One part Mariah and two parts Madonna, Christina Aguilera has always had Mimi’s pipes and the Material Girl’s sex appeal and savvy, not to mention the wherewithal to use all those qualities to her advantage. The one thing she lacks is originality. She’s made it clear from the very beginning (and by “beginning” I mean the point at which it became evident she wasn’t just another Britney clone) that she was determined to prove that a woman can be both sexually expressive and talented. It’s a battle previously fought by Madonna, particularly in the first half of the ’90s, only she made her point with deeds (albeit dirty ones), not words; Aguilera, on the other hand, seems compelled to drive the same point home explicitly and repeatedly in her song lyrics, without ever actually substantiating it—save for the vocal acrobatics and social poses formerly struck by her two most obvious influences.
That’s not to say Madonna was subtle about it and Aguilera lacks talent—far from it. But ironically, what made Aguilera famous is the very thing she’s rebelling against. If you use sex to get people’s attention, can you really complain when those same people claim that’s your greatest asset? And now that Aguilera is done getting dirty (at least image-wise), what is there for a pop vixen to do? Scavenge the past, apparently. While most young people who discover new genres of music go out and buy heaps of old albums, Christina Aguilera records them. But, again, instead of simply doing it, she feels obliged to talk about it. The album’s intro sets the stage for an endeavor that is, by default, derivative: “I’ve waited for some time/To get inside the minds/Of every legend I’ve ever wanted to stand beside…Every lyric and melody/Every single rhyme.” Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and Aguilera isn’t trying to fool anyone—she’s striking a deliberate pose.
Everything she’s done post-“Genie In A Bottle” has been advertising for the new-and-improved Christina Aguilera brand. She sported booty shorts and feigned a ghetto accent upon the release of 2002’s urban-leaning Stripped and she’s spent the past several months prepping the public for her turn as a ’30s-era pinup (a creamy-skinned blond one, no less—a striking contrast to the black music legends she name-checks on “Back in the Day”). The album’s first disc is devoted to urban tracks that sample and pay homage to those legends. Interestingly, the disc’s strength isn’t its period jazz flourishes or even Aguilera herself, but the old-school production courtesy of DJ Premier, as well as Rich Harrison (the gospel-infused “Makes Me Wanna Pray”), Kwamé (the vintage R&B ballad “Understand”), and others, which evokes hip-hop’s late-’80s and early-’90s heyday while simultaneously giving the album some kind of modern relevance. And despite its myriad producers, Back to Basics is more cohesive than its predecessor.
The decision to release a double-album, however, is a dubious one; though the material is strong throughout, it could have been whittled down to a single disc’s worth, and the way the more straightforward, Linda Perry-produced throwbacks are segregated onto the second disc creates an imbalance on the record. These tracks, which follow archetypical blues and jazz melodies (“Candyman” and “Nasty Naughty Boy” provide racy twists on familiar templates), would play a lot less like Music History 101 if they were interspersed throughout the rest of the album. Aguilera has yet to establish herself as a distinctive songwriter in her own right, and a project like Back to Basics, though daring for an artist at this juncture in her career and easily one of the more interesting and ambitious pop albums in recent memory, doesn’t remedy that.
And then there’s that voice. Whereas vocal talent is one of the few things that appeal to me about Mariah Carey, Aguilera’s voice is what turns me off. She seems to be under the assumption that melisma and relentless belting are how one proves his or her ability. The first half of disc one is headache-inducing, and it’s not until “Oh Mother,” with its lovely piano and string melodies, that we’re offered a reprieve. Subsequent ballads, particularly “Without You,” display her incredible range outside of shouting. If there’s one thing Perry has contributed to pop music, it’s tricking Aguilera into subtlety on Stripped tracks like “Beautiful” and “I’m OK,” and she coaxes a similarly restrained performance from the singer on the moving “Save My from Myself.” It’s easily the best song on the album’s second side.
Back on side one, “Thank You (Dedicated to Fans…)” combines samples of past hits like “Genie In A Bottle” with messages from Aguilera’s fans. The song would be incredibly shrill (“You inspire me to keep on living,” says one young devotee) if it weren’t constructed so tastefully by DJ Premier, who pieces the fan messages, Aguilera’s vocals, and turntable scratches together like a slam session. Aguilera, in turn, echoes her fans’ sentiments, truly capturing the give-and-take of the artist/fan relationship. Of course, she’s still talking sex, treading familiar ground on the horny “Still Dirrty”: “If I want to wear lingerie outside of my clothes/If I want to be erotic in my own videos/If I want to be provocative, well that ain’t a sin/Maybe you’re not comfortable in your own skin.” Trite as it may have become, it’s hard not to admire Aguilera for taking the anti-sexist baton from those who’ve blazed a trail for her. She may possess Mariah-like pipes but, as we know, that’s not always enough—fortunately, she also has a voice.