With ‘Your Body’, the lead single from her new album Lotus, Christina Aguilera is keen to remind us once again that the only thing she enjoys more than a good roll in the hay is telling people about it afterwards, as loudly as possible, and almost exclusively through the use of banal single-entendres (‘We’re moving faster then slow / if you don’t know where to go / I’ll finish off on my own – uh, oh, yeah!’).
This being the umpteenth iteration of Aguilera-as-nymphomaniac, the pathological force of her delivery (framed in the trash-noir conceit of the video) can only manage to be fleetingly bracing. For all her strenuous revelling in the artificial coarseness of the song, it is actually the celestial cover art for Lotus, wherein she emerges from the titular flower shrouded in nothing but blinding whiteness and some strategically placed tresses, with which she finally reveals herself to be simply, unequivocally, vulgar.
Given that this is the woman who helpfully informed us that ‘You don’t need a plate, just your face, when you taste my WOOHOO!’ – it could be convincingly argued that she had arrived at this point long before now. But it’s important to remember two things. (1) that true vulgarity can not be self-aware, which, for all its lyrical redundancy, ‘Your Body’ certainly is to some degree. And (2), to paraphrase GK Chesterton, there is nothing more vulgar than “the desire to be distinguished” – a desire embodied in the ‘tasteful’ symbolism of the Lotus cover.
Aguilera’s career has long been marked by a vacillation between these two principles. To expand on that first point, there’s a reason that whenever I think of Aguilera (which is frequently, of course; I am but human), my mind invariably winds up inside the films of John Waters. When she announced her true ‘arrival’ by fearlessly putting an extra ‘r’ in ‘Dirrty’ and grinding up against muscle men and contortionists, Xtina (and I do mean Xtina) seemed very much a knowing, no-holds-barred champion of the obscene, even claiming it as her purpose and her stomping ground.
As with Waters, underpinning all the yelling and the visual excess was a tangible, legitimate fury. Much of the Stripped album – most notably the call-to-arms ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’ – was politically motivated, picking up early-Madonna’s mocking disdain for sexual hypocrisy and somehow packaging it in brasher, blunter, more ferocious tones. If Xtina’s outraged stance lacked erudition – and, crucially, Madonna’s sense of irony – it was nonetheless invigorating to have a front-and-centre popstar take to the podium in her assless chaps and honkingly address these issues for a new generation.
But the pop culture landscape has changed so much since 2002, and – as ‘Your Body’ testifies – Aguilera’s sensibility, particularly around sexual politics, stalled not far from where it started. As much as the lady herself and the more devout (read: deranged) members of her fanbase would, by all accounts, beat me to a bloody pulp for saying it, there has been one particular lobster-hatted, meat-bedecked pop phenomenon in the intervening years who has unavoidably had a dwindling effect upon Aguilera’s cachet.
There is no getting around it: the rise of Gaga’s savvy, postmodern engagement with the female form has, by necessity, rendered Aguilera old hat – casting her as a Phi Phi O’Hara-esque ‘tired showgirl’ to Gaga’s gleefully grotesque, aesthetically confrontational Sharon Needles. To release something like ‘Your Body’ at this point, rather than ten years ago, it can’t help but seem that Aguilera is poking at the hornets’ nest when Gaga has already shaken out the hive.
Which isn’t to say that Aguilera hasn’t been trying to do things differently. Her first post-Gaga album Bionic boasted an abundance of leftfield collaborators such as Le Tigre, Peaches and Sia, saw her experiment with modifying her strident vocals more than ever before, and it achieved its own ambitions more successfully than is widely credited (while still being far from the ‘ahead-of-its-time’ masterpiece she recently, in inimitably grave and defensive fashion, claimed it to be).
The fatal flaw of Bionic (and indeed, each of Aguilera’s albums) is all the more glaring when contrasted to the almost monomaniacal commitment which characterises Gaga’s pop cultural ascent. Whereas Gaga has a clear-eyed sense of purpose and a set of issues she is burning to address, and which her music and persona as a totality can be seen to aim for, Aguilera’s “artistry” (to use a word which fans of ‘The Voice’ know she is fond of) is consistent only in its inconsistency.
The persuasive flirtations with rock, soul and gospel (‘Fighter’, ‘Impossible’, ‘Soar’) of the Stripped era promised exciting dimensions to Aguilera’s talent which offset the untrammelled emotionalism and narcissistic vocal gymnastics of the likes of ‘The Voice Within’ and ‘I Turn to You’. Her subsequent releases, however, betrayed a lack of nerve in fully abandoning this mode; so that when she seemingly makes the firm decision to release an electro (Bionic) or old-school soul album (Back To Basics), they become sprawling, tonally chaotic affairs, in order to make room for what, ultimately, can be most fairly described as incontrovertible, sub-Mariah shite.
Although Linda Perry was the first to coax her voice into relative restraint with the queer-approving weepathon ‘Beautiful’, the 4 Non Blondes alum has had an increasingly destructive influence upon the Aguilera oeuvre. While some of their subsequent collaborations have proved dynamic (no Aguilera song has so thematically suited the enormity of her vocals quite like ‘Mercy On Me’), for the most part the Perry/Aguilera teaming has only indulged her worst instincts, i.e. fatally unsexy sex-talk (‘Nasty Naughty Boy’) and overblown, hackneyed balladry (‘Hurt’, ‘The Right Man’, ‘Lift Me Up’).
It is encouraging, then, that Aguilera’s new album is to feature no input from the likes of Perry. Taking a vacation from her own music to become an imperious chair-spinner on ‘The Voice’ (a position she has inhabited with deliciously little discernible investment), may have served Aguilera’s rampant ego well, simultaneously knocking her down a peg or two and – if her loose rapport and unusually relaxed performances with fellow judges Cee-Lo, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton is anything to go by – given her the what-the-hell courage to kick some of her old crutches to the curb; aside from Perry being given the heave-ho, it’s promising that Lotus isn’t trumpeting some half-baked “concept” and appears to be half the length of her last two releases. As dubious as both the trite raunchiness of ‘Your Body’ and the truly vulgar album cover may be, Lotus could prove to be Aguilera’s most ‘distinguished’ work to date – provided she hasn’t tried so damned hard to make it so.
Lotus is released through RCA on November 12.