Posts Tagged ‘Lift Me Up’

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Christina Aguilera – Bionic. (album review)

June 14, 2010

As you can tell from my current blog layout, I am very much feeling the imagery of Christina Aguilera’s current Bionic era.  It’s fierce, severe and pushes the envelope.  Artwork such as the front cover (above) and other graffiti-inspired cyborg manipulations handled by D*Face push the envelope and also serve to symbolise Christina as human machine which creates fine music hence “Bionic”.  Various analyses of this robotic imagery could be and have been made: on the one hand, Christina Aguilera in her superhuman form triumphs over all her competitors and makes superior , near-perfect music because she has this bionic element to her; on the other hand, as part-robot, Christina can only ever produce a facsimile of what music is supposed to be, while never quite getting close enough to the organic, human qualities in music that elevate it beyond the calculable – qualities which cannot be quantified or mechanised.  In Bionic, as in life, the truth lies somewhere between these two opinions.

Bionic the album is a long listen – 18 tracks in its standard version, 23 in its deluxe (with iTunes bonus track “Little Dreamer”, a likeable but throwaway confection, making a grand total of 24).  I’ll dispense with the additional 5 bonus tracks first: they are, by and large, bonus tracks for a reason: either they are not strong enough to be considered for the main album (“Monday Morning” is pleasant but lackadaisical; “Birds Of Prey” is lyrically mysterious and interesting, but musically and vocally it’s too much mainstream dance that Kelis would do a lot better with on her current Flesh Tone project), or they don’t fit thematically with the empowering / sexual / carefree / mature feel of the album.  “Bobblehead” is a thrilling production that stutters and races to its climax with the wonderful lyric: “I never play dumb to get what I want / and always come out the one that’s on top”; however, its main hook is a nonsensical mumble that may be the point of the lyrics, dissing idiot girls who dumb themselves down and preferring to deploy her own intelligence, but it’s still a nonsensical mumble which fails to use Christina’s vocals to much effect.  “Stronger Than Ever” is a ballad that is lyrically strong (and embodies my current struggle with my parents) and vocally able, but it just lacks that something.  “I Am (Stripped)” is a lovely album closer but is a more acoustic version of one of the main album tracks, and so it’s understandable why it’s relegated to bonus status.

So, to the main event. To my ear, Bionic moves in three arcs.  In its first, it goes for the jugular with relentless, futuristic uptempos; it then cools down into a sensuous, emotionally vulnerable, mature ballad section; finally, it picks up again for a closing triad of uptempo songs that epitomise fun.  While it’s possible that the album could be trimmed down to make a more concise, compelling listen, it flows very nicely throughout and only has a couple of stumbling points.  Christina Aguilera said that she wanted something which sounded futuristic, but with elements of the organic; something which integrated her new emotional maturity as a mother with her desire to remain playful and sexy.  On this point, she has succeeded: Bionic has elements of all of this.  Tracks such as “Bionic” and “Elastic Love” incorporate computerised effects to distort Christina’s voice, along with buzzing, whirring productions that sonically embody the bionic cyborg face of her album cover. However, on tracks such as standout “You Lost Me” and “All I Need”, Christina is stripped of the musical gloss of the faster tracks to be backed by little more than a piano.  “All I Need” is also a touching, mature tribute to her son, which nicely avoids being mawkish or saccharine like Britney Spears’ unlistenable “My Baby” from Circus.  Finally, sex is all over this album, and from the enticing “Woohoo” to the seductive “Sex For Breakfast” (which I have yet to play for my boyfriend, but when I next see him in July, I am using this song on him!), it’s explicit without being pornographic, edgy without crossing that line.  In this respect, the Christina Aguilera of “Dirrty” is still present, knowing how to be provocative while still being musically relevant.

However, in the video for “Not Myself Tonight”, Xtina makes her return and perhaps pushes the envelope a little too far.  S&M get-ups, Madonna tributes aplenty, and bisexual flirtations are almost par for the course at this point, and Christina Aguilera is more than entitled to use them considering her influence on current female artists in the mainstream over the past 10 years.*  However, although “Not Myself Tonight” is an understandable choice as Bionic‘s lead single considering its radio-friendly sound, it’s not futuristic and it’s not exciting enough to merit the edgy, sex-fuelled imagery.  Rather than hookless, it sounds like a bunch of hooks jostling together for attention over a dance beat (which has a couple of exciting tribal flourishes), the result of which means that sometimes the song sticks, on other listens it doesn’t quite get there.  A better first single might have been the thrilling, soaring title track, or uptempo album standout and follow-up single “Woohoo”, on which Xtina extols the virtues of good oral sex, recruits Nicki Minaj for a fine rap segment, uses her vagina (the titular “Woohoo!”) for a cowbell, and tops it off with a throbbing, buzzing dance break coda for good measure.  Along with “You Lost Me”, “Lift Me Up” and album closer “Vanity”, “Woohoo” is an album standout where all of Christina’s chemical ambitions for Bionic come together perfectly to produce some exemplary pop.

Bionic itself has no bad songs, but there is some filler: “Prima Donna” comes at the end of the first album arc of jugular-ripping uptempos, and is the weakest of them, with little lyrical know-how or production excitement to give it its own identity after the tracks preceding it.  “My Girls” is a ‘riding in the car with your top down’ sort of song, but comes off as fluffy compared to the album’s meatier offerings: although Christina proves (responding to criticisms that she oversings) that she can vocally restrain herself on songs such as “Elastic Love” with its amusing and witty stationery metaphors, and the tender “All I Need”, “My Girls” needs the vocal melisma to give it some spark; as it stands, it’s a little too laid back.  Nevertheless, 2 out of 18 songs (or 15, excluding interludes) is not bad and perhaps a better result than I was expecting.  Sure, several songs on the album are not immediate: “Glam” takes a few listens to hit its stride with its subtle, fibrillating beats and “Vogue”-esque spoken-word verses, while “Vanity” initially startles the listener with its unbridled use of the word “bitch”, references to Christina making herself “wetter” before marrying herself as her “lawfully wedded bitch” and effectively giving the finger to everyone who doesn’t have such bravado.  Only by the song’s end (and possibly a couple of repeat listens) does it sink in that the track is a storming highlight, a perfect album closer, utterly hilarious and ridiculous (and knowingly so), with a vocal flourish that knocks all competition to the floor before her son’s voice confirms all suspicions: his mother really is the shit.

At the end of the day, it’s this kind of confidence that makes Bionic a great success – Christina Aguilera believes that she rules the world, and this kind of ambition almost single-handedly propels her music to heady heights.  It’s a new page for Christina, and she’s secure enough in her ability to try different things: the mélange of styles is a little disorientating until repeated listens expose the subtleties and intricacies in her vocals, lyrics and the songs themselves.  “Lift Me Up” is another beautiful, soaring track that was slightly superior in its stripped down live version performed on the Haiti telethon, but still thrills within the album.  “I Am” is a declaration of humanity, imperfection and adulthood that lends substance to the polished sheen of Bionic‘s robotic side, deployed confidently, efficiently and effectively for example on clubsong “Desnúdate” (which neatly remembers and includes Christina’s Spanish-speaking audience and heritage).  If Christina experiments with textures in her voice, sometimes preferring subdued rumbles to soaring melismas, she still shows that she can do both better than most other female artists.  At the end of the day, Christina Aguilera is an musical artist with a personal and professional vision that she fulfils 85% of the time.  Her misfires are excusable and never in poor taste so much as merely a little bland or inconsistent – in time, Christina will learn to totally excise these from her projects.  Most importantly, while some of Bionic indeed caters to current mainstream tastes and is hardly an obscure sonic revelation, the majority of it is interesting and thrilling, and rings true as Christina Aguilera’s own personality and intention which doesn’t give a fuck about current radio trends (in my opinion, less than half of Bionic would get spins on mainstream radio).  For this, her sales might suffer, but her artistic integrity remains intact and hopefully the mainstream radio audiences and buying public one day will catch up.

* I’ll address this once and only once: anyone who thinks that Christina Aguilera is copying Lady GaGa is a) suffering from memory loss and should go back to Christina Aguilera’s last two album eras which were mired with controversy and blazed with exciting fashions and imagery, b) suffering from hearing loss as Christina can sing GaGa – and pretty much anyone else – under the table, c) has no respect for what Aguilera has achieved over the past 10 years – while GaGa has had a fantastic 2-year run and displays much potential (her music and videos are definitely getting more intriguing), she’s still only been around 2 years and more respect should be shown to anyone who successfully completes a decade in the music industry, and d) completely overlooking Gwen Stefani, whose hairstyle Christina mimics in her “Not Myself Tonight” video, and whose image, sound and career Lady GaGa has borrowed liberally from, mixed with a bunch of fashion designers, and passed off as her own to those too young, too unaware or too amnesiac to know any better.

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performance anxiety.

March 25, 2010

Last night myself and several of my coursemates, as well as Toby and his friend Miguel went to Mr. Wolf’s to watch one of our friends on the Careers Guidance course, Emma, perform some songs with her guitarist friend.  She sang Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”, Erma Franklin’s “Piece Of My Heart” and Eric Clapton’s “Change The World”, and did a fantastic job.  Emma and I spent an afternoon last term comparing our CD collections and marvelling over just how similar they were, since it often feels like nobody else in the UK listens to the same kind of music by artists such as Allure, Kelly Price, Angie Stone, D’Angelo and so on.  Obviously some people must buy their albums because otherwise nobody would stock them, but it’s rare to find somebody with whom you connect on such a musical level, especially as a singer or musician.  So I respect her music taste and her talent, and she was genuinely good (and outclassed the other performers that night 😉 ).

When she told me about the Open Mic night and her impending performance on Monday, she mentioned that I should perform something.  I thought it sounded like a nice idea but a little short notice, but nevertheless I dragged Toby to the UWE music practice rooms to hammer out a piano version of Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams”.  It sounded fine (after Toby’s hints that making it an octave lower would sound good – which I did; and that I am not Christina Aguilera and should stick to less notes – which I sort of did but I love putting some runs in my vocals, because that’s part of my style and sets me apart somewhat), but I felt that it required more practice than I’d be able to gain in two days.  So for the reason that I didn’t feel it was polished enough or “ready” to perform, as well as I had never been to the venue and didn’t want to rain on Emma’s parade since we were all going to see her, I decided not to perform.  Next time, I will, and I’m since working on a piano version of “Lift Me Up” by Christina Aguilera to compliment the Beyoncé song.  They sound ok, and with a little practice I reckon they’ll be performable and effectively show off my vocals and my piano (something I’ve always needed to work at is playing the piano and singing at the same time). 

And yet the thought of doing that is a little scary to me now.  I used to perform regularly at Open Mic nights at Oxford (gaining notoriety in the process, which was pretty complimentary), concerts at school and sixth form where I used to sing, dance, play guitar and piano – the whole kaboodle.  I even performed at a Hiroshima Remembrance concert, which was outdoors and to the public.  I’ve done a lot of this, I should be used to it.  So why am I nervous?  I guess that now I have a boyfriend, and some close adult friends, their opinion means a lot to me? I don’t want to fall short of their expectations? Is it stage fright?  Admittedly, the last time I performed on a stage of any sort was 2 years ago, but Mike and I did an impromptu version of Beyoncé’s “Disappear” at my house and I managed to perform well in that and impress him suitably.  So maybe I just need to bite the bullet and do it, once the songs are ready. 

The other thing that fills me with a little nerves is the fact that I have had mentioned to me that a few of my colleagues on the course have visited my myspace and listened to the songs I’ve put up from the Quiet Storm album (which incidentally you can download here) on there.  Now, obviously the purpose of my myspace is to promote my music to the public and my friends – it’s for public consumption.  But to hear that people have listened to my stuff and liked it makes me feel funny – I guess partly because while I’m proud of this album, I feel that I still have a long way to go and develop, particularly in my production and vocal production (I have done a couple of songs more recently where I feel my voice sounds more impressive on record).  So I feel like I don’t want them to judge me yet. Also, I guess once again their opinion matters to me more than I expected it to, more than it should? I mean, Mike, Toby, Hannah, Karina, Nick… all my close friends’ opinions are understandably important to me and I am flattered by the support of all my friends.  And I’m flattered by the support of other friends who don’t know me so well – it is really nice – but I don’t know what to say, because somewhere within me my insecurity says “Do they really like it or are they just saying that and laughing behind my back?” I mean, I should be like “Who cares?” but my music is such an intimate, personal part of me that it’s important for me to produce, and if that essential aspect of who I am is a source of mockery or easily dismissed, I have to admit that that would probably hurt me, at least a little bit.  I totally understand that you can’t please anyone anyway, and at the end of the day my musical executive producer is myself – I’m my own harshest critic.  But I just hope that their support is sincere, because it means a lot to me.  And I guess that when I do perform “Sweet Dreams” or “Lift Me Up” or whatever else I end up doing (I am extremely liable to changing my mind in these sorts of things!), I am hoping that I can justify and live up to that support, their expectations of me.  I want to impress, I want to please people.  I guess that that way, it validates my singing and my music (my lifelong passion and ambition) and I can get a little bit closer to pleasing myself.  So I’m going to bite the bullet and go for it, but it’s harder than I thought and I didn’t expect it to be.