Christina was returning from a four year absence in the public eye and was determined to reclaim her place in pop music from Gaga. They were both strong willed, and that is where all the trouble began. Five years ago Christina Aguilera and her team were prepping for what they believed would be a legendary rollout for album number four, Bionic. It had been a while since Aguilera had released any new music after 2006’s Back To Basics. In the eyes of Aguilera, her label and managers, there was no doubt Bionic would return her to a throne that she had never quite ascended to.
In a Billboard magazine cover story profile, Aguilera came off as cocky, if not a little uninformed of her place in pop music in 2010. “There’s no proving element to me,” she adds at one point in the lengthy interview. “At this point in my career, I’m over any and all weird comparisons or negativity.”
Those “comparisons” were unfortunately to Lady Gaga. In 2010 there was no pop star more provocative, shocking and talented than Gaga. She rewrote,for a short period, how pop stars should act in order to win fame. For three years there was no one who could touch Gaga’s place. In Aguilera’s absence, many other pop stars had come into music quite suddenly. Katy Perry, Kesha, Marina and the Diamonds, were all on the verge of something very big in the summer of 2010. The future was bright and pop music as a whole was dramatically changing. These girls were a new brand of pop: weird and sexy. Critics and fans embraced them.
Christina Aguilera was not so lucky.
“I’m in it for the long haul, and a decade later in my career, I have nothing to prove,” Aguilera stated midway through her interview with Billboard. “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.'”
And people definitely talked.
Bionic was released June 4th, 2010 and was deemed a critical and commercial flop almost instantly. The backlash began when Aguielra released her S&M-inspired video for “Not Myself Tonight.” The video bore striking similarities to nearly every video Gaga had released in the last year, right down to Aguilera’s bleach blonde hair and tight rubber outfits. The song was the most EDM track she had released to date and came off as more sleazy than sexy. “I’m kissing all the boys and the girls and if you don’t like it,” she warns in the song. “Fuck you!”
“[Bionic makes Aguilera] sound as peer pressured as a pop singer can be,” wrote Jon Pareles of the New York Times in his review of the album. Aguilera found herself in an identity crisis.
Just weeks earlier her manager Irving Azoff said Aguilera’s “genius” is what kept her brand moving. “For me this album is simply a continuation of Christina’s genius,” Azoff said in the same Billboard story. “Every time she breaks new ground and does amazing stuff. And she has the courage to sit there and say, ‘What’s good for the longtime brand? What’s going to work in the live show?’ She doesn’t play the game of trying to create a record of what someone might expect.”
2010 was supposed to be Aguilera’s year. Along with the release of the sure-to-be classic Bionic, Aguilera and co. were planning a massive arena tour. To close out the year Aguilera would release her first film Burlesque co-starring another pop icon Cher.
If the plan went off flawlessly, Aguilera would not only knock Gaga off the top pedestal in pop, but she would also extend her lucrative brand to film. None of these plans worked.
By June, Aguilera’s tour was postponed but would never actually get off the ground. (It’s 2015 and fans are still waiting for that tour to happen) Bionic peaked at number three on Billboard, selling around 110,000 in it’s first week of sales. Burlesque for all intents and purposes never saw lift off either. The film was a bore with critics, bemoaning it’s lack of outrageous numbers and acting. It wasn’t great enough to be iconic, and not outrageous enough to be a cult classic a la Showgirls.
Perhaps the main problem is that Christina Aguilera had never actually been the queen of pop. Aguilera’s entire career has seen her playing second fiddle to someone. For the first eleven years, it was Britney Spears. By 2010, it was Lady Gaga (who, working with Perez Hiton, ensured Aguilera wouldn’t come out of their rubble of destruction). When Aguilera came back in 2010 expecting to be greeted by millions of fans, but she found out quite bitterly that the fans had moved on. Worse yet, Aguilera had been replaced by a younger generation of artists who she didn’t understand. Artists who Tweeted, made the fans their livelihood and valued visuals over music.
But then something funny happened.
In it’s own way, much thanks to the internet, Bionic became a landmark album. Want to know if your album flopped? Take a look at how hard the critics tore apart Christina! Curious to see if your favorite artist’s career is over? Please compare their latest release to the sales of Bionic! Just saying the word “Bionic”, will ignite a lightbulb in the eyes of nearly every flamboyant gay over the age of twenty.
Much of Bionic’s failure is due to Aguilera’s arrogance and the public’s annoyance with her competitive streak against Gaga. But in my opinion a much larger part, is because of sexism. Unlike men who have committed far greater crimes than releasing an overstuffed album, Aguilera’s one crime was being cocky and ambitious. She was slaughtered for it. By the time she showed up for the Burlesque premiere, a bit fuller figured, it was over. The vultures had descended.
Because you see, it’s much easier to embarrass and shame a woman than it is to shame a man. Aguilera’s grave mistake was thinking she could compete with Lady Gaga. “Stay in your lane,” many people told her. But she never listened.
Today Aguilera still stands by Bionic. “I’m proud to say I think it was truly ahead of it’s time,” she told Billboard defiantly when asked if she regretted the album. Ahead of it’s time or right on time? What Aguilera does not get credit for, and what she should get credit for, is pushing herself as a pop artist in 2010. Bionic might be bombastic but you would be hard pressed to find a pop song as interesting as “Elastic Love” in 2010. Sure, there were embarrassing moments, like the “Love & Glamour” interlude, but there were also truly interesting moments like Nicki Minaj’s introduction to pop music in “Woo Hoo.” That song, for the record, is delightfully dirty and naughty. “You don’t even need a plate, just your face, ha!” Aguilera teases in the chorus.
Bionic also followed suit in the tight concept albums Aguilera had produced since Stripped. The album found her working with truly innovative artists like Peaches, M.I.A. and Le Tigre and the results, when they clicked, were stunning. Bionic’s greatest flaw is it’s length. Had the album been cut down to about twelve tracks, it might have been a little less hard to digest.
Along with Bionic, Burlesque seems to have found a second life after theaters thanks in large part to it’s soundtrack and the DVD industry. The movie is not perfect by any means, but it is an original musical and the music is damn good. In a decade where original musicals are about as rare as an Iggy Azalea hit single, Burlesuqe is important because it is wholly it’s own. The musical numbers, to be sure, are top notch. And it could be argued that the burlesque scene received a second life thanks to the film–even if there is only one true burlesque number in the film. While many films have long been forgotten after five years, Burlesque can still be found on the featured soundtrack page on iTunes (this week, for instance!) and at Target in it’s newly released Blu-Ray packaging.
After Bionic, Aguilera went into an image revamp. She became a judge on The Voice, released a second album which didn’t become a punching bag but was by far her most inconsistent and boring piece of work. Aguilera and Gaga became friends. While Gaga’s career was floundering in much the same way as Aguilera’s, the two teamed up to record “Do What U Want.” The pair now exchange friendly Tweets and seem to have moved past the feud. Looking back five years alter, Bionic has lasted and holds more relevance than most pop albums in the last decade because of it’s notoriety. But maybe, it has also lasted because it is a truly special pop album. No one has released a more polarizing album that has ignited such strong emotions from music fans since Bionic’s release. 2010 was a year of failure for Aguilera, that’s for sure, but digging through the carnage five years later it’s hard to not wonder what Aguilera was onto and what it could have become had we given her the chance.