How Did Christina Aguilera End Up Botching Another Comeback?

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She still has her powers, but her recent artistic choices—and the media's depiction of them—have made it hard to tell.

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Sony

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.

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Katherine St. Asaph is a New York-based music critic who has written for the Village Voice, Popdust, the Singles Jukebox and other publications. She can be found at katherinestasaph.tumblr.com.

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