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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Old-school? Her?

Christina Aguilera's `Basics' honors forebears she's yet to live up to.

August 15, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

CHRISTINA AGUILERA wants to be a revivalist.

She's titled the already much-fussed-over album that hits stores today "Back to Basics." Its complementary discs of hip-hop and high-concept pop have been packaged in a retro sleeve emblazoned with the phrase "a 'new orthophonic' hi fidelity recording" -- as if the laser-etched plastic contained within could be played on a phonograph from the 1920s.

To promote her first single, the horn-maddened "Ain't No Other Man," the singer made a video in which she evokes pop's favorite Betties -- Boop, Grable and Page -- while wearing enough sequins to make Elizabeth Taylor squint. She's planning a fall tour of jazz clubs under the equally retro moniker Baby Jane and has been telling the media that (a song called "Still Dirrty" and a crush on Halle Berry aside) old-fashioned wedded bliss to music exec Jordan Bratman has allowed her to trust herself enough to make music that links her to the past she so romanticizes.

As if these extra-musical signals weren't enough, Aguilera makes her orientation explicit in the song "Back in the Day," which promotes the old idea that truly original music was created before hip-hop. "Open your mind, enjoy the ride," Aguilera sings as a roll call of heroes unspools behind her: Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Minnie Riperton, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder. Though "Back in the Day" itself sounds like none of those artists, it leaves no doubt that Aguilera's never letting them stray far from her mind.

Take another look at that list. Every name belongs to an African American: This is another way in which Aguilera, born of an Irish American mom and Ecuadorean dad, seems to be falling in line with the pop revivalist program. Artists who present themselves as "old school" to assert their integrity generally prefer the "pure" legacies of black jazz, blues and soul to the more muddled realities of historical mainstream pop, in which Bing Crosby reinvented singing by borrowing from Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles bucked the system by recording a country album in 1962.

As a leading voice in a generation for whom racial divides matter less than ever before -- in terms of musical preferences, at least -- it's natural for Aguilera to claim the same spiritual mentors as a peer such as Alicia Keys would. But the specificity of her inspiration oddly implies that the hallowed past she wishes to reenter might have no room for an interloper such as herself.

Too much too soon

The aura of purity that surrounds "Back to Basics" comes in response to something specific. Aguilera's last album, 2003's adventurous "Stripped," pushed the singer toward a rock-soul hybrid sound not unlike the one pioneered by LaBelle, a group she doesn't name check on "Back to Basics," though in her previous incarnation she covered the band's most famous song, "Lady Marmalade."

"Stripped" was a brave move, crackling with anthems about female solidarity and sexual liberation and confessions of Aguilera's own childhood experiences of abuse. But it was too much too soon -- though legally an adult at 22, the Aguilera of "Stripped" was only just emerging from the cocoon of Disney-friendly teen pop, and her public just wasn't ready for her multiple piercings and lyrics about sweating until her clothes came off.

The vintage surfaces of "Back to Basics" present a much prettier image, one that girds against Aguilera's natural excesses -- the album does include a song that samples the voices of fans telling her she's given them a reason to live -- by mining the natural elegance of traditionalism.

There's one hitch, though. The music on "Back to Basics" doesn't sound retro at all -- certainly not in the pencil-skirt, processed-hair, Golden Oldies sense. The first disc, made largely under the guidance of venerable hip-hop DJ Premier, puts Aguilera's voice in dialogue with musical elements that complement her intense singing style -- rampaging horns, snare drums, vocal samples that recall the church and the juke joint.

Connecting to history in ways more cyborg than preservationist, expressing the thoughts of a woman whose idea of old-fashioned incorporates kinky eroticism and total independence, this club-friendly set allows Aguilera to explore pop's past with the fresh attitude of a child who is sorting through photo albums she has found in her parents' drawer.

Several of hip-hop's top producers follow Premier's collagist lead on their own tracks. Kwame's hot and humid "Understand" creates a duet between Aguilera and 1960s Louisiana soul queen Betty Harris by sampling the haunting, Allen Toussaint tune "Nearer to You."

On "Makes Me Wanna Pray," Rich Harrison stages a musical double-dutch contest between Aguilera, a hopped-up choir and classic-rock keyboardist Steve Winwood. And hipster DJ Mark Ronson uses flamenco guitar and a fluttery vocal arrangement to dress Aguilera's coo in 1970s chiffon in the honey-sweet "Without You."

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