Christina Aguilera: Bionic (Album Review)

by Bradley Stern

Reinvention can be a tricky thing.

The Bionic campaign began with the promise of a pop superstar’s futuristic return to the scene after an extended love affair with ’20s and ’30’s-inspired vintage sound. On the way back (to the future, if you will), Christina Aguilera would confront setback after setback in trying to properly relaunch herself.

In looking back at the campaign’s early stages, there’s little doubt that the Iamamiwhoami viral videos–now all but confirmed to be a project created by Swedish singer Jonna Lee–largely contributed to the initial deconstruction of the Bionic campaign’s magic.

For those unfamiliar, the mysterious web series first cropped up on the web in late 2009 as a series of two or three minute clips uploaded on YouTube. The videos featured an unidentifiable blonde frolicking around in the forest licking trees, rolling in mud–and generally just being weird–as lovely, lush electronica music played in the background.

While warped video and sound effects veiled the singer’s voice and face, early screen-shots from the clips all stubbornly pointed to the same source: Christina Aguilera.

At some point, most people began to believe–or at the very least, wanted to believe–that the “proof” photographs that circled the blogosphere did indeed come from Aguilera’s camp.

After all, the album was newly titled Bionic (which sounded forward-thinking), she was flying below the radar (filming Burlesque with Cher, as it turned out), and her album’s growing collaborator list was comprised of avant garde, left-of-center artists and producers like Ladytron, Hill & Switch, and Le Tigre.

So when the preview of the radio-friendly lead single “Not Myself Tonight” finally premiered on Aguilera’s website back in March, the hope that one of pop’s princesses was going deep underground quickly and definitively deflated.

“Not Myself Tonight,” too, was another major strike against Bionic. Production wise, the song sounded as though it were recorded in 2002; a by-the-numbers club banger that was neither bad nor particularly innovative. For a comeback track after an extended absence from the pop scene, however, the decision to release the song as the first single was devastating. The song’s final chart positions only further solidified proof of the folly, peaking at a modest #23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The final blow against Aguilera came in the form of a new-found rival pitted against her in the media: Lady Gaga. Almost immediately after revealing the cover art and album title for Bionic (and truly, ever since her masked VMA performance in 2008), Aguilera continued to battle sharp, inaccurate criticism for allegedly lifting Gaga’s future-pop styling, eventually leading her to write a formal response to the drama on her website.

Yet anyone that truly understands pop should know that there’s no real style swiping between Gaga and Christina. They’re two blondes operating within the confines of the mainstream pop industry and both happen to hone excellent voices. Beyond that, there’s are few comparisons to make.

Their sounds are entirely separate, and as far as their artistry is concerned, Christina had been exploring issues of sexuality and dabbling in exotic fashions long before the name Lady Gaga ever hit the ears of most critics now lashing out against the singer. In fact, Gaga is probably one of the only artists that Christina doesn’t sound like on Bionic.

To be fair, the video for “Not Myself Tonight” did no favors in building a case for Christina as an artist in her own right. Scenes featured within the video depicted Aguilera in various states of undress and bondage, as well as shot-by-shot homages to Madonna‘s early ’90’s work including “Express Yourself,” “Human Nature,” and “Erotica.” While clearly out of reverence rather than unoriginality, the decision to release a video based on the work of another artist was ill-timed at best.

And so, at long last, comes Bionic–a record four years in the making, produced by the artists and producers that Aguilera admires, written to express her thoughts on womanhood, sexuality, and lifestyle.

Kicking off the new record comes its dubstep-laden title track “Bionic” which, while an excellent number, sounds as though it were lifted straight from the recording sessions of Santigold’s debut album back in 2008. It’s hardly surprising, given that the producers of the song are the very same who first worked with Santigold, but the general expectation behind an artist-producer collaboration is a creative middle ground that sounds entirely new (in theory, anyway).

“Many times imitated, not duplicated / Can’t be replaced,” Aguilera sings on top of the stuttering, grinding beats, she sings during the song’s second verse. Yet herein lies the problem with Bionic: It does sound duplicated.

One of the singer’s greatest weaknesses here is a propensity toward sounding like a mimic. From lifting Sia‘s warbling delivery style on “I Am,” to the dead-on imitation of M.I.A.‘s monotone delivery on “Elastic Love,” the singer seems to be so lost in the shuffle of talent that I can’t help but wonder if “Not Myself Tonight” would have made for a far more fitting title for the record.

Imitation aside however, there’s no denying that a great deal of Bionic is actually quite good.

Despite her reinvention into robot territory, Christina’s still found plenty of time to entertain her lady region (as with Back to Basics‘ “Still Dirrty”), including the booty-popping “Woohoo,” featuring Nicki Minaj, which finds the singer doling out instructions on how to navigate below the belt. “You don’t even need a plate, just your face, ha,” she offers during the instructional chorus.

There’s also the Latin-tinged “Desnudate,” a romping, stomping burst of breathy desires being purred into the listener’s ears. Further on, the tempo drops for a coo-heavy, Janet-esque offering with “Sex for Breakfast.”

Then there’s just plain self-indulgence, as with the album’s final moment, “Vanity,” a wonderfully cocky electro-pop ride through tongue-in-cheek lyricism. “Mirror mirror, on the wall / Who’s the flyest bitch of them all? / Never mind, I am,” Christina taunts off the top of the track before calling on her queens and launching into a flurry of bratty boasts.

Given all the controversy surrounding Christina’s pop star status in 2010 however, the irony sort of just writes itself in the final seconds of the song: “And the legacy lives on, going strong / Let us not forget who owns the throne,” Aguilera pompously declares. “You do, mommy,” baby Max responds. Crickets.

And while the gorgeous Linda Perry-penned ballad “Lift Me Up” is the next best candidate to follow Aguilera’s already established classics, “Beautiful” and “Hurt,” there’s little debate as to the album’s true shining moment(s), which comes in the shape of three Sia ballads: “I Am,” “You Lost Me,” and “All I Need.”

These songs aren’t just torch tracks–they’re the kind of next level balladry we’ve come to expect to come from the Australian singer-songwriter responsible for “Breathe Me.” Here is where Christina truly shines, delivering a wealth of vulnerability and control when needed and a signature yelp when it’s time to truly unleash.

At the same time, the album also suffers from a fair share of filler, including the noisy, childish chant of “I Hate Boys” and the needless noodling found on the rather unspectacular “Prima Donna.” “Glam” is another dud that, while initially promising, ultimately fails to inspire enough energy in the chorus to prove itself as fierce as the lyrics imply.

As one may gather from the song descriptions, the main issue with Bionic is that it lacks any solid musical identity, as well as any real sense of cohesion.

Perhaps if the album had been separated into a more logical two-disc process–a side for serious contemplation and sophisticated pop such as “Birds of Prey,” “Monday Morning,” (both of which having been unfairly ousted onto the second disc) “Bionic” and all of the killer ballads–as well as a side for the best of the sex-drenched club jams (“Vanity,” “Woohoo,” “Desnudate”), the package itself would be more appealing.

As it stands, Bionic is a convoluted set of semi-working parts that could use some serious rewiring. But while the machinery included within isn’t necessarily pieced together properly or as cutting edge as promised, there’s still good enough reason to invest in Aguilera’s latest reboot.

  • Andrew

    Exactly the way I feel about it.
    Love your work mate.

  • http://catblack9.com Matt

    Great job! :)

  • isla

    lets not forget that gaga studied with xtina’s vocal coach since the age of 14, and the futuristic robot thing was something that pop had been dancing with for quite some time (janet, riri, fergie)….its all tired in my opinion, that and the fact that every one of these bitches cant let go of the Blonde Ambition Tour. i certainly do not want to become a robot. ill let gaga and the illuminati handle that shit, imma go sit with my crystals and fantasize about Desperately Seeking Susan…..pcrush out!

  • Kev

    It’s as if I logged into the blog and made this post. Well done! I love unbiased music reviews; when people can just screw their stan/fan status and see what’s really goin on! BRAVA!

  • Mauricio

    Am I the only one who thinks “Elastic Love” is very clever?
    Nice job comparing it to M.I.A., so true.

  • avery

    Colonic….Chronic….. I’ve been a fan forever… I’m mighty dissapointed, over half this album should have remained on the shelf or at best B’sides. I dont understand she was so pioneering and now really playing catch up… my god what has the world come to? I have the new Diana Vickers album and I’m ashamed to say that is a pop record of note. Inspiring and refreshing for once… Bionic, its just tired and 5 years to late.

  • http://www.youtube.com/nilesings Nile

    This might not be directly related to the objective quality of the album… but the fact that she is presenting all of these underground influences into the mainstream is amazing in my eyes. I respect her so much for doing it, and in that aspect this album IS pretty groundbreaking.

  • Ike

    I agree with “Nile”. She could have easily hooked up with Timbaland or RedOne and guaranteed herself some radio play and safe pop/dance hits. But she hooked up with a bunch of people whom she ACTUALLY listens to in her own life, some really interesting artists who are unknown to most people, and IMO produced songs that are a great blend of creative yet accessible electronic tunes. I too feel there’s a *little* something missing in the album, and maybe we’ll find it in the 5 unreleased tracks when it’s released, but I do kind of wish for that “one” song on the record that would’ve been a big infectious smash that would shut everyone up and score her a #1 single so people can stop trashing her and doubting her relevance to today’s scene. But at the end of the day Bionic DOES work as an album/collection of songs, and I think most anyone would enjoy listening to it. It’s hard to ever live up to the expectations that people had for this album, but if people are really being fair, it is just as good as, if not better, than the majority of these current types of records that everyone is listening to, and Christina Aguilera definitely belongs in the world of music. She has a lot to offer, and I think it’s ridiculous that 12 years after her first hit she is still supposed to “prove herself”.

  • http://stephenferosh.wordpress.com Stephen

    I agree completely! Exactly the way I feel about the album. I respect her so much for putting together an album that is not at all what’s truly expected from a mainstream legendary popstar, but, as a whole, Bionic wasn’t worth the four years’ wait. There’s a serious lack of cohesion and flow. More than slightly disappointed, but she does, of course, sound amazing hitting those notes.

  • Michael

    You’re right, Bionic lacks cohesion.

  • Dejacopis

    Thank you for a fair and well written – deeply analyzing (iamamiwhoami! good to point that too) review. The best written on Bionic.

  • zr

    I don’t think Bionic is a good album. There’s a uge lack of taste in it, i can’t describe in words. It’s not futuristic, even. I think the album is a mess. I don’t even recognize her style in it. She has a tremendous voice but is not there. Overall, the album is cheap, dirty pop (not making any statement about ‘dirty’ from stripped – that was a good album in my opinion, and i remember growing in my teens with her songs from that album) and, please, do not compare Lady Gaga to anyone, because she’s really unique. She broke the limits of everything and everyone. What Gaga does is so much artistic and meaningful than even Madonna or X-tina made in the past. Though they are her foundations, Gaga knew how to explore it and bring it to a whole new level that is hard for anyone to comprehend e is so far away now from those Madonna or X-tina’s creations.

    I apologize for my English…

  • Jenny

    Hey guys, if you haven’t heard Christina’s new album “Bionic” that launched today, you can listen to the FULL album online on iheartradio. They have all 18 tracks! ‘Woohoo’ with Nicki Minaj is my favorite :) Check it out!


  • http://www.17tracksonline.com hun*ter

    Excellent review. You did a great job of analyzing the pop cultural atmosphere that Bionic is released in which plays a major role in how this album is viewed. Poor Christina, she has so much talent, but it far too often comes across as if she’s pretentious and is trying too hard. I was disappointed by Bionic.

  • Ran Fortis

    I believe this album is tribute to Madonna. she copy the sound of Madonna and the life artist and personal style of Madonna. It is proven in some lyrics in the album and even to the photos in the album and her video of her first single Not Myself Tonight but I love this album, with a futuristic sound and the life of Madonna. The Queen of Christina Aguilera in her song Vanity. she mention it in the end.

  • http://www.twitter.com/928michael Michael

    I like this article unbiased and exactly how i feel it wasn’t her best work we all know she can sing and some of these tracks just didn’t suit her voice but all well next album will be better…

  • Sam

    Well said, before the release of Bionic, I saw an interview where she talked about all the colabs on the album and thought – how is this album going to be “Christina” when all of those people have such a distinctive sound. The lady gaga comparison is rubbish like you say. The one thing gaga does do better is when she does the raunchy sexy stuff it doesnt come across desperate.. christina seems to… maybe its the fact that she is a mother now and despite how she likes the spin it.. It just seems wrong.. :) Good Review.. interersted to see how it goes in the billboards

  • http://crayleb.blogspot.com Caleb

    Marvelous review! I haven’t stopped listening to this album since Monday night and I agree with you whole heartedly. It is sometimes hard to even decipher which voice is XXXtina but this is a direction that Christina has never done before and I dig it. I wish there was more belting from Christina though, that is something that I am missing from this album but all in all it’s a great album with four years in the making.

  • http://myvertigo73.blogspot.com FND

    If you want to get really into this album, the album is such because it represents every one of her experience being the Bionic being she was talking about, in other words, being a woman. She’s soft, she’s strong, she’s sexy, she’s glamorous, she’s doubting, she’s in love, she’s heartbroken, she loves you, she hates you, she’s independent but also a wife and a mother. So many themes going on which could be a bit confusing… But at the end she’s still triumphant and is happy and in love. Listen to the album again from this perspective and I actually think, as a whole, the album made sense.

    By the way Vanity, is a song abt a woman singing to a mirror with a a hairbrush trying to bring her self esteem up by boasting of stuff, playing this funny vain bitch character..but at the end, her son pulled her back to reality because he was her audience when she was doing it and his opinion is all that really matters to her. Its tongue in cheek and smart I think. But yeah, not very obvious.

    I also think I AM is the best definition of who Christina is in the album.

  • jrod

    I think the ablbum is brilliant, granted there are a few weak chorus lines, and off flow songs, if you take elastic love and move it after sex for breakfast, the album flows wonderfully, and is an orgasim for your ears. let the beat conrol your body, leave opinions asside!

  • Jess

    love the entire cd

  • Jennifer

    As good as Stripped (or almost). This is a fun, dont take me too seriously, breath of fresh air cd. I bought it the first day it came out and have not stopped listening to it. This cd is nothing like GAGA’s and I am huge GaGa fan as well, but it is clear Christina took a pop/modern electrinica approach. Bionic is a brilliant, fun song to sing a long with “Gonna get you with my electronic supersonic rocket YEAH”, Not Myself Tonight is a fun dance pop record, Whoo Hoo I can do without, Elastic Love is one of the best songs on the cd, very smooth kinda drive and sing along song, Desdunate is a sexy fun song with a fun beat, Glam is ok but lacks something, Prima Donna has got to be one of the best tracks on the record which I also think would be an excellent club record and if I was her label I would make that song the next single, Lift Me Up is heartbreakingly beautiful, You Lost Me is THE song on the record with amazing vocals and emotions, she should win best female vocal for that record, I Am is a real interesting song that shows her vulnerability, and Vanity is a fun song about until you love yourself, you can not really love others. I dont think people really listened to the whole song to really grasp the concept of that song and think she is singing about how awesome she is when it really has the meaning that Beautiful did as it sends a meaning of everyone should love themselves as they are.
    Great job Christina. I give it 5/5

  • http://www.muumuse.com Bradley Stern

    I still haven’t stopped listening either! :)

  • Megz

    I love the CD as well! It’s not quite as great as “Stripped” but a definite runner-up with exciting beats, tongue in cheek lyrics and an artistic sense of self. To me, a 25 year old woman, the album makes perfect sense. I think the video for “Not Myself Tonight” is what put the bad taste in peoples’ mouths.