Beyond Bionic

June 22, 2010

Image from Amazon

Whenever a musician decides to reinvent him/herself stylistically, they can give themselves a new artistic lease on life and possibly increase their fanbase. David Bowie is a master of this practice. However, when an artist does a reinvention, they also run the risk of straying too far from the sound that made them successful in the first place. When U2 incorporated electronic music and crisp pop production into their Zooropa and Pop albums, they made some kickass dance music (Pop is my favorite U2 album), but also alienated many of their longtime fans. They quickly corrected course for their album All You Can’t Leave Behind, and distanced themselves from their electronic experimenting by re-recording those songs for their Best of 1990-2000 and whitewashed away their work of the mid-to-late 90s.

Christina Aguilera has made a career of reinventing herself while maintaining her identity through her cruise missile of a voice and her no-nonsense attitude. Her latest album Bionic continues her history of reinvention. Consistent with the title, the album is part electro dance pop and part clean traditional slow songs, all upholding Aguilera’s themes of sexual empowerment, self-confidence, and emotional honesty. Do the cybernetic upgrades pay off?

Let’s examine the parts. Much like her 2002 album Stripped, Aguilera supplements her talents with the aid of a solid team of collaborators in songwriting, producing, and/or performing. Overall the partners seem good matches. By working with traditionally indie acts, Aguilera allies herself with sounds that one doesn’t hear much on top-40 radio: the driving electro and catchy sloganeering of Le Tigre; the hazy vocals and bleary electronics of M.I.A. and Switch, etc. On the deluxe version of the album, Santigold and Ladytron enter the mix, furthering the album’s indie dance aspects.

I liked that on this album Aguilera didn’t give in to the temptation of going “cannon, cannon, cannon,” with her vocal performances. She knows when to back off or at least when she wants to back off. If she did an entire album of vocal acrobatics, she’d come across like Celine Dion and the end product would be one long held note. It would be boring for both the audience and I imagine the artist. Sometimes Aguilera alters her vocal style to blend into a song and give more attention to the music, the lyrics, or the performances of her guests. She may be a diva, but she is also gracious host.

This is very apparent on the dance tracks, which I really got into. Switch expands on the style he made with M.I.A. for Kala on “Elastic Love” and the title track. The music is very catchy in that off-kilter way, and Christina does a great M.I.A. impression, sometimes too well. The same could be said for the tracks from Polow da Don, whom you may know as the guy who produced Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Chris Brown’s “Forever,” and Usher’s “Love In This Club.” Polow’s production diversity is reflected in his contributions: “Not Myself Tonight” is a fairly straightforward club track, “Woohoo” features playfully percussive beats and some solid rapping from Nicki Minaj, and “I Hate Boys” is a shuffle-beat stomper that sounds like it could have come from Dr. Luke.

And therein lies the downside of 2/3rds of the album: while catchy and propulsive, it’s pretty derivative. A concern expressed by others about this record has been that it tries too hard to ride the current electro-pop wave led by one L. Gaga. Now I for one am not complaining about this. Aguilera is a bloody awesome performer and has the musical knowledge to work with the real deal in this genre. It adds further legitimacy to this kind of electronic music.

My bigger complaint is with the album’s middle third, which grinds the whole show to a halt for 6 slow, cleanly produced ballads. For Aguilera this is musically conservative territory, as the bubblegum beats, clean pianos, and orchestral crescendos serve to focus the listener on her voice, and what a voice it is! It would be garden variety diva fodder were it not for Aguilera’s lyrics. Since hooking up with Linda Perry in the early 2000s, Christina has set herself apart from her peers by combining her personal confessions with affirmations that connect her to her viewers. On “Sex For Breakfast,” Aguilera sings about fi-yi-yine slow jam sex in the morning, but focuses on her own sex drive and sexual satisfaction. If another singer of Aguilera’s stature, say, a Beyonce, were to sing this kind of song, it would more likely focus on pleasing the male partner.  Meanwhile on “All I Need,” which rides this neat minimal ¾ waltz, Christina sings a love song that’s worded ambiguously enough that one could make the case that, assuming it’s true, could be about her husband or her son.

That’s the cool thing about Christina: she comes across as very multifaceted. She’s a strong, hardworking musician, a parent, and a sex symbol, and she performs all of these roles on Bionic, often at the same time, while still connecting with her audience. Not even Eminem can claim that. She proclaims that yes, you can be a person of both style and substance, dammit, and that investing in one should not have to compromise another. Madonna may have the longevity, and Gaga may have the innovation, but it’s Christina who comes out complete regardless of reinvention.


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