Will The Real Christina Aguilera Please Stand Up?S

Christina Aguilera has said every album is a 180-degree turn from her last; her songs range from pop to jazz to pulsing club music. She reinvents herself yet again on Bionic, her new album, but what's ultimately missing is humanity.

Christina Aguilera has always been my favorite pop star. From the moment "Genie in a Bottle" hit the airwaves in 1999, I was hooked. She was in the pages of my teen magazines, but unlike the other young blondes, she had a voice that soared. I saw her in concert in 7th grade, with Destiny's Child opening. A friend once gave me her Christmas CD, and though now I can't find it, I remember liking even that.

Despite her constantly changing image and sound, Aguilera's songs are full of strong declarations about who she is: I am beautiful. I'm a prima donna. Thanks for making me a fighter. On the Bionic track "I Am," co-written by Australian musician Sia, Aguilera sings:

I am timid/ And I am oversensitive/ I am a lioness/ I am tired and defensive/ You take me in your arms/ And I fold into you/ I have insecurities/ You show me I am beautiful

This song–pleading, twinkling and orchestral–is jarring next to the catchy but off-putting album closer, "Vanity":

I'm not cocky
I just love myself, bitch.
Mirror mirror on the wall
Who's the fliest bitch of them all?
Never mind, I am
That bitch is so fucking pretty
Yeah I am

Later in "I Am" come these lyrics:

I am temperamental/ And I have imperfections/ And I am emotional/ I am unpredictable/ I am naked/ I am vulnerable

Contrast that with the song "Desnúdate," with these nuanced bilingual lyrics:

Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (for me)

Through Aguilera's morphing styles, the connective tissue has been sex appeal. She has vamped her way through multiple incarnations: the teenaged teasing of "Genie in a Bottle," the smoldering Latin sounds of her Spanish-language album, the drag queen make-up and corsetry of "Lady Marmalade," Stripped's sweaty, dirrty girl chaps, the retro-glam naughtiness of Back to Basics, and now Bionic's robotic, sexed-up club girl with a penchant for leather and fetish gear.

But she has never been someone whose sex appeal seems effortless, who has that enviable quality of not trying too hard. (She has also been explicit about her message, that sexuality is empowering.) From the platinum hair to the tight clothing to the excessive make-up to the sexual moaning (ex: "Desnúdate'), you can see the work.

It is unfortunate for Aguilera that Lady Gaga arrived before Bionic, so outfits and come-ons that were previously attention-getting now read as desperate: At the recent MTV Movie Awards, she performed with a glowing, pulsing LED heart on her crotch. I want to shake her by the shoulders and say, "You are beautiful, no matter what gossip blogs say. So stop wearing shiny red hot pants over sparkly tights." Or, as Tim Gunn would say, "I'm concerned about your taste level."

Bionic marks Aguilera's entry into electronica/dance music, with collaborators like Le Tigre and MIA, but she doesn't yet seem comfortable with her new persona. The first single, "Not Myself Tonight," with its NSFW bondage-sexy video, finds her declaring, "The old me's gone, I feel brand new, and if you don't like it: fuck you." But the album's lack of authenticity — there's plenty of auto-tune and synthesized beats — seems an odd stylistic choice, given that Aguilera's strengths are her astonishing voice and the powerful emotions it can express, even through the oversinging. An Entertainment Weekly article about making Stripped talked with songwriter and producer Linda Perry about recording "Beautiful":

Perry ended up using Aguilera's guide vocal - her rough first take - on the finished song. "She had a hard time accepting that as the final track. It's not a perfect vocal - it's very raw," says Perry… Still, Perry was able to convince Aguilera to forego perfection in favor of the track's unvarnished emotion.

That song was one of her biggest hits, and maintains its hold: Glee recently used the empowerment anthem as a climax in the episode "Home."

Aguilera's 2006 album Back to Basics was a surprising twist from dirrty to Marilyn Monroe-glamorous, but it played to her strengths. Blues, soul, jazz, big band: they can be sexy and sultry, but also have playfulness and heart. It's not on the album, but watch this video of Aguilera singing James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" at the 2007 Grammy Awards. I'll wait.

She is feeling the music, throwing herself into it, shaking that microphone, down on her knees on the stage, going all the way for a piercing high note that, though it enters shrieking territory, makes you hold your breath. Patti Smith later told Rolling Stone that it was "one of the best performances that I've ever seen…I sat and watched it, and at the end, I just involuntarily leapt to my feet. It was amazing."

If you're talking competitive advantage, what can Aguilera do that Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and other pop tarts can't? Sing. Really sing, with a voice that comes from deep inside her. So even though there are some fun dance tracks on Bionic that seem to lift a page from my other favorite platinum blonde, Gwen Stefani, it kills me to hear Aguilera talk-sing her way through songs like "Glam," coo on the limp and frankly kind of gross "Sex for Breakfast," or be auto-tuned into oblivion on the title track.

In middle school I read Whispers From the Grave, a great book that unfortunately appears to be out of print. It was set in 2070, and was about a girl who discovers that her embryo had been frozen, and she has a twin sister who was murdered in 1970. She has to use her psychokinetic powers (strengthened by a special visor contraption) to go back in time and prevent her sister's death. One detail that has stuck with me is that, in the future, all the music had artificial, robotic "singers" with perfectly tuned voices. So when the character goes back in time and hears songs from the '60s, she's struck by the humanity in the singers-that they occasionally miss a note, that their voices crack, that they contain emotion.

With Bionic, Aguilera has made herself into futuristic sexbot, trading depth for dance beats, her voice for vanity. But if she's open to inspirations and collaborators, I'd say forget Gaga and go for Janelle Monae. On her new album, The ArchAndroid, Monae adeptly blends a futuristic vision with funk, soul and electronic influences, and her idiosyncratic, singular personality shines through. I'd love to hear what those two women would create, and who–finally–Christina Aguilera would reveal herself to be.

This post originally appeared on Open Salon. Republished with permission.

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The author of this post can be contacted at anne.shulock@gmail.com.