Christina Aguilera's new album seeks to portray her as a robotic pop-factory construct, but her gifts are all too human for that, writes Dan Hancox. It may sound absurd to describe the turn of the millennium as a more innocent time, but for female pop stars, it was. In retrospect, it seems that when Christina Aguilera first arrived on the world stage in 1999, she and her nearest contemporary, Britney Spears, skipped up the charts as chastely as pastoral maidens through corn fields. Both graduates of the US children's TV show The Mickey Mouse Club, they sang songs of love and longing that hinted at a sexuality kept determinedly under wraps. Aguilera's first single, the global hit Genie in a Bottle, was released when she was just 18. Its suggestive chorus caused a stir and, despite its lack of any obvious profanity, was even censored by a number of radio stations. In 2010, though, it is hard to imagine it raising even the most conservative of eyebrows.
Since the release of 2006's Back to Basics, Aguilera has become a mother, one who duly dedicates her comeback album, Bionic, to her two-year-old son. Yet this latest release does anything but usher in a demure, mature phase of her career. In fact, its main highlight is more unabashedly smutty than ever. Woohoo is a sure-fire hit - albeit one that few people will want to play in front of their parents. Featuring verses by the eccentrically accented New York rapper Nicki Minaj and brutally effective hand-clap percussion, it is a belated follow-up to 2002's equally corporeal Dirrty and shows Aguilera turning the kind of vocal cartwheels that have forced even hardened naysayers to consider her as a serious artist.
Despite this tremendous vocal range and Aguilera's continued willingness to trample the boundaries of propriety, the sprawling 18-track Bionic has received a lukewarm reception. Where once she was credible as a defiant, idiosyncratic leader, here Aguilera casts herself in the role of follower. Case in point: Not Myself Tonight, the album's first single, is a perfectly serviceable electro stomper, but also a prime example of what soon becomes a pervasive feeling of faltering self-assurance and uncomfortable derivation. While it is clear that this song is supposed to form a statement of personal intent, if anything it achieves quite the opposite, moving Aguilera into the slipstream - or worse, the shadow - of 2010's most visible female star, Lady Gaga.
In theory, Bionic is a concept album in which Aguilera plays the factory-farmed pop cyborg, post-human auteur, hit machine. This idea is heavily backed up by the album's artwork, accompanying videos and marketing. One need take only a cursory glance at Gaga's career to understand just how important these peripheral factors are today; the classic canard "for me, it's all about the music", has never been less convincing than it is now. However, the idea that Aguilera is styling herself in Gaga's image offers rather less than the full picture. The truth is that both her latest alter-ego and sound draw on an earlier lineage of female pop.
Epitomised on Glam, with its synthesised bassline, sparse drum machines and catwalk-focused lyrics, Bionic, somewhat bafflingly, recalls the "electroclash" phenomenon of the early 2000s. Based around the fashion and art scenes of New York, London and Berlin, this all-but-forgotten footnote in electronic-music history may seem an unlikely invocation, but its influence is direct. Key players in the genre, like Ladytron, Peaches and Le Tigre all appear on Bionic, either as performers, writers or producers.
For all its arch, fashion-scene elitism, electroclash did manage to communicate something more profound than a desire to wear sunglasses at night. Most importantly, it conjured ideas of a futuristic feminism filtered through jarring synth stabs and buzzing computer circuitry. One of its better moments - the Munich-based trio Chicks on Speed's We Don't Play Guitars - posits the idea that, where the Fender Stratocaster signified conventional rock patriarchy, the march towards gender equality would be made to the beat of a thousand drum machines. For better or worse, this appears to be Aguilera's plan, too.
While Glam is diverting, the alliance of Peaches, Le Tigre and Aguilera on My Girls adds up to far less than the sum of its parts. Lines such as "808s running through their dirty minds? ladies step up and take control" underscore the album's themes, but its stomping digital rhythms and electro-bass twangs are not the sound of the future. In fact, they're not even the sound of now - they're unmistakably the sound of 10 years ago. Looking back to that point, it would have seemed extraordinary that an earnestly feminist, gender-political band such as Le Tigre would end up working with an artist responsible for daisy-chain pop like What a Girl Wants. But in the decade that has elapsed since, such a collision of worlds now makes perfect sense: Aguilera has transformed herself with each album; the sonic tropes of electroclash have moved into the mainstream and pop itself is a different animal entirely.
Channelling the individual clout of Madonna but dispensing it via the nested intertextuality of 21st-century multimedia, Gaga is the most obvious personification of these developments. However, this aesthetic can also be seen in the work of Beyoncé and M.I.A. (the latter, incidentally, makes a typically hollow contribution to Elastic Love). Simple performance-led videos have now been usurped by 10-minute-long mini-movies, packed with product placement, ambiguous storylines and knowing provocations. Such confrontational female pop has strong but largely unacknowledged connections to the work of the likes of Le Tigre and, before it, the Riot Grrrl punk movement (in which Le Tigre's frontwoman Kathleen Hanna first came to prominence with the band Bikini Kill). Given all this, such artists are valid reference points for Aguilera. After all, she's not exactly new to ideas of female empowerment herself. Her 2003 single Can't Hold Us Down is a feminist anthem of its decade; its rallying cry: "What do we do girls? Shout louder!" Then there's her peerless 2002 ballad Beautiful, a vulnerable, powerful and utterly believable expression of the struggle for self-confidence.
One half of what undermines Bionic's over-arching narrative can be found in the key line of My Girls: "My girls - we're stronger than one." This is just plain wrong for Aguilera. Her vocal style is truly singular and, as this album proves, she is actually at her best when working alone. The other is that, Woohoo aside, Bionic's strength rests in a set of undeniable torch songs that flatly contradict the themes articulated elsewhere. After all, if Aguilera is happy to portray herself as little more than a mechanical construct, from where (and why) does she summon such convincing depth of emotion?
The second half of the album offers five consecutive ballads, and here - predictably - Aguilera sounds completely at home. I Am commits the sin of opening with what sounds like the violin riff from Ciara's majestic Like A Boy and then turning out not to be Like A Boy at all. Any initial disappointment is soon forgiven, though. Atop its gentle piano backing, Aguilera is at her soaring, fragile, conflicted best: "I am timid and I am over-sensitive/I am a lioness, I am tired and defensive." This is a far more convincing portrayal of self, one that speaks to Bionic's conceptual missteps, but at the same time makes you forget them. Combined with You Lost Me and Lift Me Up, it's a reminder that the greatest moments of Aguilera's career - whether playful, sultry, or fierily headstrong - have all been sincere and, in their own way, real.
These days, the zeitgeist is written in a peculiarly post-modern vernacular: in the work of someone like Gaga strands of consumerism, spirituality, physical pleasure, love, art and politics are woven into mass-produced tapestries that show almost everything yet tell almost nothing. While they may look fully formed from a distance, the closer one gets, the more they pixelate into meaningless synthetic threads. Aguilera can give so much more than that. Her most memorable work is finely crafted, her talents organic and gloriously human. These are things she would do well to remember.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.