Most people probably don’t think of Christina Aguilera as an especially earthy or authentic performer. And yet, within her slick radio pop context, that’s kind of what she is. Her voice is an R&B monster, full and powerful with a gritty bottom, more akin to Ann Peebles or Aretha than to anemic pop peers like Madonna or Britney. Her lyrics, too, drip with sincerity—albeit of a less appealing kind. Where most radio pop sticks to soul-baring of a generic sort, Xtina has always wantonly stumbled across the line between sincerity and TMI. She’s the Sharon Olds of radio pop, always ready to let her listeners know exactly what’s going on inside her head.
Unfortunately, while the outside of Aguilera’s head is undeniably appealing, the inside is something else again. Whether she’s defensively declaring that ass-less chaps are a feminist stance or defensively playing recordings of fans telling her how wonderful she is, her brain seems to be composed of a bland mixture of wan clichés and sterile self-regard.
Which is why her new album, Bionic, a crassly commercial abandonment of her characteristic interests and persona, is such a relief. Desperately embracing electropop and Lady Gagaesque queerness (“I’m kissing all the boys and the girls,” she declares on “Not Myself Tonight”) Aguilera almost accidentally achieves anonymity. Admittedly, the transformation isn’t as complete as I might like—the by-the-numbers gushy ballad to her child, “All I Need,” is as tediously heartfelt as a Billy Joel sincere-o-fest, and “I Am” is, again, all about her, which is about as uninteresting subject as it is possible to imagine.
But the balance of the album is really bracingly brainless and non-specific. “Elastic Love” tweaks Aguilera’s voice so thoroughly that it’s barely recognizable and weds the resulting processed sing-song chant to bleeps and goofy lyrics about how her love is spastic and elastic like a rubber band. “Glam,” “I Hate Boys” and “My Girls” (the latter with Peaches and Le Tigre), are all similarly silly, hooky fluff. Admittedly, there’s a distracting, boneheaded girl-power subtext to most everything which I could do without—divest herself of her own identity as she will, Aguilera is never going to claim Lady Gaga’s feral bohemian disregard for the power of positive thinking. Nor, given her limitations, is Xtina ever going to make a great album. But half-turning herself into a robot at least allowed her to make one which is pretty good.
Of course, deliberately abandoning your muse doesn’t always work out so well. A case in point is Nachtmystium’s awkwardly named Addicts: Black Meddle Part II. Blake Judd (formerly known as Azentrius) has made some truly evil music; his work with supergroup Twilight, for example, is as unrelentingly fierce as you could ask of any black metal band. Nachtmystium’s Instinct: Decay from 2006 was also pretty great, mixing psychedelic influences in with the metal to create a fine gateway drug for non-black metal fans: just rock enough to hook the casual listener, but true enough to its roots that it doesn’t lose the purists.
Since then, Judd has moved further and further away from the black metal scene, though. Addicts is supposed to come across as a bold experiment … but it can also be seen as a craven genuflection to the zeitgeist. Nachtmystium’s rock/black metal hybrid ends up sounding a lot like the sort of half-assed nu-metal hybrid that’s won anthem rock fans over to the sincere emoting of bands like High on Fire and Mastodon. Judd adds a dollop of emoting to his black metal shrieking and ends up with a cross between poor tortured Eddie Veder and a wounded dwarf hippopotamus, bellowing out clueless, supposedly agro lyrics like, “We don’t want your loyalty / we reject your trust / we ignore your sympathy / we do what we must,” on the idiotically named “High On Hate.” Judd clearly wants a grungy, punk vibe—he’s name-checked Killing Joke in interviews. But the sincere, back-to-basics engagement of punk sits poorly with the sweeping life-denial of black metal; put the two together and you end up with half-hearted, middle-of-the-road wannabe attitude, shaking your fist in the air on the track “Addicts” and declaring “All I want is more!”, the supposed irony only marginally less leaden than the ploddingly, incompetent drums.
All of which leads me to conclude that, if given the choice, I’d rather hear Christina Aguilera perform black metal than listen to Blake Judd try his hand at pop R&B. Some musicians should stick to their roots; others can only get better the more thoroughly they betray themselves.