Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Who’s the flyest bitch of them all? Never mind, I am.

Frankly, if anyone was bionic, it’d be Xtina.

Christina’s last studio album Back to Basics was released four years ago. An illustration of her love for all things retro, an entire track was devoted to referencing her favourite vocalists from yesteryear (Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye among many others). It has become fashionable to “namecheck” inspirations, but while other starlets wear ruby lipstick and sport peroxide curls, Ms Aguilera went all the way in her emulation of a 1950s babe. Burlesque troups all over the world will have perfected their routines to Nasty Naughty Boy, while Candyman was ridiculously nostalgic fun. With lyrics laden with innuendo and a lascivious confection of horns, it was tongue-in-cheek and one of the most unusual and daring song styles to have emerged in recent years.

In a typically drastic departure from her past style, Ms Aguilera has chosen a futuristic theme for her new album.
I really went into this record wanting it to be a fun and playful experiment, she says. Being a new mom, I'm seeing things differently through my son's eyes... it's almost like getting to also be a kid again.

(I’ll say. Curiously for her first album with the parental advisory “Explicit” label, parts of this album feel as if they are aimed at 8 year old girls who like to make up chants in the playground.)

Producer Tricky Stewart stated Christina wants music that you haven't heard before... so you're trying to create an entirely new sound for an artist.” Indeed. I believe there may come a time when record shops will need to create a new category simply named “Aguilera” in order to catalogue her work, because she sure isn’t neatly slotting into any pigeonholes.

The new album features collaborations with Sia, Goldfrapp, Ladytron and Le Tigre.  Xtina also told fans on her website “I was heavily inspired by Prodigy when I was fifteen years old.” Who knew?

She cites characteristically feminist reasons for her new sound. “As women, our bodies go through such amazing things and we are superhuman. We give life, we give birth, we are our child’s source of everything.... I think it’s pretty super human, and that’s where the inspiration for Bionic came from.” 

The album kicks off as it means to go on, with synthesized, electronic sounds and distorted vocals. Just in case we have any doubt about who is the queen of pop, she points out “Many times imitated, not duplicated; can't be replaced....” 

This hypnotic rhythm of the title track may not be for everyone, but is does sum up the new sound. And I do believe that the line “Over and over put it on replay til you’re insane,” is prophetic. This song is definitely a grower.

The first verse of Not Myself Tonight is weirdly un-tuneful, but the song soon gets into standard dancefloor territory.  (I have a horrible feeling this is going to be played on many a hen night.) Sadly, I found the video kind of boring. Oh look, it’s Xtina in PVC, kissing a girl. Yawn....  (If she wants to shock people, why doesn’t she just dress as a cowgirl and release a country album? I’d buy it!) 

I love the opening bars of Woohoo; it feels like a cross between a fairytale and a futuristic computer game. I’d have liked more weird stuff like this (future concept album, pretty please?) but they go and ruin it with the vocals. The titular “Wohoo” is irritating, like a toy which keeps squeaking because the dog is chewing it. Xtina is joined by US rapper Nicki Minaj, and their lyrics are naughty enough that you’ll be thankful that most of them would be unintelligible to the casual listener. This album ain’t for kids!

Miss Aguilera continues with her Madonna/Gaga/Gwen Stefani style with Elastic Love. It seems she’s been reading up on Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus as she helpfully explains of her lyrics “rubber band was an analogy”. She continues the stationery theme with comparisons to a ruler, pencil, paperclips, sharpener and stapler. (Yes, really.) 

Desnudate (which translates to something along the lines of “naked”) is one of my least favourite songs, it’s kind of repetitive and boring. It seems like pointless filler to me, but judging from all the sex noise, perhaps she included it in the album because it has some kind of “personal resonance...” 

Now Christina, I loves ya, but what’s with calling us bitches all the time? It’s as if the album was written by a teenage girl who has just decided it is cool to call her friends “Bitch” and does so at every opportunity (whether if fits into a line of a song, or not). The Vogue tribute, Glam, is a song about getting ready to go out – I would mention Lady Gaga’s Fashion, here  but I’m afraid it would only cause trouble... Nonetheless, the backing track for this is almost identical to many a Gaga tune. This distinctive sound continues in Prima Donna (I found this a little disappointing with my first listen – it sounds too generic but it’s growing on me.) (ETA: Now it's one of my faves. Isn't that always the way?)

Christina’s famous appetite for sex goes into overdrive with Morning Dessert and Sex for Breakfast; at least they sound pretty to me, unlike some of her more “urban” efforts. 

Thankfully she goes back to basics with Lift Me Up, which simply showcases her beautiful voice. The album effectively splits at this point, illustrated with a short track of her little boy. (It is extremely cute, but how embarrassing for little Max when he is a teenager and finds his two-year-old voice sandwiched between his mum singing odes about his father’s sexual prowess. All together now; eew!) 

Sia’s influence is all over All I Need; Christina’s vocals aren’t fussy any more, they are more grown-up and mature. This is just a beautiful, simple song; a woman, as opposed to a pop star. 

I Am is hypnotically magnificent and I cannot stop listening to it.  The same goes for You Lost Me, another gorgeous Sia-esque song. I’ve never heard Xtina’s vocals quite like this before. It is amazing, and may well send shivers down your spine. 

On her website, the singer describes part of her album as “more in touch and comfortable with my initial pop route... but in a much more sophisticated and mature manner.” This is illustrated with I Hate Boys. (See, I told you she was more sophisticated.) This is one of those songs that will be picked up by tweens who will love singing the line “I hate boys, but boys love me...” 

 Likewise they are bound to enjoy My Girls. However, it’s a bit of a weird and pointless song, seeming to exist only to namecheck the women on the album. 

The first time I heard Vanity I almost keeled over at the lyrics; It opens with “I’m not cocky... I just love myself... bitch!” and continues in the same vein. But now I am fairly sure it is just a tongue-in-cheek song that is meant to make you laugh. Unfortunately it also serves as anthem for the entitlement generation; I suppose that’s still better than the self-loathing encouraged by women’s magazines. I do appreciate the fact that Xtina is trying to be a positive influence on the way women think about themselves. I’m just not sure that emulating a blow up doll is the most empowering thing we can do for ourselves.

If you buy the Deluxe version of the album (and why wouldn’t you, bitch? Dammit, she’s got me saying that now) you will be the proud owner of 5 bonus tracks:

Monday Morning feels like an early Madonna track. Which is sort of fitting – with a small child, it seems inevitable Aguilera will be drawn to the sounds of her childhood, and being a child of the 80s, she probably grew up singing along to a fisherprice tape recorder with a cassette of True Blue, just like the rest of us. Unfortunately she goes and ruins a perfectly nice, melodic song with a bit of playground style chanting, and the inevitable “soda pop!” lyrics. Why is this album aimed at 12-year-olds? 

For all my complaining about certain tracks, after listening to this album I immediately wanted to hear it all over again. I think this is a good sign. However, I can count the number of times I will voluntarily listen to Bobblehead, on one hand, and I’ve used them all up. This is truly awful. But then again, maybe kids will like Aguilera’s imitation of an airhead who just doesn’t “get it.”And I can think of worse lyrics for them to sing along with than “I know you got a brain why don't you use it?”

Xtina goes for a slightly Arabic flavour on the ominous sounding Birds of Prey. (Could this be the theme for her next album? If we ask nicely?) It's quite dark lyrically: “They watch and they feed / they take what they need / they bite as you bleed...” It seems that the more people wrong her, the more she bounces back; Stronger than Ever continues this common theme of her work with powerful vocals   no messing around with fiddly bits or electronica.

The stripped version of I Am is stunning in its simplicity; It makes me wish the whole album could be like this – but of course, she wouldn’t be where she is today if she didn’t experiment wildly...

On her last album, Xtina’s song Still Dirrty reassured us (lest we were unduly worried) that despite dressing in a ladylike manner, she still had the same fierce sexuality which influenced her Stripped album. Apparently she’s not sure if we got the message, because this album is saturated and dripping with sex. Why SO obsessed? Her album art shows her blindfolded and topless, “bottomless” but for a cartoon of a kitten (seriously?), and Xtina doing her very best impression of a blow up doll. It’s kind of... tiresome. If only she could get the message that sexuality doesn’t have to be in the one dimensional style of a German sex shop. 

If I sound harsh, it’s because I expect a lot from Ms Aguilera, and I know she can take the criticism! So despite my minor quibbles, (and they really are minor) it’s great to have Christina back. At this point in her career, she has nothing to prove  we all know she is easily the best vocalist of her generation, and possibly in the history of the world so she CAN experiment and have fun with different styles. 

Can’t wait to see what’s next!

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