Christina Aguilera enters hipster territory as "Bionic" woman
LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Inside a soundstage recently at Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles, Christina Aguilera was talking about the inspiration behind her 2006 album, "Back to Basics," on which she paid tribute to the soul and blues artists who inspired her to sing. Or at least that was what she started to talk about.
Seemingly out of nowhere, she was describing the process that led to "Bionic," her futuristic new disc. "Sorry," Aguilera told the 200 or so audience members gathered for this taping of VH1's "Storytellers." "I get ahead of myself sometimes. But they can edit this. Cut and paste!"
As it happens, "cut and paste" goes a long way toward describing the choppy postmodern vibe on "Bionic," due June 8 from RCA. A pronounced about-face from the warmly retro-fied "Back to Basics" -- which has sold nearly 1.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- the 18-track set contains beat-driven collaborations with a host of edgy dance-music acts, including M.I.A., Le Tigre, Peaches and Switch. More mainstream talent appears as well, in the form of Polow Da Don, Tricky Stewart and longtime Aguilera confidante Linda Perry.
To be sure, "Bionic" comes loaded with the requisite number of radio-bait hooks, not to mention a handful of stately ballads destined to appeal to fans of the singer's 2002 smash, "Beautiful." (That single's parent album, "Stripped," has sold more than 4.2 million copies, while Aguilera's 1999 self-titled debut has sold nearly 8.2 million.)
Yet with its grinding synth scapes and throbbing dance-punk grooves, "Bionic" also serves as a characteristically bold artistic statement from one of pop's least apprehensive superstars. As Aguilera puts it in "Not Myself Tonight," the album's lead single, "I feel brand new/And if you don't like it, f--- you."
'NOTHING TO PROVE'
"There's some rebellion to it," Aguilera said with a laugh, curled up in an armchair at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills a few weeks before the "Storytellers" taping. The singer, 29, had just finished a day of on-camera interviews, and at long last the heels came off and the hair came down. "But there's no proving element to me," she was quick to add. "At this point in my career, I'm over any and all weird comparisons or negativity."
Much of the early online reaction to "Not Myself Tonight" (and its racy, S&M-inspired video) wondered whether Aguilera was feeling the need to play catch-up with Lady Gaga, who's more or less come to dominate the dance-diva space in the years since "Back to Basics." "In these post-Gaga times," a post on New York magazine's Vulture blog asked, "can Aguilera carve out her piece of the pop-star pie?"
"I'm in it for the long haul, and a decade later in my career, I have nothing to prove," Aguilera said. "To anyone who wants to be negative, it's like, 'I'm obviously relevant enough to you for you to care and to talk and to evoke negative feelings inside of you.'"
The singer said the new album is an expression of her femininity in all its forms: wife, mother, singer, actress. (After marrying Jordan Bratman nearly five years ago, Aguilera gave birth to the couple's first son, Max, in 2008.) "'Bionic' to me is the definition of the superhuman abilities we as women have in everyday life," she said, adding that the outre spirit of much of the music is a reaction to "feeling stifled" by the supposed exclusivity of any of those roles. "I've grown and changed, and I've learned so much. I've never felt more confident, more secure, more sexy in my life than I do now."
There's no doubting that change: From an early stint on "The All New Mickey Mouse Club" (alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake) to the boy-crazy bubble gum of "Genie in a Bottle" to the supremely raunchy "Dirrty" to the Andrews Sisters homage "Candyman," Aguilera's career has been a study in contrasts.
"There's two things you need to know about Christina Aguilera," said Polow Da Don, whose credits on the album include "Not Myself Tonight" and an especially spirited number called "I Hate Boys." "The first is that, as far as her singing goes, she's a professionally trained animal. And the other is that she knows exactly, absolutely what she wants."
Sia Furler, an Australian singer-songwriter (and former Zero 7 member) who co-wrote several songs on "Bionic," said she didn't perceive any anxiety on Aguilera's part in regard to the album's relatively left-field roster. "I don't think she thought it was a risk," Furler said. "She was just excited to get to work with the artists she loves. There's this misconception that she's a Middle America kind of person. But she's a little hipster. You go back to her house and sit by the fire with some wine, and what's playing over the sound system? The Knife and Arthur Russell. She doesn't listen to pop music."
"I get off on working with creative energy," Aguilera said emphatically, her hands punctuating her point. "That's when I'm most at home and feel happiest. And all these people brought about new sides of me. It was a big collaboration-fest, and it felt so good and rewarding in the end, because I was just so happy with the work and the new territories that I ventured out to."
The singer describes her love of Le Tigre's records, which she calls "loud and fun and in your face," and said her collaborations with Furler -- particularly "You Lost Me," a stripped-down tear-jerker -- constitute "the heart of the album." According to Aguilera, she assembled the album not through RCA but by contacting her prospective creative partners directly -- in several cases only after Bratman convinced her they'd pick up the phone. ("I get starstruck about people I love," she said a little sheepishly.)
"Going into (each of these partnerships), I said, 'I'm a really big fan of yours, and I'm interested in stepping into your world and what you do,'" Aguilera said. "'I want to combine that with my sound, and let's see what happens.' I feel like I can do so much with my voice. I would be so bored sitting on a stool singing ballad after ballad just because I can."
Though she admits that having had huge hits is precisely what enables her to insist that they're not important to her, Aguilera said, "I promised myself after my first record I would never put out something that I couldn't feel and that didn't come from an honest, genuine place."
ONSCREEN AND ON THE ROAD
Aguilera's television promotion schedule for the new album begins June 6 with a performance at the MTV Movie Awards. It includes appearances on "Today," "Late Show With David Letterman," "Live! With Regis and Kelly" and "The Early Show," and ends June 13 on VH1 with back-to-back episodes of "Storytellers" and "Behind the Music."
On July 15 Aguilera will launch a 20-date North American tour at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Other stops on the trek include the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York, and the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, California. Leona Lewis will open all shows, and fans who purchase tickets at LiveNation.com through June 4 will receive a code to download "Bionic."
Later this year, Aguilera will make her movie debut in "Burlesque," a musical directed by Steven Antin (brother of Pussycat Dolls creator Robin Antin) that co-stars Cher, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell and Alan Cumming. Aguilera plays a struggling dancer who moves to Los Angeles to follow her dream.
"The idea of sensuality and women being expressive of that and looking at an old 1920s art form -- it was like, 'Hello, sign me up!'" Aguilera said of the role. "It had my name written all over it."
"Christina's had plenty of movie offers in the past, but this was the first one that made sense," said Aguilera's manager, Live Nation Entertainment chairman Irving Azoff. "And it's a very different look for her. You'll be pleasantly shocked."
But will Aguilera's fans be shocked by the new sounds she samples on "Bionic?"
Furler isn't worried. "If this album sells less than the last one, it's not a reflection of the record -- it's a reflection of the industry."
Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre thinks that Aguilera's hipster-approved collaborators might even earn the singer a few new fans in indie-identified Pitchfork country.
"People have been super-supportive of us working with her," said Hanna, who spent most of the '90s fronting the seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. "A few years ago there was a rumor going around that we were working with Paris Hilton, and people were ready to kill us. Obviously, Christina and Paris Hilton are totally different entities. But people seem genuinely excited about this. It's like maybe it gives them permission to admit they like Christina."
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