Christina Aguilera Reclaims The Fame
By Joshua David Stein
Not to mention Lady Gaga in an article about pop music in general and Christina Aguilera in particular would be like writing a thesis on omelets and leaving out eggs. Gaga, like her or not, now dictates the terms of the pop conversation. She's the star around which the pop universe spins. Plus, the two have history.
Rivalry's nothing new to Aguilera, who spent her childhood years dominating talent shows in the metropolitan Pittsburgh area and her early adolescence jockeying for position on The Mickey Mouse Club against littermates Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Her late teens and 20s passed locked in a dead heat with her former BFF, Britney. But, as it relates to Lady Gaga, one might think comparisons to be especially odious. 'Oh, the newcomer?' Aguilera chuckles. 'I think she's really fun to look at.' Nevertheless, Aguilera has come under fire for aping Gaga's style and the criticisms have irked her. In 2008, when asked by the Los Angeles Times about the comparison, Aguilera denied all knowledge of Gaga's existence. 'I'm a little under a rock where some things are concerned,' she said then and says again now.
Gaga v. Aguilera might be the El Alamein of pop music. Gaga's rise is a blitzkrieg to the top, a mad dash upward with only one album (and a half) for support, while Aguilera has amassed her forces for more than a decade, assembling hits and producers, engineers and radio support. Each Aguilera album comes slowly and painstakingly planned. Though she's loath to admit influence, Bionic is Aguilera's war of attrition against Gaga; a fight in which she attempts to out-Gaga Gaga -- hit for hit -- and come out ahead. It's a dangerous strategy. One track in particular, a song produced by Christopher 'Tricky' Stewart called 'Glam,' stands out as a direct bombardment of the Gaga positions. But is it a jab or simply derivative, a bean counter's hedge on an important album? It's hard to say. Certainly, it's catchy, but the victory is Pyrrhic. Aguilera's voice is held hostage, confined to an octave, reduced to a mnemonic device and the lowest common denominator. It's frustrating and disappointing to hear her, in songs like 'Not Myself Tonight' and 'Glam,' operate at such fractional capacity. Keeping up with the Joneses, or the Gagas, slows her down. Luckily for Aguilera, her songs with Sia, songs like 'You Lost Me,' are proof of her technical superiority.
Gaga writes hooks with nursery rhyme simplicity, easy to hum and hard to forget. Aguilera foregoes hooks for vocal virtuosity, though she admits, 'it's a little more off-putting to the general public because it's not easy to sing along to.' Gaga talks about art and sings about cell phone reception and disco sticks. Aguilera isn't given to public pronouncements outside her narrow area of expertise and sings about vulnerability and expectation, loss and strength, abuse and acceptance. Gaga is her art, she claims. Aguilera says, 'I used to think, My art is me, and it's just not like that. You can't be that egotistical.' Gaga is topiary, highly pruned and stylized. Aguilera is a jungle, wild and overgrown.
In a few months, Burlesque, the film starring Cher, Stanley Tucci, and, making her screen debut, Aguilera, will be in theaters. Max will be out of his terrible twos, but Bionic will have reached number one on the pop charts, probably carried there by 'Not Myself Tonight.' As for Aguilera herself, sitting here toying with the heel of her shoe, she'll have melted away. When she returns, you might not recognize her. Her hair might change from blonde to ginger, her look from futuristic to psychedelic. But as soon as she opens her mouth to sing, there will be no doubt: Christina Aguilera has returned.
To see our exclusive slide show of Xtina from our sideshow-inspired cover story shot by Ellen von Unwerth, click here.