Hey Little Dreamers! I’m Sam Lansky, pop scholar, and this is “Pop Think,” my weekly column dedicated to shining a light on the oft-ignored corners of the pop music universe. Let’s get to it: Is there a pop album from the last several years that was as unjustly sh**ted on (to borrow sentiment from Nicki Minaj) as Christina Aguilera‘s Bionic? The big-voiced chanteuse’s sixth studio album received mixed reviews and underperformed commercially, while her image took a beating in the press for being messy and misdirected, even though the record was, at times, precociously brilliant.
So, surprise! As your resident pop apologist, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of Bionic‘s release (time flies, doesn’t it, kids?), I’m traveling back through time to take a look back at Christina’s wildly misunderstood, sometimes-genius Bionic—and reflecting on how the ferocious songbird, who’s found a new life as the HBIC on “The Voice,” had a surprisingly forward-thinking approach on her last album.
Expectations ran exceptionally high for Christina Aguilera’s album Bionic, with a list of top-shelf collaborators both mainstream and indie; big names like Tricky Stewart, Ester Dean, Nicki Minaj, and Polow da Don were joined by more alt-leaning voices like Ladytron, Le Tigre, Santigold, Peaches and Sia, for a sound that promised to be diverse and collaborative. But that left-of-center sound was missing from the album’s debut single, “Not Myself Tonight,” an aggressive stomper that drew comparisons to Lady Gaga and peaked at a decent-but-not-great No. 23 on the Hot 100. The second single, “Woohoo,” featuring Nicki Minaj, topped out at a dismal No. 79 on that same chart, and the final effort, “You Lost Me,” failed to enter the Hot 100 at all — Christina’s first single to do so. Quietly, and without much fanfare, the Bionic era drew to a close.
So. What went wrong? Her collaborator, Daniel Hunt of Ladytron, blamed RCA, saying bluntly that Christina’s label “f***ed up everything” when it came to putting together the final album. And while it’s always convenient to blame the label for the faults of an artist, it did certainly seem as though Christina’s original artistic vision — to create a distinctively fresh product — got muddled somewhere along the way, perhaps by the overreaching commercial expectations of a chart-conscious team.
Read more about Christina Aguilera’s misunderstood album, Bionic, after the jump:
But Ladytron was right — most of the album’s best tracks were relegated to the bonus tracks only available on the deluxe edition of the album. And what’s startling is how thrilling most those songs are two years after their release. If the tracks on the standard edition were modern but fairly pedestrian, split neatly between uptempo, hypersexual club bangers like “Desnudate” and “Glam” and weepy ballads like “Lift Me Up” and “You Lost Me,” the songs on the deluxe edition are forward-thinking and even timeless, galactic pop with subversive, ambient production. The hand-claps and dissonant layered vocals on “Monday Morning,” co-penned by San by Santigold, evoke the ’80s with subtlety and charm (it wouldn’t sound out of place on Ladyhawke’s first album). “Bobblehead” is a dazzlingly weird rap-and-percussion diss track, and the Ladytron-produced “Birds of Prey” is a masterwork of sinister bad-trip anxiety. My personal favorite, though, is “Little Dreamer,” the iTunes bonus track, another Ladytron collab, which walks the tightrope between wistful affection and melancholy grief, and shows off Christina’s vocals at their finest. They’re powerful, emotive and more controlled than the melismatic belting for which she’s frequently recognized.
In its own way, Bionic neatly illustrates the dangers artists face when aggressively trying to keep up with “current” music. Mainstream music is a runaway express train hurtling itself toward the trendiest end of the pop music zeitgeist. As a result, futuristic pop tracks can already sound dated by the time they’re released. And even when they don’t, those chart-chasing songs don’t age particularly gracefully. But two years after the fact, Bionic‘s moments of greatness remain about as good as it gets. On her next album, I’m gunning for Christina to show us that side of her, stronger than ever.