Christina Aguilera Reclaims The Fame
By Joshua David Stein
Christina Aguilera, now 29, lives in Ozzy Osbourne's old house right off the Sunset Strip with her 2-year-old kid, Max Liron, her husband Jordan 'Jordy' Bratman, and a platoon of Latinos who dust, Swiffer, sweep, and generally keep the manor. The house has been thoroughly Aguilerized with zebra- and leopard-print carpets and Shepard Fairey prints that scream Obey from the walls. The doorknobs, at least, are holdovers from the Osbourne era, heavy iron affairs with Gothic crosses on them. The other holdover is the recording studio, a converted pool house past a courtyard full of teak gazebos, lightly melted Buddha-head candles, and a sad Kermit doll lying face down in the pool like Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. The pool house is where Aguilera recorded most of her new album and where the singer is now curled up, Betty Page style, on a sofa, with those famous red lips wrapped around a Ricola.
Hanging above the sofa is a creepy painting by British graffiti artist D*Face. It's a portrait of John Lennon, but with half the Beatle's face depicted as a skull. It's a pop art 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust' and it doesn't seem to fit Aguilera's still girly demeanor. She's tiny, even in a pair of Louboutin heels. Her hair is pixie cut and platinum blonde, her jeans are ripped, and her voice -- considering it can jump four octaves in a single sweep -- is surprisingly quiet. 'Jordy and I collect a lot of graffiti art,' she explains. 'D*Face is an artist who takes these images and defaces them. In the foyer, we have that Warhol Marilyn Monroe he did that's half a skull. I like the dark side.' In fact, the cover of her new album, Bionic, features a D*Face portrait of Aguilera, one half of her face notably Marilyn Monrovian, the other a robotic consortium of gramophones and Edison bulbs. Her bright red Rocky Horror lips are the bridge that connects the two halves.
Bionic does not logically follow from her last album or the one before that. From pop tart to Angry Young Woman (Stripped) to Marilyn Monroe (Back to Basics), the sequence of Aguilera's sound is as wild as the wind. Her voice is a mercenary, one of the perks -- and pitfalls -- of being a versatile medium. 'Every album has been a 180 from the past,' she admits. 'On Bionic, I wanted to go completely futuristic. As a new mother, I was thinking about the future generation, so I was inspired a lot by electronic music.' When she began the album, Aguilera put out a call to artists whose work she found simpatico, an unexpected cavalcade including underground faves Le Tigre, Goldfrapp, and Ladytron. 'It's a gamble,' Aguilera says of the cattle call. 'You never really know who's going to get it and who's not.'
Sia Furler, professionally known as Sia and as the best Australian queer blue-eyed soul singer, got it. Her contribution to the album'four songs written with her bassist, Sam Dixon'is what Aguilera calls, 'the heart of the album.' One song in particular, a raw, shuffling, vocally demanding Etta James'type ballad called 'You Lost Me,' is not only the heart of the album but a defining apex of Aguilera's career. Those four minutes alone are enough to ensure Aguilera's place alongside Nina Simone and Whitney Houston in the soul pantheon. In its simple progression, Aguilera finds a song strong enough to withstand the blistering power of her voice. Sia's words, stricken with the grief of abandonment and betrayal, release Aguilera's voice, ranging from a deep, defiant growl to a lonely, high, vaporlike whisper. 'The things she can do with her voice are insane,' says Sia, 'but I really like it when she's doing less of the squiggly diddlying. There were times when I'd just say 'I think you should just sing it straight.' I feel most able to identify with her and her vulnerability when she just sings simply with that amazing tone of hers.'
As in 'Beautiful,' written for her by former 4 Non Blonde Linda Perry, the grain of Aguilera's voice is audible in 'You Lost Me.' It crackles like an old phonograph at times, gathers itself up and takes to the keep in others. It breathes and sighs and writhes. It's too big to fail but not too proud to falter. 'It was hard for me. I really am a perfectionist,' says Aguilera. 'I like to perfect a vocal and really make sure of every note. Even if it's good I'll go in to see if I get a better one. But when I get in studio with people like Linda or Sia, I'm able just to find inspiration inside the music in a different way. I can find the beauty in the imperfections.'