This story was originally published in the May 22, 2010 issue of Billboard Magazine.
Inside a soundstage at Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles last week, Christina Aguilera is talking about the inspiration behind her 2006 album, Back to Basics, on which she paid tribute to the soul and blues artists who originally inspired her to sing.
Or at least that was what she was talking about. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, she’s describing the impetus that led to Bionic, her futuristic new disc.
“Sorry,” Aguilera 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 4 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 gleaming, 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. Keeps Gettin’ Better, a 2008 greatest-hits set originally available exclusively at Target, is at 351,000). Yet with its grinding synth scales 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, fuck you.”
“There’s some rebellion to it,” Aguilera says with a laugh, curled up in an armchair at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills a few weeks prior to the Storytellers taping. The singer, 29, has just finished a day of on-camera interviews, and at long last the heels have come off and the hair has come down. “But there’s no proving element to me,” she’s 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 says. “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.'”
Rather than reflecting a desire to keep up with her successors, the singer says 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 says, adding that the outré 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 contrast.
“For me this album is simply a continuation of Christina’s genius,” says Aguilera’s manager, Live Nation Entertainment chairman Irving Azoff. “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. She grows as an artist every time, and this one is just another indication of that.”
“There’s two things you need to know about Christina Aguilera,” says 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,” says 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 says. “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 says 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 says 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’s A&R department but by contacting her partners directly — in several cases only after Bratman convinced her they’d pick up the phone. (“I get starstruck about people I love,” she says a little sheepishly.) Azoff calls the process “a good networking thing,” though he allows that Polow Da Don “was a label suggestion.”
“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 says. ” ‘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 during her career is precisely what enables her to insist they’re not important to her, Aguilera says, “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.”
Which isn’t to say that Bionic is some kind of impenetrable art-music experiment — far from it. “I do have songs on there where I went into them saying, ‘OK, let’s make a more commercially driven record,’ ” Aguilera acknowledges. “That’s maybe where ‘Not Myself Tonight’ comes from. But I always have to have an integrity factor with it. There was actually a song that the label really wanted me to record, and I just said ‘no,’ because it didn’t fit on the album — it wasn’t creatively inspiring to me. They said, ‘It’s a hit, it’s a hit!’ And absolutely it’s a hit for someone. But it’s not for me, because when it jeopardizes my integrity too much I can’t do it. The hit thing . . .,” she trails off with a sigh. ” ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ was a fucking hit, you know what I mean?”
Not surprisingly, RCA’s Bionic campaign projects an image of Christina the Superstar, not Christina the Little Hipster. “Christina Aguilera fans are excited about Christina,” RCA Music Group GM Tom Corson says. “They want her to make records that inspire and compel them. It’s always interesting when an artist stretches; that’s what they have to do from an artistic standpoint. And the real fan is definitely interested in that as part of her discography. But I think the casual fan cares more about how great the records are than about the stories behind them.”
“This is a fierce, strong, sexy, feel-good album, and I think the various collaborations represent Christina flexing her artistic muscles,” senior VP of marketing and artist development Scott Seviour adds. “But ultimately what they did was to help bring out the different sides of her.” He laughs. “I think the main message of our marketing campaign is: ‘It’s a Christina Aguilera record.’ “
According to Seviour, the label’s rollout began in mid-March on Aguilera’s website with a slow reveal of the single’s title, lyrics and cover art. “Then after a week we flipped the site from black to white, presented the album cover and streamed a 15-second snippet of ‘Not Myself Tonight.’ That took us from zero to 60 in a quick amount of time,” Seviour says. “The blogs picked it up and all the fans were chattering. Instead of going to radio and saying, ‘Here’s your song,’ we wanted to build a base for it, since it had been a second since the last single. That way we re-energized the fans and they felt like they were a part of it.”
“Not Myself Tonight” shipped to radio March 30, earning most-added honors at top 40 and rhythm in its first week on the air. “Pop radio really celebrated her return,” RCA Music Group executive VP of promotions Richard Palmese says. “They acknowledge that she’s a special artist, a worldwide superstar who heats up their playlists.” He adds that the choice of “Not Myself Tonight” as the album’s lead single was an easy one. “Radio today demands tempo — at times probably more than we would like them to,” he says. “So especially going into the spring and summer, we knew early on that we wanted the first single to be tempo-driven.”
Hype Williams’ video for the cut premiered April 30 on Vevo, and it’s currently embedded at Aguilera’s website. Seviour says the site is set to relaunch May 20 with a social-networking element and a direct-to-consumer store that will sell music, fragrances, exclusive pieces of Stephen Webster jewelry — “basically anything and everything in Christina land,” as Seviour puts it.
“We’ve definitely made a conscious effort to make a lot of noise,” Corson says. “You can’t take anything for granted in this marketplace. It’s punishing, and many other artists have come into the Christina slot, for lack of a better word. So you’re only as good as your last hit. I think an artist like Christina has more equity than that; she’s not completely hit-driven. But you’ve got to be competitive. You’ve got to come back to win.”
Fortunately for his client, Azoff says, “it’s real easy to find people who want to work with Christina Aguilera. There’s a lot of respect for her out there. And the great thing for us is to sit down and see everything that’s available in the time period, sift through all the offers and, without cloning her, you do as much as possible.”
Seviour lays out what he calls a “wall-to-wall schedule of release-week TV” that begins June 6 with a performance at the MTV Movie Awards; 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. Additionally, Aguilera appeared May 7 on The Oprah Winfrey Show and is reportedly set to perform on this season’s American Idol finale May 26. (An RCA representative declined to confirm the latter booking.)
“She’s in demand constantly,” Corson says. “She’s an old-timer and everyone recognizes that. Hopefully this will provide an opportunity for people to rediscover, ‘Oh, my God, I forgot that she doesn’t need Auto-Tune!’ She’s one of our great performers, looks amazing, thinks through everything. Many artists are compared to her, not the other way around.”
On July 15 Aguilera will launch a 20-date North American tour at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.; other stops on the Live Nation-produced trek include the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, N.Y., and the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, Calif. Leona Lewis will open all shows, and fans who purchase tickets at LiveNation.com through June 4 will receive a code to download Bionic.
Aguilera will also make her movie debut later this year 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 L.A. to follow her dreams and soon discovers — well, you can probably imagine where it goes from there.
“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 says. “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,” Azoff says. “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? Sia Furler isn’t worried. “Christina could shit in a bottle and her fans would still love it,” she says with a laugh. “They’re rabid motherfuckers, totally crazy cakes. I mentioned her once on my Twitter and had like 5,000 more followers within minutes. 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,” says 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.”
In Corson’s view, Aguilera’s dance-punk outing is just one of many avenues he sees her exploring during the course of her career. “If you ask people in our industry, ‘Will Christina Aguilera be singing in 20 years?,’ they’ll all say ‘yes.’ It wouldn’t surprise me if we see her do a standards album, a jazz album, a blues album. It just depends on where her creative whims take her.”
Back at Sony Pictures Studios, Aguilera’s winding her way through one of the longest stories she’s told all night. It began during a brief Q&A session when a fan asked her if she was glad “Genie in a Bottle” had been her first single. Somehow, though, Aguilera’s gotten a long way from home.
“They told me to talk,” she says after several minutes, pointing toward the VH1 execs at the back of the room. “So sorry if I keep going on and on.” The crowd’s response? A roar of encouragement.