Back 2 Basics
By Mark Abraham | 15 August 2006
This is not a lecture or a defense of Christina Aguilera. Call it praxis, an intervention, label it with your favorite philosophy, shout louder, or whatever, because I’ve been driven nuts by the tragic yarns us critics are spinning about her now. Check it: sheltered in the warmth of domestic life (and linked, through marriage, to a man) she’s desperately trying to hold on to her dirrty image. Out of ideas, out of the limelight, out of our pop cult conscious, she’s desperately trying to reclaim her throne by embracing the glitz and glamour of great divas past. Still dirrty, still dirty, she’s desperately trying to prove she was ever worth our affections in the first place.
To which I respond first with “zzzzzzz” and second with “can we please can the sexist crit?” Let’s get one thing really, really straight: Aguilera has never been desperate. Backed by the industry power of RCA, fabricated as a personality or not but still produced as one, one of the great Mickey Mouse Club survivors transformed into pop diva, she has never actually needed to give a fuck for you or your thoughts on who, what, how, or where she fucks, which should be absolutely clear given that a) she’s rich and b) however you feel about the sincerity of the claim, the fact that she definitely wants you to know she’s fucking and frames it within a feminist framework in a notoriously un-feminist music industry is really important. She is not and doesn’t need to be less open about her sexuality or her love or her opinions on donuts or George W. Bush just because she is married. This sort of bullshit is the product of a mistake made about her naivety and youth when she first gave us all a contact erection (I’m talking nipples and cocks and fingers and hair and limbs and heart any other body part that inflates here) by the sheer force of her voice on “Genie In A Bottle,” because let’s get this straight, too: she didn’t want you to rub her the right way; she said you had to, which is why she is not your fantasy. You and I and we are miserably failing at being her’s.
People chide and tsk and murmur sarcastically that this is Aguilera’s bid for respectability. What else should she do? When she made Christina Aguilera (1999), she was eighteen; she was twenty-one when she made Stripped (2002); she’s twenty-five now (about the same age as Aretha Franklin when “Respect” was recorded). Guess what? Mick Jagger is 5,000,000, and he still wants to lay our bodies down by the fire. But I don’t want to make this an argument about gender; in general it totally is, but specifically here it isn’t, quite, because the crit is coming from a whole slew of people, and my point is really just about perception: whether you think she’s not playing into your fantasy enough or that the fantasy itself is artifice, that should have absolutely nothing to do with why you claim Back to Basics isn’t very good. It isn’t, but Aguilera doesn’t have to answer to your libido or your moralizing; music is chalk full of sex, it’s incredibly sexy, but no artist is under some fabricated social contract to legitimate yours.
If we can assume that very few pop, hip-hop or R&B albums (including Missy) have more than four or five great tracks, the problem with this album has more to do with its intended purpose, which is to return to those basics back in the day in the golden years when things were authentic and bla bla bla cakes. What basics have we gotten back to? I mean, is “basics” the right word, ‘cause don’t miff me with the myth that everything was so much simpler back then; most swing and big band would cause our ADD youth’s heads to spin. But don’t give me the opposite shit that everything was so much better then; I’ll roll your anti-modernism up and smoke it because it sucks and also because Aguilera confuses the issue of era so completely that as far as I can tell “Back in the Day” simply refers to anything prior to 2006, and her influences on this album are simply Music, which means Nanci Griffith can finally get that Nas tattoo without Kelis being able to say shit.
Aguilera notes in the intro that she’s “waited for some time / to get inside the mind / of every legend” she admires; on the “making of” feature on the enhanced portion, she suggests that the scope encompasses the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s (or “jazz, blues, and early soul”). But we get James Brown, Etta James, Otis Redding, and Donny Hathaway name-dropped next to Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Coltrane (rhymed with Soul Train). She actually sings about “Chain of Fools” and “Respect” (1967) as landmarks. C. — I don’t wanna act all music-critic pretentious, but if you wanted this to be about the ‘20s and ‘30s and reference women’s music: Lucille Bogan, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ida Clark, or Josephine Baker, alongside Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. And a million more, of course, but the point is that this album flirts with the throwback idea without really maintaining a clear focus on exactly what basics it wants to “step with.” Well…except Steve Winwood ‘cause he screams Jazz Age.
I’m being a tad harsh here, I know, since it’s not like Aguilera’s claim that this album employs “elements” of Jazz Age “basics” should chain her to specific source material. This is, after all, an R&B album produced in 2006. But since she keeps saying what it is she’s doing on several of the tracks we end up with an expository album that doesn’t understand the central rule of any performance: show, don’t tell. In that sense, the album fails to satisfy, because the “throwback” element simply becomes an item ticked off on Aguilera’s to-do list, rather than a successful artistic excursion.
In fact, it’s the same hurdle as the one I will concede exists surrounding her sexuality, really. You can separate the political importance of a song like “Still Dirrty” from its artistic merit: Aguilera saying she is sexual, married, and that people who criticize her (or other women) are sexist is great; Aguilera saying all of those things on a track that, while decent, retreads the same political ground honed far better on the old school smackalicious “Can’t Hold Us Down” (from Stripped) means that DJ Premier’s wicked beat ends up backing a diluted trope (especially since the “Still” in the title is anticipating criticism that didn’t actually exist yet). Besides, this message is already wrapped implicitly in the make-up of tracks like “Ain’t No Other Man” or Stripped’s “Dirrty,” which take a women’s right to express sexuality free from criticism or objectification a priori to dance floor cacophony. Point being, good politics make good politics, not good songs (see: The Gossip). In the same sense, “Back in the Day” may provide an excellent list of artists for Aguilera’s audience to dig out of their parent’s record collections, but since the song is basically about what she’s doing on the album — which she’s already established on the dinky “Intro (Back to Basics)” — I’m not exactly sure what the point is. Just do it already, right?
Much has been made of Aguilera’s recruitment of DJ Premier, and he totally gets the game, his beats constantly on point, updating the finery of Jazz Age glitter by using its elements. Except, of course, that he’s only featured on five tracks, two of which are the intro and “Thank You (A Dedication to Fans),” a track that employs samples of voice messages lauding Aguilera’s status as role model. Which leaves us with “Still Dirrty,” the euphoric lead single “Ain’t No Other Man,” and the well-produced but wasted “Back in the Day.” Which basically leaves us with “Ain’t No Other Man,” where Premier’s eclipse of horns and guitar allow Aguilera room to breath, crucial since her voice is always an eruption, the index patient of American Idol melismatics everywhere. Aguilera has always kept the histrionics in check when necessary, though; she’s got a sense for deviation, rather than bending every note in a phrase until any sense of melody no longer exists. “Ain’t No Other Man” is a highly technical performance, its melodies requiring a vocalist of Aguilera’s caliber. Here, and on “Still Dirrty” (despite my reservations), Aguilera and Premier function like the Duke and Betty Roché, spiraling through each other’s style to create wonderful music.
Her other producers don’t really add much to the stew. Mark Ronson loads the “mellow” into the dramatics of “Slow Down Baby,” faring far better with the neat acoustic guitar trickery of “Without You” (evoking the awesome “have a good summer!”-like dismissal of “you are so talented…really nice work!” in Aguilera’s “Thanks” section). Kwame tries to pull Ronson’s “Devil’s Pie” production trick on “Understand,” right down to the stilted backing vocals; he doesn’t fare nearly as well as Ronson does with Rhymefest. Tony Reyes and Ben H. Allen lace suitably ebullient snark into the somewhat-exciting Chrissy-on-the-Block joint “Here to Stay.” Big Tank exemplifies the boring R&B ballad production that plagues so many album’s latter halves with “On Our Way” (although, in Aguilera’s defense, Back to Basics is thankfully devoid of too much of that).
So, besides “Ain’t No Other Man” and “Still Dirrty,” the only great track on the first disc is “Makes Me Wanna Pray,” where Rich Harrison manipulates Aguilera, a gospel choir, Steve Winwood’s organ, and an orchestra of noise into a soaring tapestry. It’s one of the few times a producer has managed to echo the full-on force of Aguilera’s vocals, even if the song itself is more notable for it’s gospel feel than it is for any memorable melody. The second disc is…well, look, I’m not going to argue that the Linda Perry shit is essential, but it actually works better on the “throwback” level because the songs are actually about something other than being throwbacks, giving Aguilera motivation to perform the hell out of them. “Candyman” bugle-boys it’s quirky self into your short-term memory; Aguilera has insane amounts of fun with the only truly-twenties-vibe on the album, enacting the exact kind of performance the first disc needed way more of. “Welcome,” all Perry strings and emotive soup, is actually the best ballad on the album, even if it sounds nothing like the ‘20s, ‘30s, or ‘40s.
I guess this is the point where I’m supposed to spit up axioms about the curse of the double album. I’m not going to, because there really isn’t a brilliant single album here. There’s only one inarguably excellent song (“Ain’t No Other Man”), a couple of decent soul rock-outs (“Makes Me Wanna Pray,” “Still Dirrty”) and a succession of tracks that aren’t really offensively bad but…that’s really it. I don’t know what has happened to the pop single this year, but if the past few years have spoiled us with big market pop albums boasting four or five great tracks, it seems one or two is the new gauge of success. Can I get Andrew Lack on the phone to talk about this?