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A Fresh Start

May 26, 2010

Let’s talk about that word, “reinvention.”

I want you to think about Madonna. Think of her early songs: “Holiday,” “Borderline,” “Like a Virgin,” “Like a Prayer,” “Vogue.” While there are stylistic differences in her songs, overall they are pretty similar (seriously, listen to The Immaculate Collection from end to end). Now let’s think of the hits of her next 10 years as depicted in her second best of GHV2: “Deeper and Deeper,” “Ray Of Light,” “Music,’ “Don’t Tell Me.” There’s a little bit of difference both among those songs and between her first and second ten years. Her musical and stylistic reinvention is gradual.

Meanwhile, Christina Aguilera knocks out a new self like a pro with every new album. Let’s break it down:

1999: Blonde ex-Mickey Mouse Club teen pop pre-diva with R&B beats, baggy clothes and compressed vocals.

2002: Powered up gothic stripper thong feminist ready to bring you to your knees with a voice to match her convictions.

2006: Greatest Generation big band jazz singer with platinum blonde hair, big curls, and a new-old take on the idea of “the greatest singer in the world.”

After picking up Christina Aguilera’s best-of Keeps Getting’ Better: A Decade of Hits, this chameleonic cannon  could never be more apparent. It also made me realize which versions of Christina I like.

The first four songs on the album come from her self-titled debut when she was ready to emerge hot on the heels of Britney Spears. I almost always skip past them. It just reminds me of how similar those teenybopper acts sounded in the late 90s and early 2000s. The stuttering click-and-pop beats that were the style at the time come off as dated (especially “Come On Over”), the vocals aren’t that daring (“What A Girls Wants”) and frankly sound more processed than her later work (“Genie In A Bottle”), and she fails to distinguish herself from her contemporaries. To be fair, she was a new artist and her label probably didn’t want to take as many risks until she was proven.

The next three songs are from her 2002 album Stripped. As her teenybopper peers dropped out of the game (Mandy Moore), started breaking up (N Sync), or amplified their act harder (Britney Spears), Christina ditched her management and started to play by her own rules. She got raunchier, but unlike Britney, she never pleaded innocence. Christina used her provocative material as means of self-expression and empowerment (hence “thong feminism”), as is indicated in “Dirrty.” The idea of power is also seen in striking out against an ex (“Fighter”) and in bringing up herself and the listener despite what others say (“Beautiful”). Sadly, that album’s fourth single “Can’t Hold Us Down,” is not included on the compilation, which is crummy because song also extends the power theme in taking on male privilege, plus it has a cool slowed down, minimal old school beat. In addition to her thematic divergence, Christina also expands her sound via her collaborators. Borrowing from the Mariah Carey playbook, she hooks up with the criminally underrated rapper Redman and the producer Rockwilder on “Dirrty.” She blurs the lines between pop, rock, and hip-hop on “Fighter” where Dave Navarro of plays guitar over Scott Storch’s hard-ass stadium production. Linda Perry, fresh off of helping Pink morph from an R&B singer to a confessional, self-deprecating pop-rocker, runs the show on “Beautiful.” I love these songs, even the slow one, because they feel so full of life and purpose and they are catchy to boot.

Four years later, Christina had made some changes in her personal life. She got married, dyed her hair platinum blonde, and turned into the Marilyn Monroe of the 21st century for Back To Basics. For the three songs included from that album on this best-of, you can really feel the jazz and swing influences in the music, reflecting Christina’s growing up. DJ Premier makes brassy breakbeats on “Ain’t No Other Man,” and Mark Ronson joins the Aguilera/Perry writing team on “Hurt,” but the A-game from this period is on “Candyman,” a very catchy, very dirty swing song. The difference in the dirty between the song and “Dirrty” is its air of classiness. It’s more of a burlesque, warm dirtiness, and it speaks to her maturity as an artist. “Candyman” is one of my favorite songs on this compilation, but as a group, I don’t find the Basics tracks quite as likable as the Stripped songs. They are still some neat songs from a pretty cool version of Christina.

Keeps Gettin’ Better concludes with a 4-song set of new songs and remixes from Christina and Linda Perry. The 2 remixes are passable, but the new songs are solid dance pop with an electro flavor that match the compilation’s mini-reimagining of Christina as a comic book superhero. I was really feeling “Keeps Gettin’ Better,” but that may just be because of its shuffle beat and grinding bassline, and I love a good bassline.

I would say that this compilation is a neat introduction to the singer for new fans or casual listeners like me who passed on the songs when they first came out. Keeps Gettin’ Better is also a great study of how a pop singer can reinvent herself every 3-4 years, in sometimes radical ways, and still come out swinging.

So, Christina Aguilera’s new album Bionic is coming out June 8th. It’s her first new album in 4 years. Between the new video and the album cover, Ms. Aguilera looks to have reinvented herself yet again, this time as some sort of cyborg dominatrix from Mars.

Bring it on, Xtina. Bring it on.

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