Exhausted by its excess, we near the end of Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” with a Polow Da Don–produced electro-mayhem bridge, synthesizers growling from the windows to the walls. If you’re following along with the video on YouTube, this would be the part where Xtina sucks a diamond-studded bondage gag and mounts some beau. But on record, she sounds more like she’s just finished clobbering a punching bag, fists still taped, when she deadpans, in a winded whisper, “Yah—I needed that.” Whew.
It’s an interesting admission, or maybe a justification for the preceding three oversung and oversexed minutes, wherein Christina—always up for oversinging, oversexing, or both—claims to be “doing things that I normally won’t do,” among them “feeling fine.” Left unasked is the question of whether you needed that—the bondage theme, the 10-octave tantrum, the synth war, all of that—but don’t expect the rest of her new album, Bionic, to inquire, either. The Excess Question has hounded her at every step on the road to Madonnadom, from her Mickey Mouse Club dalliances of yesteryear to the s/m club of “Tonight.” First with Britney, then with Gaga, the unfairly compared blend-in blonde has had to out-audition other star-kids since her Disney days, and continues to break glass like the judges have their pencils out.
If they do, they’ll all come to the same conclusion: Forget Lady Gaga. The basic threat to Christina’s identity is her own voice, the little circus trick living in her throat that regularly rumbles up to caricaturize the singer with ruptures like “mmrg-ya-ya-ya-yeah!” (Think “Lady Marmalade.” Briefly.) On Bionic, one of these outbursts is endowed with unexpected meaning when the exclamation “Woohoo!” on the track of the same name alludes to where “you put your lips where my hips are”—”Licky, licky,” she adds, in the interest of clarity.
But if her melisma usually seems vapid or indulgent, that’s just the Excess Question again, and as she makes abundantly clear across Bionic‘s 18 tracks, she’s going to give it to you anyway. Not only that, but she’s going to re-define, mid-giving it, who you’re getting it from. “Call me the supernova,” she insistently raps on the title track’s twitchy space-age rhythms, but wait: How do you spell that? “X-x-x-t-t-t-i-i-i-n-n-n-n-n-a,” stutters cyborg Christina, a sex machine programmed to assert its flawlessness. “Take me just the way I am,” crows a slightly more humanoid Christina over wistful shaker rustles on the ballad “I Am”—”I need you to see me,” she asserts, describing her unseen essence as “a lioness,” “naked,” and, of course, “beautiful.” Take her as she is, unless she takes herself: On the concise, synthed-up catwalk strut “Vanity,” she interrupts the proceedings to hum “Here Comes the Bride,” then snarls, “Now, I take myself to be my Lawfully. Wedded. Bee-itch!”
Go on, girl, I suppose. “I make myself so much wetter,” she remarks on “Vanity,” but isn’t that the problem? Impressive as the moxie pumping through Christina’s cold, careerist blood may be, the spectacle of a superhuman bedazzling herself with her various prowesses (singing, sex) leaves scant room for the outside world. On her American Idol–debuted “You Lost Me,” an ex-boyfriend—read: an outsider—causes her most vulnerable, un-bionic moment on the record: “You left me neglected,” she belts. But take note: She’s less vexed by what he did (“couldn’t keep your hands to yourself”) than what he lost (“me,” i.e., the high-note-gurgling bee-itch he’ll never lawfully wed.)
Her universe expands on “Elastic Love,” wide enough to accommodate two people. (That would be Christina and a wishy-washy crush whose “spastic love” is “like a pencil trying to write and you’re erasing me.”) The real amorous game, though, is between her and M.I.A., swapping sing-song-y rhymes and playground chants over the beat’s blips and bloops. It’s a fun duet, suggesting a two-girls-at-play theme that doubles in size when the significantly more regular folks in Le Tigre dial down Xtina’s Xcess on “My Girls.” Together, they cheer: “My girls, we’re stronger than one!”
It’s true. Remove her girls at play, and you’re left with Christina at work, pounding out precisely produced club-pop that moves bodies, if not spirits. On “Desnudate,” the entire throbbing, horn-squealing hook hangs on a suggestive moan—”nn-uh,” roughly—but damned if it doesn’t sound more like exercise than sex. As a creature, Christina is wound and rehearsed too tightly for the ups and downs of amour, but is just right for aerobics, which is why, despite all the comparisons to belly-throated pop sirens, the diva whose craft hers most deftly recalls is none other than James Brown’s. Like that other sex machine, Christina’s art is and is about hard work: labored yet cathartic drudgery that sweats, groans, and even hollers, but never loosens. When, amid the buzzsaw synths and handclaps on “Prima Donna,” Lil Jon exhorts y’all to “work yo’ body,” it sounds more like a call to shed pounds than bump or grind. She and Jon make a natural pair, really, the Prima Don and Donna of the guttural grunt: the hardest working-out people in show business, moving inert American bodies in a supposedly sexual but naggingly meaningless outburts of nn-uh‘s.