Christina Aguilera: Bionic (2010), RCA Records
The Verdict: B-
Standout Tracks: “You Lost Me“, “Desnudate“, “Bionic“
The word “bionic” can mean so many different things. It’s a word that evokes ideas of superhuman strength, grandiose power, and universal superiority despite it’s phonetic simplicity. Undoubtedly this provocative interpretation of the word is what pop superstar Christina Aguilera had in mind upon choosing a name for her highly-anticipated and heavily-discussed fourth full-length studio album, Bionic, released just last week to an expected smattering of minor praise from both contemporary critics as well as consumers. The album’s lukewarm reception is no surprise, considering Aguilera’s highly-anticipated road of return has been marred by countless schoolyard accusations of copycatting; the first single, “Not Myself Tonight” and it’s accompanying music video were deemed as rip-offs of both Lady Gaga and Madonna, something celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton actively crusaded against, prompting countless masses to question the legitimacy of the once-princess-of-pop’s latest foray into the shark-infested music-culture airwaves.
But now that everyone’s had a chance to finally experience what Xtina has been working on so dilligently for the past 4 years, what’s consumed her and forced her from the public eye into what we thought was some sort of dark bat-cave of creative energy, what’s taken the help of millions of dollars and hordes of top-name producers and songwriters to concoct, the end product could only be a pop masterpiece, right? Perez is just a hater, Christina won’t let us down, right? Sadly, in spite of all the aforementioned preparation and anticipation, the pop-induced music-euphoria-overload coma we all hoped to slip into upon first-listen of Bionic only amounts to little more than a quick shot-to-the-head buzz from a few Well drinks on a sleazy Friday night.
The album opens with the title track aptly proclaiming Aguilera’s status as a “bionic” woman; it’s standard swagg-pop fare with an enticing beat. Hints of dub-step, reggaeton, and even dancehall ring through the electronic whirlwind of sounds from the mastermind Switch, who’s worked with the likes of Amanda Blank and the collaborative Major Lazer. Thanks to this track the album starts off on the right foot -not a brilliant one- but the right one. But as the album prances through it’s first half and the alcohol (admittedly, as in the lyrics of “Not Myself Tonight” suggest) begins to flow and the beats become more intense, they also become more generic; the tipsy mess begins to manifest itself and stumble it’s way through the club. The dance-oriented first half of the album (and a select few tracks from the second half) contain the bulk of the heavy production from the likes of the aforementioned superstar producers but also contributions from M.I.A., Ester Dean, Pollow da Don, Sia, Le Tigre, and Nicki Minaj. Utilizing such brilliant masterminds of music sounds like an absolutely epic move on Aguilera’s part. However, the problem at the core of Bionic begins to manifest itself through the contributions of such individualized, distinctive producers and writers; the songs begin to sound more like the artists who contributed to them more than Christina.
The production was utilized all wrong here. What should have been true creative collaborations here feel more like Christina simply covering a song by the respective writer; “Elastic Love” sounds like a direct cut from M.I.A.’s forthcoming LP, and the Le Tigre-crafted “My Girls” recalls just about every upbeat song the band has had since their career began. And even more shocking is the fact that Aguilera’s voice, the one true thing that has made her an icon herself, is diminished by the production and collaboration that’s going into the songs she’s singing. Her intentionally-lackluster, somewhat-whiny-offbeat tone in “Elastic Love” sounds more like a mimicry of M.I.A.’s similar vocal stylings, and Christina’s pathetic attempts at the “hard”-ness of Nicki Minaj in “Woohoo” sounds like a poor attempt at role playing instead of the committed diva we’ve grown accustomed to. One giant miscalculation here is clearly the overemphasis on production in favor of originality; in 20 years no one is going to remember who produced the tracks on your album. I mean, who can honestly say they know who crafted the likes of “Candyman” or “Beautiful”? The answer is no one. What people do remember, however, is the voice. That’s what’s made this woman a world-renowned icon. It’s what made her mastery of generic pop tunes a multi-platinum debut album ten years ago. It’s what got the world to notice, because albums like this don’t get noticed when they’re Freshman, because if Bionic were Aguilera’s first offering, there’d be no Aguilera albums to review in the future.
Christina’s other major misstep is that she seems stuck in a character throughout the entire venture, trying to be something she’s not, mimicking the sounds of the people she’s enlisted the help of instead of conquering the material and putting the signature Christina stamp on tracks like we’ve seen her do in the past. Not a single song on the entire album can even come close to the iconic status she’s given us before. The tracks all lack distinctive pop hooks and choruses Aguilera’s humungous and empowering voice has familiarized us with in years prior (think “Fighter” or “Aint No Other Man”) and the production overrules the voice in nearly every single song, something that should by all means never occur when you have a voice as unique and distinctive as Aguilera does. And when you lose your voice within production and you lose your identity inside an overplayed and overdone (at least in contemporary pop music) character, you become intangible (not in a good way), and that’s exactly what’s happened to Aguilera here. I’m confused about whether I should be cranking up my shot-taking, booty popping self for tracks like “Desnudate” or trying to connect with her as a familially-complacent mother on “All I Need”?
This harsh shift from the club to the domesticated (and…um…broken, apparently…but we’ll get to that in a second) home on the album’s second half feels like a disheveled attempt to package in some powerhouse vocals to offset the club-induced ringing in your ears. They’re not altogether bad, though, they just feel largely disconnected (both lyrically and phonetically) from the raving dance mess that’s been barraging us with beats and coccaine for the past half hour of listening. The transitory “Sex For Breakfast” is a snooze and adequately brings us down from the high. The album then takes the very odd turn into the out-of-synch ballads that cause a lyrical kafuffle with the rest of the LP. Going from the first half’s bad-life-decisions, eat-my-pussy, “bisexual” party monster to the happily-settled mother and then to the bitter-he-cheated ex-girlfriend all in a span of 10 tracks does not create balanced lyrical cohesion in the slightest.
Amidst these ballads and down-tempo pop offerings lies the album’s standout track, “You Lost Me”, this bitter-he-cheated ex-girlfriend track I mentioned before contains the best presentation of Aguilera’s vocals and mastery-of-a-song-she-didn’t-write (no, I don’t count “co-writing” as fully writing a song) the album has to offer. She commits, she steps out of the character she’s crafted at the beginning of the album, and lets her voice go. The track truly benefits from this, considering it’s lyrically stale and similarly out-of-touch with the rest of the album (perhaps the love was lost because you were kissing ALL the boys and the girls a little earlier?) as so many of the other ballads on the album are. But it’s truly refreshing to catch a glimpse of the softness the direction in which the album could have gone.
What made Back to Basics, Aguilera’s 2006 LP, so fantastic was that the emphasis was clearly on showcasing the vocal ability of Aguilera and not exploiting her pop product status, infusing her raw talent with slick yet original (and not detracting) production that complimented her voice instead of overshadowing it. Tracks like “You Lost Me” belong on an album like that, for she surely has outgrown her pop-product beginnings by now, but Bionic is clinging to that past like Lindsay Lohan’s SCRAM bracelet clings to her ankle. The album flits in two entirely separate directions not unified by lyrics or sound, containing tracks either too overtly raunchy and flirty or far too subdued; there’s no middle ground with Bionic, it’s simply a preacher without a soapbox. It’s an album that reflects a pop product in favor of a truly identified and legendary artist that Christina, by all means, was heading for with Back to Basics.
There’s a reason Aguilera is far more sucsceptible to people’s scrutiny than, say, the likes of Britney Spears or other pop artists whose careers blossomed at the same time as hers; they stuck with their pop product roots. And it’s not entirely Christina’s fault that she’s sort of grown away from that into a more elegant and respected artist; her voice separates and places her above the products so prevalent in contemporary music. Christina is a standard in music, she has a certain air of respect and elegance surrounding her (simply due to the strength of her voice) that Bionic doesn’t acknowledge. Britney Spears is allowed to produce mindless dance-pop and still be respected, that’s what Britney does and that’s what she’s always done. People don’t listen to Britney for her voice, they listen because Britney is just one hell of a good time. Christina is different. Her voice is a treasure, a voice that doesn’t belong on standard pop-fare like Bionic. A voice that’s timeless, that shouldn’t be conformed or compromised to sound like it “fits” with a backing production.
In the end, I can’t say I wholeheartedly dislike Bionic. There really are some fantastic, slick tracks on this album that will assuredly find their way to the clubs (and certainly have already found their way onto my workout playlists). The overtly confident, self-loving vanity tracks (one in particular titled…well..”Vanity”) fall into this category as well, but something rings false about them. They’re danceable and hip, yes, but lyrically they reflect a monarch whose fallen out of favor with her subjects, as do so many of the songs on this album. The closing line of Bionic (Aguilera asking us to remember who “owns” the throne and her son answering “you do, mommy”) seems like a stroke of shear brilliance upon first-listen, but it comes off of more a threatened cry for the spotlight of a fallen diva instead of a proclaimation of truth. The obvious doesn’t need to be stated if, in fact, the obvious is true, and something is surely prompting this constant theme of royal self-promotion that runs as a common thread throughout many tracks on Bionic. Christina’s voice isn’t one to be shoved into the mindless dance, swagg pop category like this…she’s capable of so much more. From any other artist, Bionic would be throwaway pop fluff, but for Christina it’s…well…throwaway pop fluff; fiercely danceable, entertaining for a while, with absolutely no staying power whatsoever, something that should by no means bear Christina Aguilera’s name at this stage in her career. Shocking just to shock is a Christina we’ve already seen, and Bionic feels wholeheartedly like Christina’s been playing catch up in a race she’s previously led for quite some time.