SOLD!: The easy explanation for Aguilera’s success starts with simple marketing and deteriorates into cynicism.
If Christina Aguilera’s new album is her idea of getting Back to Basics (RCA/BMG), what does this pop princess do when she when she wants to get fancy? It boggles the imagination. As this executive producer, principal songwriter, and back-to-blonde bombshell explains in the package’s “Back to Basics Bonus Video,” her album is a tribute to the “blues, jazz, and soul artists” whom she’s loved since she was a little girl, divided into two CDs. The first features 13 hip-hop-inflected updates of classic soul styles, produced primarily by DJ Premier, of hip-hop’s long-running and deeply respected duo Gang Starr; the second rummages among styles even older, from boogie-woogie to big-mama blues, in nine tracks produced and co-written by Linda Perry, the former 4 Non Blondes alt-rocker who’s recently helped shape the careers of tween-pop sensations from Pink to Aguilera herself.
Of course, this tribute to R&B from the late 1930s to the early 1970s is what the former “Xtina” means by “the basics.” But you also get oh so much more. The first disc does indeed feature many numbers in which Christina deep-throats soul styles that recall Little Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and, uh, Aretha Franklin. But then, midway, she detours into “Oh Mother,” a minor-key contemporary pop ballad recalling the hard times she and her mom went through at the hands of Christina’s abusive dad; that’s followed by “F.U.S.S.,” a hip-hop dis to former producer Scott Storch. She also sidesteps her retro program for “Still Dirrty,” a staccato hip-hop strut that defends her infamous single and video “Dirrty,” and a couple of big, shapeless, crossover R&B ballads that recall her most pernicious musical inspiration, Mariah Carey. And she closes with “Thank You (Dedicated to Fans),” in which DJ Premier remixes snatches from Christina’s first hit, the 1999 teen-pop smash “Genie in a Bottle,” with telephone messages from members of her official fan club. (“My name is Jessica Cavanaugh. I just wanted to let you know that you are truly one of the best artists that I have ever come across.”) What starts as a tribute to “Aretha and Miles” ends as a far more loving tribute to Christina Aguilera’s first and greatest inspiration, Christina Aguilera.
Disc two opens with the inexplicable “Enter the Circus,” a surreal waltz that slides into “Welcome,” a symphonic ballad about the travails of stardom that could make Emerson Lake & Palmer blush. That’s followed by a short string of songs in which Christina delivers the goods promised in her bonus video, goods that include the salacious “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” update “Candyman” and an xxxplicit strip-joint blues, “Nasty Naughty Boy” (“I’m going to give you a little taste/Of the sugar below my waist”). Then we get the tender Beale Street blues “I Got Trouble,” which features scratchy LP hiss and a handkerchief-muffled mike. And that’s it. Despite all the packaging promises, the second disc also detours into contemporary pop ballads, starting with “Hurt,” which recalls Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word,” and closing with a string-drenched hymn to her new marriage, “The Right Man.”
At first listen, it’s so sprawling yet halfway, so willfully weird yet oddly familiar, it seems to promise nothing but commercial and artistic disaster. Where but in the mind of a 25-year-old former child star does cool hip-hop meet American Idol schlock meet Etta James R&B meet a skankily updated Jean Harlow? And why the hell Harlow? But blink twice, look up, and you’ll see the same era in the nearest poster or TV commercial for the new OutKast album and movie, Idlewild, a mega-event that Aguilera might even beat. In the week after its August 15 release, Back to Basics debuted at #1 in Billboard, selling an extraordinary 342,000 copies.
The easy explanation for Aguilera’s success starts with simple marketing and deteriorates, as marketing explanations often do, into cynicism. “It’s important to me that the imagery coincides with what I’m going for musically,” she told Entertainment Weekly in one of the numerous big-magazine features that came out before the album’s release, a grueling publicity spree that ranged from British Elle, which featured dressy photos by Karl Lagerfeld, to GQ, which featured full body shots more stripped than any surrounding her sophomore release, Stripped (RCA/BMG). That 2002 album turned this teen-popster into an adult pin-up and the brunt of late-night comedy routines, but because the latest nudie photos feature high-class hair and make-up, the notion has circulated that Aguilera has performed a Madonna-like makeover for album three, thus ensuring a respectable return to profitability. More important, the new album, which should eventually retail for around $22, has been initially priced at big box chains like Wal-Mart for half that or less, whereas on-line it’s selling for four dollars more. The discrepancy has led at least one commentator to call the sales pure hype. “You’d think, with that many albums sold in the physical sphere, Back to Basics would be burning up the on-line chart,” writes Bob Lefsetz in his music blog, the Lefsetz Letter. “But you would be wrong. Christina Aguilera sold a grand total of 18,169 on-line albums [in her debut week]. Egads! . . . Yes, Back to Basics was an impulse item. No different from the tabloids and candy adjacent to the grocery-store-checkout stand.”