August 28, 2003. Remember the date fondly. August 16th can belong to the King, April 5th to a certain burnout rockstar, December 8th to Mr. Ono. August 28th should be remembered for a slightly different reason. Rather than marking the transition from life to death or musician to martyr, this date marked the passing of a musical torch which in time might well prove as significant as these other immortalised moments in musical history. So what happened on this date that rivals the death of Elvis Presley or the emergence of Beatlemania in America (easily dated to February 9, 1964)? If a hint were to be dropped, say the mention of the MTV Video Music Awards or Madonna, a certain image would surely appear to you instantaneously. The Kiss
. Oh, the kiss. The drama
. Madonna and Britney, the Queen and the Princess, the most important pop artists of their generations. But that’s not the one. Wait about two seconds and look a few feet to the right. Not quite
as iconic, is it? The other kiss never did gain the attention or furor or adolescent fawning. But the kiss between Madonna and Christina Aguilera, at the time Britney’s lesser rival, that was the real moment of pop inheritance. Perhaps it may not seem so at present, but consider this.
In interviews following the August 28th awards show, all three involved artists defended the kiss as metaphorical, symbolising a spiritual passing of the torch. Britney was seen as the heir to Madonna’s throne, but she got fat and pregnant and middle-American. All the easier to realise that Christina Aguilera was the rightful heir all along. While Britney might have made more mention of Madonna as an inspiration, Aguilera borrows from Madonna where it counts. Madonna is, of course, the undisputed Queen of reinvention. If she didn’t invent reinvention, mark her down for reinventor of reinvention. She’s done it all, but never taken a step back to revisit an old trend of her own, always moving forward on her own musical path even if it means borrowing from other artists of the past, present, and future. For her latest reinvention in 2005, she reached back to the cob-webbed dredges of late 1970s disco. Perhaps it’s time for her to hang up the pop cloak, because her protégé was ripe to one up her just a year later.
Aguilera is no stranger to reinvention. She’s miles behind Madonna, but she has twenty years to make up for it. In her seven years of world-wide fame, Aguilera has adopted three diverse, incongruous personalities, musical styles, fashion senses, and attitudes. She began as a sweet, innocent, girl-next-door teenager, then transformed into a lewd, feminist diva three years later. In 2005 she launched her second reinvention, appearing on red carpets styled after Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. These blonde icons of the past were sexy in their own right, but far more respectable about it than Stripped
-era Aguilera. By 2006 she had integrated this obsession with all things long bygone into her musical career. Not only did she admire the looks, she admired the sounds. Whether the music was bombastic or delicately subdued, the songs were inevitably bare, honest and raw. Stripped
. Right, but this album is called Back to Basics
Her long-awaited third English record is double-album that is actually benefited by being a double. The first disc is rather traditional Aguilera fare musically, with the second more heavily visiting the jazzy blues of pre-war vocalists. Like Aguilera’s sprawling mission statement Stripped
, the music can at times be too self-indulgent to stomach, but she deserves credit for being confident and unafraid to express herself even after the near-universal flak she received for her hypersexual feminist opinions in 2002. Back to Basics
does visit many topics she has already covered on earlier albums, including misguided social and gender commentary which distracts from the music, such as "Still Dirrty", which seemingly serves as a Cliffs’ Notes version of her previous album. Similarly unnecessary is "F.U.S.S.", or "*** You Scott Storch", an elegy to her dearly-departed Stripped
producer. It’s funny to listen to from the outside in, and aside from the lyrics the song is smooth, but here’s to betting she’ll regret her pettiness in ten years time. Other revisited topics aren’t so unwelcome, however, especially when they are presented on exceptional songs. "Oh Mother", yet another ode to her single mother and middle-finger to her abusive father, is yet more proof that Aguilera works best when the subject matter actually means something to her, when the song is more than just something to sing.
She also spends a significant portion of time on the first disc paying lyrical homage to her idols, even if the music for certain songs is cemented in the present. On "Intro (Back to Basics)" and "Back in the Day", she name drops musical legends like Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and Billie Holiday, and praises them "ground breakers", "innovators", and "originators". Aguilera is clearly inamoured with her predecessors, and it is refreshing to see a modern pop artist who is not only aware that music existed before Michael Jackson, but is eager to introduce it to a new generation of listeners. Throughout much of the album Aguilera comes across as spellbound by these legends, and it is fascinating to witness her attempts to modernise the music without making it lose the charm that made it so successful and captivating in the first place all of those years ago. Aguilera and her co-producers/writers (most notably Linda Perry), do nothing short of a masterful job of balancing the modern and the classic.
In terms of song highlights on the first disc, "Ain’t No Other Man" is a speedy and infectious horn-driven track which served the album well as the first single, as it is the most successful blend of the two time periods this record straddles. Previously mentioned, the emotional "Oh Mother" is a strong song both lyrically and musically. "Here to Stay" falls into the annoying feminist category lyrically, but its strength is musical. As previously stated, Aguilera must earn some respect for refusing to back down or fold under pressure. Evidently Aguilera is aware of her headfastedness, as it is the top of the song. The first-disc songs not mentioned here tend to sound too much like typical Aguilera songs. Not filler, but songs like "Understand" and "Without You" suggest no growth or experimentation as an artist. "Thank You" is self-indulgent and not worth the bother of listening.
But the real strength of Back to Basics
lies in the second disc. Listening to this record while preparing to review it, I wanted to skip the first disc and move straight ahead to the second. The first disc offered nothing unexpected or challenging. Sure there was a vaudevillian song or two, but even the Spice Girls managed that. So it is on the second disc that Aguilera earns her praise. Here she lets her influences rule the roost. Each song is a step into a different music sphere, reasonably authentic to the original style, but equally tailored to Aguilera’s style and personality. Though there are only nine songs on this disc, each one is endlessly listenable. Just when one song cements itself as your favourite on the record, the next track comes on and throws your favouritism into doubt. "Welcome" would be a flat-out masterpiece if it didn’t lose its way in the middle, though the opening string melody probably makes up for it. "Candy Man" is lyrically pretty dumb and cheekily vulgar, but, much reminiscent of the Spice Girls’ "The Lady is a Vamp", the song is just downright fun to listen to. Aguilera’s brief scatting is enjoyable as well. "Nasty Naughty Boy" is a take on sultry swing and is nothing short of sexy, in the way an intentionally vulgar track like "Dirrty" could never be. "I Got Trouble", "Hurt" and "Mercy Me" slow things down as Aguilera explores slow, delicate piano jazz, and while the songs aren’t as flashy as the opening tracks of the second disc, they shine nonetheless. "The Right Man", one of many tributes to her husband of near-one year, is a song improved by the beautiful violin arrangement. In fact, the arrangements throughout this album deserve notice. Her use of brass, piano and violin stands out particularly and are used effectively both to recreate musical styles of the past but also to enhance the songs.
My personal favourite song on the entire two discs is "Save Me From Myself". For a singer who’s trademark is loud, obnoxious belting, the subtle, quiet vocal work on this track is as far away from traditional Aguilera as a death metal song. The song is tasteful and almost seems to want to slip in undetected. Because of the contrast with her normal material and with the music on the rest of the album, the respite of "Save Me From Myself" particularly stands out.
Back to Basics
is still a transitional record for Christina Aguilera. Just as every other record she releases will be. Why? She’s a born reinventor. Aguilera is not an artist who will ever be satisfied or settled. For years to come, she’ll continue to surprise and challenge listeners, and every once in a while Aguilera will release an innovative record of undeniable quality, like Back to Basics
. But it will also provide for many years of uncertainty and missteps, like, say, Stripped
. Sound at all familiar? For every Like a Prayer
there is an American Life
, for every "Like a Virgin" a cover of "American Pie". And you thought Britney Spears inherited Madonna’s place on that fateful night? Think again.