De-skanking 'dirrty' Christina


August 13, 2006


As Christina Aguilera's fellow modern mouseketeer-turned-pop seductress Britney Spears has discovered, the skanky ho routine has a limited shelf-life: Once you've let that genie out of the bottle, gotten down and "dirrty" and strutted your stuff in cheek-less chaps, the novelty wears off, and you'd better have something more remarkable to show us if you want to have any staying power atop the pop charts.

At age 25, Aguilera arguably has the most powerful voice of any pop diva since Mariah Carey -- all due respects to Beyonce, and forget about Britney. She's also one of the most successful, having scored three Grammys and album sales of 25 million. With Tuesday's release of her third studio album, the two-CD set "Back to Basics," Aguilera is not only determined to prove she's here to stay; she also wants to forward the legacy of timeless greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Etta James and Marvin Gaye.

"Going back to basics / to where it all began," the star sings in the title track and introduction. "I wanna understand / what made the soul singers and the blues figures / that inspired a higher generation."

Aguilera isn't entirely successful in fulfilling these lofty goals. But you can't fault her for having such audacious ambitions, and she hits the mark as often as she misses through the double album's 22 tracks.

Overall, disc one is the stronger effort musically, with former Gang Starr member DJ Premier (whose resume also includes work with Jay-Z, Nas and Biggie Smalls) creating an organic setting for Aguilera's voice via old-school blues, jazz and soul samples that are skillfully paired with fresher hip-hop and R&B grooves. On disc two, the dominant force is producer and songwriter Linda Perry (Pink, Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani), who eschews the electronics in favor of live strings, horns and even a Gregorian choir, though the results are actually more canned, hokey and gimmicky.

Obviously, Aguilera's rejection of the R-rated "Xtina" image of her last album, "Stripped" (2002), goes beyond trading the sub-Madonna dominatrix gear in favor of 1940s glamor. Some critics have been taking her to task for a sketchy knowledge of history: While praising her new heroes and heroines, she tends to lump them all together, as if a few decades and a world of stylistic differences don't separate Holiday and Gaye. But she's certainly got a better grasp on things than Spears -- who thought Pat Benatar wrote "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" -- and her embrace of these sounds is based on an emotional connection as much as the need for an image makeover.

"My grandma and I used to go into the city and search through vinyl at old record stores," Aguilera told USA Weekend. "[She] would get a kick out of having this 8-year-old girl belt out blues and soul songs that were far beyond her years. I called it my 'fun music.' When I started making this record, I reverted back to, 'What makes me wanna sing? What makes me wanna dance?' And it's this old sound of blues, soul and jazz. You can't help but feel it right here."

Yes, the new classier, more mature but still plenty sexy Christina is ultimately as much of a well-marketed product as the older, sassier and far less subtle one. But she's got both the vocal instrument to pull off this new incarnation and enough soul to make it convincing, at least on the better material.

Witness the proud declaration of her love for hubby Jordan Bratwell, "Ain't No Other Man," an irresistible single driven by a rollicking, fast-paced groove, punctuating horn samples and an ultra-sassy vocal. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the slow weeper "Oh Mother," a spare and haunting tune that finds the star recounting the day her mother left her allegedly abusive father: "It was the day that he turned on his kids / that she knew she just had to leave him / So many voices inside of her head / saying over and over and over, / 'You deserve much more than this.' "

The album falls short when Aguilera turns from such universally emotional material to revert to that tired superstar routine of "woe is poor lil' misunderstood me." In "Still Dirrty," she packages a defense of her earlier skanky-ho pandering as feminism, while in "Here to Stay," she disses all the playa-haters who'd keep her down. The nadir, though, is "Thank You (Dedication to Fans...)," which pairs her professions of undying gratitude to the buying public with voice-mail testimonials from "real people" proclaiming her unrivaled greatness.

Trimmed of such gag-inducing duds and cut down to one disc, "Back to Basics" would be a much stronger though still far-from-perfect album. Clearly, this child of the new-millennial mall culture has yet to fully accept that less is more, whether it's in terms of flirting, singing or revealing your soul. But Aguilera is making progress, and she's starting to become a genuinely interesting artist rather than a merely enticing one.