Former Mouseketeer and Star Search contestant Christina Aguilera made a relatively demure entrance into the musical public eye in 1999 with her successful, self-titled album Christina Aguilera. But it wasn't long before the "It's important to me to be a positive role model" label started to chafe.
Christina's vocal chops and creative edge weren't enough, seemingly, to keep her from following the path of many a young artiste—adopting a tawdry persona and shucking her clothes—with the 2002 CD Stripped. Did she go too far with the likes of "Dirrty"? This critic certainly thought so. And at least a handful of others did too.
Now, the two-disc set Back to Basics finds middle ground. Christina says that she has listened to the likes of Billie Holiday, Etta James, Judy Garland and Marvin Gaye since she was knee high to a Double Bass. And her new album is designed to be a blue-eyed R&B tip-of-the-hat to those singers and styles she grew up emulating. To do that, Basics blends strains of soul, jazz and gospel with a contemporary rhythmic flare and Christina's patented R&B yodel-trill. And the title cut, along with "Back in the Day," both look glowingly at "When the originators, innovators were alive."
After giving Back to Basics a spin, though, I couldn't help but wonder whether the album's title refers to more than just Christina's musical roots.
Wearing Her Heart on Her Sleeve ...
The singer married in 2005, and the impact and importance of that stabilizing relationship is very evident in this sometimes autobiographical album. "Save Me From Myself" voices her appreciation for a husband who's love and dedication has given her a longed-for security ("Well tomorrow may be shaky/But you never turn away"). "Ain't No Other Man," "On Our Way" and the gospel-choir backed "Makes Me Wanna Pray" continue the thought, reveling in the joys of commitment in love. And "The Right Man" sums it all up as Christina realizes that the miracle of finding an honorable, loving husband will someday be as important to her children as it is to her.
In fact, the theme of discarding painful yesterdays and seeking redeeming tomorrows is stamped all over Basics. Christina describes her mother's choice to leave her physically abusive husband on "Oh Mother" and comforts her with: "Oh Mother, don't look back/'Cause he'll never hurt us again/So Mother, I thank you/For all that you've done and still do/You've got me, I got you/Together we always pull through." She ends with, "I love you, Mom."
And nowhere is the redemption theme more evident than in the swirling gospel piano/organ sounds of "Mercy On Me." Christina primal-wails about the pain she has caused with, "Jesus/I must confess/That in all my loneliness/I've forsaken and I've sinned." She's begs with a full-throated plea, worthy of any revival, "Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul/For I have walked a sinful road/So I'm gonna get down on my knees/Beg forgiveness to help set me free/Lord have mercy on me please."
... And Then Ripping It Off
But just when I was about ready to write that Christina Aguilera had released a gospel album, I heard the heavy crack of the other stiletto-heeled shoe fall to the floor. With a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde metamorphosis, Back to Basics also reveals a different, jaded and heavily rouged face.
Utilizing the Andrew Sisters' harmony-driven style, Aguilera celebrates the manipulative and sexual skills of a lothario called "Candyman." She sings of his physical attributes and crassly says, "He's a one stop shop, makes my cherry pop/... He's a one stop shop with a real big uh/He's a sweet talkin' sugar coated candyman/... Makin' all the panties drop." Several other songs (including "Still Dirrty") give substance to this other side of Christina that she's, sadly, not quite done with yet.
According to Entertainment Weekly, Aguilera's producer, Linda Perry, says, "The lyrical content [of Back to Basics] is even nastier and dirtier. [Christina's] not getting cleaner, she's just putting it in a more sophisticated manner." In Christina's own words: "I'm an artist, and I'm never gonna play it safe or by the rules. ... I'm still gonna be provocative, and getting married doesn't change that in any way." And it's not just lyrics. The album's pinup-style photos put legs (in more ways than one) to her words; pictures range from old Hollywood blonde-haired class to retro back-alley skin-flick crass.
So what does so-called middle ground feel, look and sound like? There are indeed moments of emotional and vocal clarity on Back to Basics. They're not evident, though, in such lyrics as, "I'm gonna give you a little taste/Of the sugar below my waist" (from "Naughty Nasty Boy"). In the end, Christina's mixed messages (and pics) tend to do little more than point young girls to a sexuality (some of) her lyrics say she regrets, and tease young males to be anything but "The Right Man."