Album Review

Christina Aguilera: Bionic (Album Review)

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.