christina aguilera’s new album is about losing your identity
The singer has been knocked down, creatively suffocated and suffered commercial decline. So how does her new album Liberation attempt to revive a popstar on the brink of dissolution?
On the second track of Christina Aguilera’s album Liberation, Search For Maria, she performs a short a capella cover of a song from the Sound of Music. In a light and heady falsetto, Christina asks that now iconic inquiry: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
It’s a pertinent opening to the singer’s first new record in six years and something that her fans and pop Twitter have debated for nearly a decade. Christina, whose middle name is Maria, seems to have been asking the same question, too. Over the last 10 years, her career has followed the sort of trajectory reserved for artists twice her age. In 2010 she released the divisive Bionic, an album with a creative vision that, to this day, stirs incessant debate online. There was her turn in Burlesque, the cultish movie musical she co-starred in with Cher. Then there was her role as a “coach” on the US reality show The Voice. For six seasons she sat in the big red chair, pressed a big red button and became a fixture of network television.
During her five-year tenure on the show, Christina released the biggest commercial failure, Lotus, got divorced and was arrested for public intoxication with her current partner. And while we got the unrelenting Max Martin-produced banger Your Body, and a frankly hilarious story about how she allegedly got drunk at Seth MacFarlane’s Christmas party, refused to sing with Meghan Trainor and then almost fell into a Christmas tree, the zest and vitality that singled her out as one of the 00s most powerful pop players had begun to dim.
This sort of whittling away at a person — commercial decline, the end of a relationship and stagnant creativity — can cause a severe crisis of identity. And in Christina’s case, her dagger-like artistry had faded away, replaced by a shell whose purpose in life became cultivating the talent of others under the constrictions of those signing the cheques.
It’s familiar territory for Christina. Her 2002 opus Stripped was borne out of defiance against a wholesome image and bubblegum pop that had made her a star. Likewise, Back To Basics, her 2006 follow up felt defiant, eschewing the burgeoning dance-pop and R&B movement in favour of throwback samples and hip-hop beats. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that a time of personal distress, suffering and creative castration by some misguided career decisions, Christina would cast her gaze back at who she used to be in order to move forward and reclaim who she’s become.
It’s this journey that directs Liberation. On the intro and title track she appears with a spectral whisper asking “Where are you?” before stepping back in time to revisit her youth. For Christina, The Sound of Music soundtrack was how she learned to perform as a child. “I would… take it up to my bedroom, to the window, and sing out almost like I was pretending I had an audience,” she told The Guardian in 2008. “It was just something that I did and I dreamt about. By the time I reached six years old, I was pushing my mom to let me get on stage and perform because that's what I loved to do.”
"Finally, after two emotionally dissonant records, she feels aligned with the feelings that her powerful voice is so adept at conveying."
The track Maria, with its Jackson 5 sample, harpsichord and Kanye West-produced beats, aches with the loss of that childlike drive to perform. “How was I supposed to know that it would cost my soul,” she sings atop strings. “And how am I supposed to face this lonely life I've created?” It’s the aural equivalent of wading through memories, piecing together fragments of yourself from your shattered reflection.
If Maria is despairing, then Sick of Sittin’ is it’s cousin: fiery anger. Here Christina shoves away the shackles of The Voice and its debilitating creative restrictions. “I’ve been working too hard not to be living,” she spits gruffly over hard-rock on what’s the older and wiser sibling of Fighter. Finally, after two emotionally dissonant records, she feels aligned with the feelings that her powerful voice is so adept at conveying. Bitterness and hurt amalgamate through the growls and gravel of her voice, which has matured and lowered over the years.
Defiance comes again with Fall In Line, a prescient song written two years ago that acts as a warning: don’t fuck with or underestimate women. Joined by fellow former teen star and vocal powerhouse Demi Lovato, the procession-style rhythm and lethargic horns embody the plight of women against misogyny and the patriarchy. It’s a song not about the battle but the war, and it simmers with the heat of a future worth fighting for.
"Her identity is no longer solely contingent on her vocal prowess. Instead it’s built out of rediscovered angles that make up her personality, creating a three dimensional portrait that’s deeply human."
While the front half of the album is Christina realigning herself with her beliefs and reconstructing her lost identity, the latter tracks delve into her playfulness. The dancehall-inflected Right Moves is woozy with sensuality, slick with sweat and sex, while the Anderson .Paak produced Like I Do is hazy and almost post-coital, Christina and rapper GoldLink linked in a sexual tête-à-tête. Things become slippery on lead single Accelerate, also produced by Kanye West and featuring 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla $ign, who sounds like he’s been on the B&H Golds. The production is viscous like the inside of a lava lamp; gluey and elastically malleable.
These three songs make up the sound of Christina 3.0. Her usual boisterous vocal acrobatics are reined in and used sparingly to add texture and convey emotion rather than just demonstrate her power. It’s the biggest change in Christina’s approach to music. Her identity is no longer solely contingent on her vocal prowess. Instead it’s built out of rediscovered angles that make up her personality, creating a three dimensional portrait that’s deeply human.
On Stripped, Christina’s emancipation felt youthful in the way that youth exempts you from self-realisation and self-criticism. Liberation isn’t so narcissistic; Christina turns her glare inward, taking blame for how she lost herself. The MNEK-assisted Deserve, the album’s true highlight, is the most anguished that Christina has ever sounded. Matching with the subdued and smoky production, she takes ownership of her insecurities, acknowledging the strife and weight they’ve placed on her relationships: “Put me on the jury, I will take the blame here,” she laments, her voice throbbing with pain. “Tell the judge I'm guilty of instilling you with fear by tellin' you I'm leaving when you know that I don't mean it.” It’s echoed on Aguilerian ballad Twice, albeit with less despondency. Meditating on sin and the chaos of love, her existential crisis is curtailed with the admission that hurt is mandatory to the human condition.
What Christina does on Liberation is explore the loss of self that occurs after trauma. With searing personal admonishment, public reprimanding, agency and thick-skinned tenacity, she’s able to reconstruct each element of herself. It’s arduous and distressing at times, but it’s also celebratory and spirited; exasperation and fury dissolves into ecstasy, which becomes frozen with castigation before melting into exultation. It’s a record that isn’t glib about trudging through the battlefield of life and one that connects with the overarching feeling of loss and retribution that permeates the collective conscious in this Trumpian-era of uncertainty.
What’s telling is that, unlike Stripped’s closing affirmations, Liberation leaves Christina’s search for absolution unresolved. Because that’s what you learn when faced with pain that causes your entire being to fracture: there’s no tied up conclusion to who you are. That’s the true meaning of Christina Aguilera’s newfound liberation — life goes on, so make sure you’re willing to fight for it.