As it has been marketed, people would be led to believe that this is a ‘20s throwback album, which ironically is the reason most people have not bought the album. The older generations are turned off by the last image Christina (“Xtina”) Aguilera splattered across the tabloids while younger fans are either too naïve or too myopic to experiment with a ‘20s style experimental album. However, both parties should relax, because Aguilera has matured, and calling her work an homage to the ‘20s is simply a misnomer. Just because she uses heavy brass instruments generously and complements it with a deep, soulful voice does not automatically make it ‘20s-like. The current music scene is one in which the artificial reigns as evident by the liberal use of the synthesizer to point where it is questionable whether Aguilera’s contemporaries are actually singing or merely gyrating to the beats that were produced for them. Surely, those same producers, namely The Neptunes, factor in heavily in Back to Basics, but it is refreshing to hear the beats come from the bell of a trombone rather than the characterless tones of electronica. Also refreshing is Aguilera’s command of her own voice, not because her talent is surprising, but because it is so rare. As opposed to putting out an album annually, Aguilera often takes three years to hone a piece of work. The past three years were not entirely spent in the studio, obviously, but she took time to explore her identity, built a (relatively) stable relationship, and experienced life off the cameras. In short, Aguilera allowed herself the gift of maturity and her voice and talent are all the better for it.
When she started out, Aguilera always had to put her voice as an addition to the pop tart image she was undoubtedly forced to portray. With her last album, Stripped, and even more with this one, Aguilera is free to create her own image and hone her voice accordingly. She is going for the big band era pinup girl in a big way and frankly, the look suits her. She has appeared in both the video for “Candyman” and on the cover of Rolling Stone in a tight fitting Air Force uniform; she has posed with Etta James; and she appeared in the video for “Hurt” as an old-time circus performer. All of her incarnations harken back to the glory days of ice cream parlors, USO clubs, flappers, and the birth of soul, but staying true to the genre of her music, she adds a little sex to the wholesomeness.
It is no secret that sex sells and every young songstress aims to capitalize on this fact. However, as Aguilera herself eloquently pointed out on “Can’t Hold Us Down” from Stripped, women cannot sell sex without being labeled as prostitutes, so they all market their albums as “explorations of their sexualities.” Women as old as Janet Jackson still insist that they have sexuality to divulge even after multiple albums and a televised wardrobe malfunction. However, Aguilera is the only artist to consistently deliver on the “exploration” side of the objective. It is quite easy (and lucrative) to be sexual and provocative, but much harder to say something original about one’s sexuality. After proving to RCA that she is a bankable star with her self-titled debut, Aguilera burst out of her Mouseketeer roots on Stripped, coining the new spelling of “Dirrty”; criticizing the double standards of sexuality as it provides worth for a man, but brings shame to a woman with the aforementioned “Can’t Hold Us Down”; and redefining “Beautiful” for all those living on the margins. On Back to Basics, Aguilera continues to use sex not to sell albums, but to make intelligent statements about sex in pop culture. She may not have the under-lip piercings, the raunchy skunk hair, or the midriff-baring outfits, but she reminds us that she is “Still Dirrty.” “They say I’m not the girl they used to know, used to know/Cause I don’t always wear revealing clothes/But don’t be fooled, the moment I get home/I’m letting loose, giving a private show…” And: “If I wanna wear lingerie outside of my clothes/If I wanna be erotic in my own videos/If I wanna be provocative, well that ain’t a sin/Maybe you’re not comfortable in your own skin.” Aguilera is perhaps the most popular vocalist of the feminist movement as she takes full ownership of her own body, her own sexuality. In short, don’t let the Marilyn Monroe locks and the Betty Boop poses fool you. The freak is still unabashedly within Aguilera and Jordan Bratman is one lucky man.
Back to Basics is far more than about honoring a musical era. It is exploring the most basic of our emotions from the primeval carnal roots to modern-day institutions such as marriage (in “The Right Man”). Unfortunately, the singles Aguilera has thus far released cannot compare to the singles she will never release, because to do so would be to censor nearly every word on the track. “Nasty, Naughty Boy,” for example, is filled with innuendo upon innuendo, but Aguilera sings it in a way that allows the girls to blow the lid off their sexuality while the boys just lay back and get hot under the collar. It is actually appropriate that the song will not get any airplay, because it is a very private affair; listening to it with anyone else would be highly uncomfortable, unless of course the listener’s sexuality has been harnessed. However, Aguilera would venture to say that most of America is not yet ready to bring their private desires into the public forum. Thank God Christina is around to do it for us.