libido, or her increasingly debauched tabloid presence, as Maura Johnston points out, the implications were there. Pop is a personality-driven market, after all, and the whims of the public can quickly turn empowerment into a personality problem. And while Aguilera cooled things off slightly for Lotus, there's still that nude album cover, and that raunchy lead single, and the interviews in Billboard and elsewhere suggesting she regretted nothing about Bionic, in music or, more damningly, in content.
Lotus is even less consistent than Bionic, and certainly less than Back to Basics. Its only theme, evidently, is some cross between It Gets Better and a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. But inconsistency is no longer a real demerit. Aguilera is neither Andrews Sister nor android anymore, just a pop star—and one who, when she hits, hits well. "Red Hot Kinda Love," written by Lucas Secon, is downright bubbly, with Aguilera's vocals airy and sweetened like a blown kiss. It's easily the most joyful thing she's recorded in years. "Cease Fire," meanwhile, is a wartime-metaphor march that sees Aguilera singing half in Rihanna-like patois (foreshadowed in the New Yorker, and indeed present throughout Lotus) and half in the hush of Imogen Heap. It shouldn't work, but the military drums and double-time patter are dynamic enough to save it. She's more herself on "Shut Up": Though an Alex da Kid track with a chorus of "shut up, shut the fuck up" is about as enthusing as a Twitter flame war, it's got a torchy strut that suggests Aguilera's off remembering the '90s. Early opener "Army of Me" (not a Bjork cover, alas) meanwhile, is far more current, reminiscent of "Fighter" updated as a Calvin Harris-esque filter house track. But that isn't necessarily a bad concept, and if you're looking for distinguishing details, the slap bass in the second verse is happy to oblige.
The rest of the album is workmanlike, but certainly not embarrassing. Alex da Kid's talents, such as they are, are flattered by plodding, portentous album openers of the sort Aguilera's taken to. The Martin/Shellback track "Let There Be Love" is a copy of a copy of "California Gurls" and "TiK ToK," and even though it's hard to shake the suspicion that Aguilera received sloppy thirds, it works just as well umpteen times later. The album's replete with inspiro ballads, and at times they shade into their more modern mutation: the fuck-the-haters song. (Prospective pop-star haters should know that their hating only directly contributes to the proliferation of these, like planting seeds of weeds.) But diss track "Circles" isn't so bad; the words might not crunch, but the chorus does.
And finally, Aguilera's still on cross-promotional duty, so duets with Cee-Lo Green and Blake Shelton turn up. "Make The World Move" is exactly what you'd expect from a Cee-Lo track: genial and inobtrusive. Dude couldn't even make "fuck you" sound harsh; you know what you're getting. The meaty "Just a Fool," meanwhile, is yet another market play: an audition as a country artist. The track comes off more as an Idol theme week cut than anything, with Aguilera's voice struggling to unlearn all its early-career Etta training and the track struggling to not sound exactly like 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up." But the label seems to believe in it well enough; it's the next single.
That might end up being smart. The biggest problem for Lotus, and likely the cause of its low sales, is what place Aguilera has in pop in 2012. Outside the echo chamber of her core fans, it's hard to say. Could she usurp Adele as a big-voiced belter? Sure, but everyone wants to. Could she slot herself in with Rihanna and Katy Perry as a pop interpreter? She's certainly trying and certainly overqualified. Could she transition into country? It's an option. Reliable, resilient pop-rock, like Pink or Kelly Clarkson? Slinky hip-hop like Mariah Carey? Dance diva, like anyone who's appeared on a Calvin Harris track this decade? Why not?
During her peak, Aguilera had two strengths: forward-thinking collaborators (such as Scott Storch near his prime, or The System's David Frank during the year or so in the early '00s when he was the best producer in pop), and her voice, still instantly recognizable. The gamble Lotus makes is that both of these are subordinate to market forces. They can be forces for good songs. It remains to be seen whether they'll be forces for Aguilera.