Early in Christina Aguilera's set at a sold-out Allstate Arena Saturday
night, during the song "Back in the Day" from her 2006 album "Back to
Basics," a procession of musical giants splashed on the massive video
screens at the rear of an otherwise spartan stage.
Like much of the musically impressive show, the message was muddled.
Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin,
Miles Davis, John Coltrane -- were we to presume that these greats, wildly
diverse in the genres they pioneered, are the 26-year-old Aguilera's
inspirations? Or were we supposed to think that these artists are the former
Mouseketeer-turned-pop diva's peers?
I've heard Billie Holiday, and Xtina is no Billie Holiday.
Nor were there substantial traces of those heroes' blues, jazz, soul and
R&B in her now slightly grittier but still very sleek dance-pop. She has,
however, emerged as the most significant female artist of that dreaded late
'90s bubblegum boom, and she is by far the best singer, especially now that
she's learned to limit the pointless, octaves-spanning trills designed to
show us her range.
Playing dress up
Those accomplishments should have been enough to satisfy Aguilera and
sustain her current tour without dragging poor Lady Day into things. But
ultimately, I suspect the name-dropping was there for the same reason as the
retro horn section, the matching 1940s white suits on the eight dancers and
12 musicians, the 1920s-style movie clips and the incongruous leap back to
the turn of the last century during the silly circus spectacular
"Old stuff looks cool," I imagine our gal saying. "And it was really time
to replace the whole streetwalker routine if I wanted to have a real career
as an artist."
In that respect, Aguilera is succeeding. She has gone from skanky to sexy
and from crass to classy. But after her addled and superficial understanding
of musical history, her biggest weakness is that she still doesn't trust her
considerable talents to carry the day.
Just sing already
The star was at her best when she was just singing in front of that kicking
big band, as on "Ain't No Other Man," "What a Girl Wants," "Hurt" and
"Understand." The fancy costumes and elaborate props only detracted from
tunes such as "Welcome" and "Nasty Naughty Boy." She really didn't need
them, and they diluted the "Back to Basics"/"meet the mature new me" goals.
If Aguilera ever learns these lessons, she might some day approach those
heroes and heroines whose pictures she appropriated. Otherwise, she'll
simply succeed in edging out Britney Spears to become the new Madonna, if
Maddy herself ever decides to retire.
Playing dress up
As noted earlier, except for a pole-dance routine during "Dirrty," the
headliner avoided the blatant sexual pandering of old. But the choice of
opening acts underscored that she (or her handlers) aren't entirely ready to
entirely write off the wannabe-hooker demographic.
Both Danity Kane and the Pussycat Dolls did their thing to canned backing
tracks, with little vocal talent in evidence beyond lead Doll Nicole
Scherzinger's hammy theatrics.
But singing wasn't the point: These women were onstage to gyrate,
undulate, thrust, bump and grind, encouraging the many teenage girls in
attendance to aspire to be as scantily but expensively dressed, as overly
made-up and as subservient to male fantasies as they are.
Watching them made me feel filthier and sadder than I would have felt if
I'd been ducking into the sleaziest XXX peep show in town.