Okay, okay, so it isn’t that bad. In fact, parts of Bionic are really sort of fun — but not enough of them, and when the album works, it often works for reasons that don’t have an awful lot to do with Aguilera. Why is one of the more soulful and expressive young pop singers on the market so eager to bury herself under sheets of frozen plastic? And when, goddammit, will she finally reach the point in her career where she cares more about songs, and using her voice, than dumb club bangers?
Don’t look for answers anywhere in Bionic‘s 15 tracks (it’s actually 18 if you count the three between-song “interludes,” but we won’t). You do get a whole hell of a lot of music — now, as always, Aguilera subscribes to the “take too long to record one overstuffed album so you can pretend it’s AN EVENT” philosophy practiced by Michael Jackson after Thriller — but most of it could have been recorded by anybody. As a teenager, Aguilera enthusiastically embraced the two modes of expression available to young pop singers — which are, for the record, loud narcissism and horniness — but as an adult, she hasn’t figured out how to move past them. The result is an album elaborately constructed to feel big, but which has nothing at its center to hold the damn thing together. Christina likes to get dressed up. She likes to dance. She likes to have sex first thing in the morning. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
“Okay,” you might be saying. “So lyrically, Bionic is warmed-over Janet Jackson and Madonna records. So what? The important thing is the music, man. Specifically, the cool quotient of the producers and/or collaborators she hired. So tell me something good.” To which I respond: “M.I.A., Peaches, Switch, Polow da Don, Tricky, Focus…, Linda Perry, and Le Tigre.” In other words, this is one of those records that’s supposed to sound futuristic in the most retro way possible, and on that front, it’s a success, loaded up with farting synths and chintzy drum machine beats, not to mention odes to cunnilingus (“Woohoo”), fashion (“Glam”), and herself (“Vanity”) torn straight from the pages of the late ’80s/early ’90s Madonna songbook, as well as one nifty track (the M.I.A. collaboration “Elastic Love“) that sounds a little like Art of Noise rubbing shoulders with, I don’t know, Cyndi Lauper in 1985.
“Elastic Love” is probably Bionic‘s best track, a creamy blend of slip-slidey synths and boomy, treated vocals that sounds nothing like anything else on the album or, for that matter, anything Aguilera’s ever done — and if Bionic were shorter, it’d be something more than a distant memory drowned in filler by the time the album drew to a close. As things are, though, you’ve still got 11 songs to go when “Elastic” fades from your speakers, including a terribly ill-advised bloc of five ballads that runs from the droning “Sex for Breakfast” through “You Lost Me” before yielding to the stomping Katy Perry wannabe “I Hate Boys,” which is sure to kill at least as many Top 40 brain cells as whatever the Black Eyed Peas are doing right now. (Also, if anyone at RCA still has a brain, the Peaches/Le Tigre collaboration “My Girls” will be a summertime single.)
As you might have guessed, Bionic is sort of all over the place, which is what happens when an artist like Aguilera tries to have it both ways. The album has the length of a major statement, but it says nothing; it’s pop Top 40 spumoni, a patchwork blend of juvenile double entendres like “Woohoo” and AC singles-in-waiting like “Lift Me Up,” a Lifetime-ready inspirational ballad that Bette Midler could have knocked out of the park 20 years ago. Are we supposed to believe in either of Aguilera’s poses? When are we supposed to take her seriously — when she’s crooning about being naked and vulnerable, or when she’s barking stuff like “I’m not cocky, I just love myself…bitch”?
I’m guessing the answer Aguilera’s most committed fans — and maybe Aguilera herself — would offer is that we aren’t supposed to take any of it seriously, that it’s just a pop record. And that’s a valid point, at least for the half of Bionic that smiles at itself in the mirror while shaking its ass on the dance floor. But that still leaves those AC ballads, which feel awfully crass next to stuff like “Sex for Breakfast,” and the interludes, which suggest Aguilera thinks we’re listening to something important here, rather than the machine-assisted flailings of an artist prematurely past her prime. Next time, she’ll be better off if she concentrates on the human element.