You’d think there’d be some mathematical formula that could take into account the manner tossed, and how far, and what exactly “it” was, and tell you the all-time champion of Throwing It All Away. Until this analytic tool is devised, I can only say with certainty that Christina Aguilera has a seat at the table; in the sub-category Failure to Capitalize on a Debut, she may take the cake. The basic criteria are (a) how massive that first record was, and then (b) how long before the follow-up, which is (c) how lame? Ms. Aguilera is approaching four years since she made a better and far more beloved debut than, say, the Stone Roses. In teenpop years, this is a dog’s life.
It makes Trent Reznor, the former big kahuna of lacuna, look like he’s been huffing workohol. So there’s Christina’s career going into a coma, with nothing but Latin and Christmas and extreme-youth stopgaps to keep it breathing, and finally here comes the follow-up, siren wailing. Long story short, Stripped is an ambulance arriving too late to save its driver; when, oh when, will people understand that endeavoring to not mature is at the core of pop music? It’s nü-Mariah on mood stabilizers, extended with pseudo-pastiches of semi-popular songs. Carey on, my wayward daughter. But let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about the Greatest Comeback of All Time.
You must fall from a great height. And you must descend into extreme obscurity, in ways Elvis and Dylan couldn’t even comprehend, such that a comeback isn’t even an issue because no one’s even wondering where you went anymore. But it’s not as easy as just disappearing like Shuggie Otis; more abject is actively losing your talent and appeal, forgotten but not gone. And then, out of nowhere and against all odds, you must be great again—greater, in fact, than you ever were before.
OK, I’ve convinced myself: It’s Marianne Faithfull. I suppose you could argue that she was never musically brilliant back when she was getting a little above-the-waist chart action in the Swinging ’60s. But she was famous and successful and desired, all the things that make a young woman a star, and then she pissed it away, and there was exactly no chance the world could have been ready for Broken English, which if you haven’t listened to it recently could use maybe a dash less Wicca and synthesizers, but will still rivet you to your chaise longue like the hand of god. So I suppose it’s a race for second place, which brings us to this particular moment and another rasp-throated burnout burning, against all likelihood, back in.
Linda Perry had one huge hit with 4 Non Blondes, and it was huger than you can imagine, unless you’ve traveled a little and understand that “What’s Up” remains the favorite song of every seventh passing car on at least three continents. A few years later she was self-releasing a solo album of crypto-blues-metal inspirational songs heard by perhaps 30 humans, and only because her sister mailed it to them. We knew absolutely that she would be remembered only for that one annoying tune, and a band name that provided endless non-amusing witticisms for music reviewers (“Three non-non-blondes from Oklahoma, the kids in Hanson”—see Failure to Capitalize on a Debut rankings, #6 ). Linda Perry’s doomsday clock had already thrown up its hands. Then came the Pink album Missundazstood (see Greatest Sophomore Breakthroughs, behind Hole and ahead of the Rolling Stones).
As you may have heard, that album’s title track, lead single, and a handful of ballads were all written by Linda Perry. They weren’t uniformly great: There’s something weird about “My Vietnam,” and something Led-Zep-should-sue about “Gone to California.” But pop was never about uniformly great. “Get the Party Started” is brilliant, and “Missundazstood” isn’t much less. Implausibly, Linda Perry was a genius. Suddenly she was the hottest pop auteur around. And her specialty was taking schoolgirls from crayons to perfume.
For 10 songs, Christina Aguilera’s record is aggressively boring, unless you’re fascinated by her half-repressed yen to remake “I Put a Spell on You” as it might be done by the Velveteen Rabbit. And then comes “Beautiful,” the kind of ballad Mariah made back when she was a natural. The following “Make Over” is deeply in debt to British garage-poppers Sugababes, not a bad source in the scheme of things. It’s the only song on the record that paints newfound maturity and freedom as more than a pickup line. All anxious rhythms and distorted vocals, it’s independence as a panic attack, which can only be soothed by a power ballad: “Cruz,” even more Bic-flicking than “Beautiful,” if not quite as beautiful. These three songs are Linda Perry’s contribution to Stripped, and they make almost everything else on the record sound as tawdry as it is. In fact, the next song, “Soar,” might be the strongest argument for Perry’s new-generation power: Written and produced by Aguilera and two strangers named Rob Hoffman and Heather Holley, it’s the first significant knockoff of what will be remembered as Linda Perry Pop, or We Were Only Sophomores Pop, or Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon If You Can Afford My Services Pop. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of becoming a brand name. I can hear Charlotte Church fumbling for her cell phone even now . . .