Every pop star misfires occasionally. Most dust themselves off and try again without being constantly dogged by their previous failure. For some reason that courtesy isn’t afforded to Christina Aguilera with regards to Bionic. Why? It could have something to do with the diva’s refusal to admit that she got it wrong.
She recently ruffled feathers by telling Billboard that you need to be “a true fan of music” to fully appreciate her apparently severely-misunderstood opus, which she also declared “ahead of its time.” The thing is, Christina might have a point. With the release of Lotus around the corner, I’ve been tasked with revisiting the most-maligned pop album in recent memory.
Full disclosure. I’ve been a fan of Xtina’s since “Genie In A Bottle.” She has one of the best voices in popular music and she continues to evolve as an artist, while some of her contemporaries have been re-recording the same album since 2001. This is the woman who moved away from the bubblegum pop of her debut to the urban-tinged grit of Stripped in the space of one album. An electronic dance LP should have been a no-brainer for Christina, but she dug her own grave before the album was even released in spring 2010 by bragging about Bionic’s revolutionary take on the genre and beefing with Lady Gaga. It created a sense of hostility towards Aguilera, which has never entirely dissipated. People were rooting for the album to fail.
Bionic rubbed me the wrong way upon its release, as well. I did my best to follow my former idol on her experimental journey, but ultimately lost interest. In my own rather unkind review, I admitted that there were indeed “a couple of very good songs but the vast majority of them cover old ground or imitate other artists in a desperate attempt at innovation”.
The album played like a mixtape of Christina’s favorite artists. The idea of collaborating with people you admire is commendable, but it seemed she got lost in the process. I also wasn’t a fan of the unusually aggressive lyrics or the stomach-churning sexual references. Stripped is such an iconic album because it explored universal themes like loneliness and budding independence. Meanwhile, the only people who could identify with Bionic’s worst cuts are dominatrices and nymphomaniacs.
Two years is a long time between listens, but it turned out to be a surprisingly painless reunion. The album holds up better than expected, and is actually an intriguing — if somewhat disjointed and often meandering — collection of songs. Christina’s assertion that she was ahead of the curve is inarguably correct.
The soon-to-bloom Lotus flower was the first mainstream artist to call on Australian singer-songwriter Sia, who has since been courted by everyone from Adam Lambert to Rihanna. It’s unfortunate that their borderline-comatose collab “You Lost Me” was released as a single. The poignant “I Am” is a much better example of their artistic marriage, with its poetic and, dare I say it, humble lyrics about being a flawed human being. Almost as good is “Stronger Than Ever,”which harks back to Sia’s early electro excursions as the voice of Zero 7.
Another rising star that features prominently on the album is Switch, the producer behind Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls).” He contributes a couple tracks, while indie-pop hipsters M.I.A., Santigold and Peaches all make an appearance. It’s an impressive line-up, but interestingly, they contribute some of the Bionic’s worst tracks.
No stretch of time will improve duds like “Elastic Love,” “Monday Morning” or the grossly underwhelming title track. They don’t sound authentic, as far as Christina is concerned, and she comes across as the world’s greatest karaoke singer, belting out other people’s songs with impressive skill. The best of the bad lot is probably Switch’s “Bobblehead,” with its staccato beats and chanted lyrics. Iif Nicki Minaj recorded the track today it would be a huge hit.
Speaking of the “Va Va Voom” singer/rapper, her Xtina collaboration “Woo Hoo” is even more ridiculous in retrospect. Who thought releasing a club banger about cunnilingus as the second single was a good idea? That kind of jaw-dropping commercial miscalculation is repeated time and again on the tracklist. Everyone except Janet Jackson has realized that spoken interludes are a terrible idea.
It’s truly baffling that some of the best songs are relegated to bonus track status. The two Ladytron productions are examples of an act tailoring their signature sound to suit Christina — as opposed to the bigger names who took a “one size fits all” approach. “Birds Of Prey” is a soaring electronic jam, while electro nursery rhyme “Little Dreamer” is one of the best songs in dirrty diva’s entire discography. It should have been a single.
Tricky Stewart’s trio of high camp dance-pop productions are the real highlights. “Desnudate” is Latin-flavored fluff of the highest calibre. The brass is great and the lyrics are sexy without being pornographic. “Glam” is a throbbing little electro number that has no doubt been the soundtrack to many a drag queen strut-off. You can just imagine Xtina listening to this every morning as she applies her make-up with a trowel and spray gun.
I originally didn’t have a lot of time for “Prima Donna,” describing it two years ago as a modern re-hash of “Fighter.” But is that such a bad thing? Also worth checking out is the Linda Perry-penned “Lift Me Up”. It’s not quite as anthemic as “Beautiful” or as raw as “Hurt,” but it’s a pretty ballad that puts the focus back where it should be: on Christina’s magnificent voice.
So does Aguilera have the last laugh? Not really. Bionic is far from terrible and definitely makes more sense in today’s music market where both genre-bending is not only acceptable, but expected, and EDM is a staple of Top 40 radio. The diva can also be proud of her uncanny knack for picking clever collaborators. But unfortunately, none of those achievements completely compensate for the album’s lack of direction and authenticity. Bionic has been unfairly treated, but it will more likely be remembered as a guilty pleasure than a misunderstood masterpiece.