Nothing is more consistent in the musical world than the endemic prevalence of hypocrisy at every turn. Musicians who decry unsatisfactory living conditions in developing countries while lodging in diamond-encrusted ocean-front manors with landing strips made of platinum and emerald-floored tennis courts. Singers who defend animal rights to their dying breath, drenching fur-wearers with fetid blood but take enough care to avoiding splashing any on their own leather shoes. In real life these kinds of double standards are more frustrating than humorous. But when it comes to our musical celebrities, it is nothing if not downright hilarious. Take Christina Aguilera, the reigning Queen of hypocrisy in action.
When promoting her sophomore album Stripped
in 2002, Aguilera's style and attitude diverged significantly from her goody-two-shoes, girl-next-door pop roots. Caked in layers of makeup, assless chaps and a hairstyle that changed with each hour, she gravely affirmed that this was the 'real her' and you had better 'respect it, bitch' (uh, paraphrasing). She proudly described the placement of her new tattoos and piercings, and adopted a tough chick attitude to correspond. Aguilera confessed a weakness for casual sex, claimed to love 'experimenting with [her] sexuality', and tried to push the boundaries of decency and respectability in every interview. She appeared topless on the album cover, breathless in her lead music video and tasteless in every manner. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. It was the hyper-feminist bent she coincidentally adopted which compromised her entire persona. She criticised the double standard between male 'players' and female 'sluts', condemned the objectification of women and reviled people who focused more on her image than her music. Again, nothing wrong with any of that. I'd tend to agree with most of her opinions. But it's difficult to take someone's plaintive demands for an end to female objectification seriously when she consciously contributes to the problem herself; if you don't want people to treat you as a sex object, don't release your most sexually-charged song (and least musically proficient) as a lead single. Don't accompany it with a video that gets banned in several countries, requires adult-content warnings before being played on any station, and features you writhing in all manners of sexual bliss. It kind of moots the point, wouldn't you think? Unless the point is to sell records and garner unprecedented attention, with Aguilera did in spades. And her insincerity wouldn't even be quite so laughable if this 'real deal' wasn't just as much of a sham as her initial image. But of course, in time for her next album release Aguilera was a whole other creature altogether, sophisticated, proper and refined. Funny what a new promotional tour can bring about.
In the flurry of debating the authenticity of Aguilera's newfound personality, at least she was right about one thing. Her music was being overshadowed by her image. It's almost to her benefit in a certain sense; if people actually took the time to listen to the music rather than being outraged by their assumptions, they'd have some valid complaints to make. Yes, 'Dirrty' had a ridiculously over-the-top video; too right, girls locker room showers don't always
end it communal orgy; and yeah, that's not a skirt but rather a headband. But the music? Aguilera on autopilot. Great choice for a lead single if you're looking to stir up controversy; worse choice if you're looking for critical accolades.
But beyond the terrible lead single, there are some gems hidden beneath the 'hot damn, I've got creative freedom now' time to make the execs regret it' theme of the album. 'Beautiful' is a uh, beautiful song, inspirational to anorexics and fat chicks alike. Platitude-drenched lyrics, but musically quite something. Much in a similar vein, 'The Voice Within' is tacky but powerful all the same. 'Walk Away' sounds sexy, despite being one of the only songs on the album that makes no effort to, certainly not lyrically. Aguilera is smooth and sultry during the verses, soaring during the chorus. Similarly sultry is 'Loving Me 4 Me', jazzy and cool straight through. 'Cruz' is traditional teen-pop pap, but Aguilera brings it to another level, making it one of the highlights on the album. 'Make Over' and 'Underappreciated' are also feature songs on this album, catchy and lyrically pretty strong. What do these songs have in common? When she's not trying so hard to be controversial, she can generate something impressive. When she puts more effort into her vocals rather than finding something that rhymes with 'you make my fallopian tubes feel special', things brighten up.
Throughout the album, Aguilera maintains a few constant themes, which makes the album consistent if nothing else. She celebrates her newfound independence, sexuality cultivated personality. While it gets tiring to listen to, clearly Stripped
was an important transitory record for Aguilera to record. While it may not have made sense in 2002, neither would Back to Basics
. She's young, she's evolving, and she's growing up. Stripped
is just one step of the way, warts and all.
But she also reveals a more respectable aspiration; her desire to empower women and offer support and indirect encouragement to unconfident and damaged young women out there. While this is in incompatible contrast to her image as described earlier, her efforts are admirable. Completely ignoring her image and attitude for the sake of argument, her feminist ideals and attempts to improve female self-image are completely lacking in the pop scene. Yes, she and her backers played a large part in creating this teenaged insecurity, and she continued to champion hypersexuality in music throughout her Stripped
period. So while her words may have been empty, the attempt was appreciated.
Some people argue that Aguilera was given too much creative control too early in her career, and it backfired. I'd tend to disagree. The album has its obvious missteps, including the grossly overlong tracklist at 20 songs. This could have been easily trimmed to 11-12 good songs (though, to be fair, the album does include a handful of short interludes which shouldn't fully count toward the tracklisting). But beyond that, Stripped
is not the work of an aimless artist who doesn't know how to handle the power vested in her. The album is purposeful, if bloated, and every song was placed intently by Aguilera. There are some frightfully bad songs ('Dirrty'), hopelessly average ones ('Can't Hold Us Down', a lot of the ballads), and due to the long tracklisting and her immaturity as an artist a lot of the songs are too similar to have much impact, especially the slower ones. But if her image had been reigned in by her superiors, if it hadn't been allowed to eclipse Stripped
so magnanimously, the album's quality would have been allowed to take centre-stage. I'm not claiming Stripped
to be a great record, but it has much more to offer than the singles. In fact, the singles are the least impressive on this album. It's on the other tracks that Aguilera shines. She may be laughably hypocritical as a celebrity and personality, but the girl knows how to sing.