[31 March 2008]
It stuns me every time I see her perform, that Voice, sending a chill fast down my spine, hitting me in the gut and making my hair stand on end. It is something not quite of this world: huge and overwhelming, deeply soulful and expressive, if sometimes a bit unsubtly melismatic. It is epochal and rare—if not the voice of a generation, then at least a once in a generation voice (well, that is, if you consider Mariah Carey of another generation).
And all this never hit me so hard as when I finally got to hear it live on the 2007 Back to Basics tour, right down front and close to the stage. But then I got to thinking—how can something so seismic and enormous come barreling out of such a tiny body? How can that voice be contained in such a petite, compact woman? And how does she not just blow apart every time she unleashes it? I’m not asking this out of any prurient obsession over Christina Aguilera’s body (no, really), but out of sheer wonder. I guess one just expects a sort of correspondence between body and voice, and the incongruity presented by Aguilera just makes her voice all the more miraculous.
And, well, maybe not as miraculous, but still surprising, is the way she has separated herself from the pack of her Mickey Mouse Club peers over the past decade, establishing herself as a perennially popular superstar with cachet and critically creditability to burn (Britney may have won the early battles, but Christina won the war). I mean, having that voice is a big plus, to be sure, but I think what has kept her on the top of the heap has been a constant creative restlessness, an unwillingness to sit pat in her pop/R&B métier.
Change for change’s sake is not always the best strategy, though, and sometime you can push to hard in too many directions, as Aguilera did on 2002’s Stripped. I guess the glass half full take on that notorious album is that it liberated her from the bubblegum, Mickey Mouse Club corner she was in danger of painting herself into, but really, it’s just not a good album (though it has some very, very good songs). Overlong, oversexed, messy, and never really playing to her strengths, it may have freed her, sure, but that might have just been for a free fall into artistic bankruptcy.
What a relief then, her emergence four years later with Back to Basics, a double album (!) that served as a shot across the bow to all who may have doubted her. With one foot in the past and the other firmly entrenched in the present, the album serves as a consolidation of her career and sound; a statement of intent; a tribute to her idols and inspirations; and a love letter to her husband. Though it veers through styles and eras without ever truly cohering (though each album sports a mostly unified sound: the first album is the more upbeat, dancey R&B pop you’d expect, and the back half is more slow-burn jazz with some big ballads thrown in) you never feel like it’s misfiring, that it’s sacrificing songs for simple surprise. Back to Basics might be a bit of a mess, but in the best possible way – it’s always entertaining and engaging, never sloppy or schlocky.
And the same could be said of the accompanying world tour Aguilera kicked off in early 2007. A big, brash, often over the top production divided into two somewhat incongruous acts (which loosely adhere to the divide on the album), the Back to Basics tour did not disappoint, even if it never lived up to Aguilera’s own proclamation near the beginning of it being the greatest show on earth. Smartly kicking off with relentlessly catchy lead single “Ain’t No Other Man”, the first half rolls along at a steady clip, front loading the night with zippier dance songs from Back to Basics, playing off the Big Band-era, Hollywood glamour theme of the first album. The focus is all on the songs and choreography, eschewing straight spectacle for the music.
She also works in two rather remarkably reworked versions of two hits from her first album, nearly obliterating them into unrecognizability and building them from the ground up a la Cat Power (and that is probably the first and last time you’ll ever see Aguilera and Chan Marshall compared in print). “Come On Over” and “What a Girl Wants” always struck me as negligible fluff, decent enough follow ups to “Genie in a Bottle”, but that’s all. But here they are reinvented as something more like lost 45s from the ‘60s, the former as a Cuban-tinged big band number, and the latter as a loping reggae infused tango. It’s great stuff really, and makes you wish she’d actually recut them for the album, or as b-sides.
The first half of the show climaxes with the big Gospel stomp of “Makes Me Wanna Pray”, the song that actually kicks off the first album of Back to Basics, and which I always thought was incorrectly slotted. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song, but really, the back-to-back twin killings of “Ain’t No Other Man” and “Back in the Day” (the most meta-obvious song on the album, with its gratuitous name dropping of Aguilera’s heroes and inspirations) would have sequenced better out of the gate, especially as the sort of big statement Aguilera was going for. No matter, the problem is rectified live, with “Pray” in its proper climactic place. “Oh, Mother”, a quiet touching ballad dedicated to Aguilera’s mother, closes out the first set as a mini-encore.
The curtain for the second act rises on a rather incongruous transformation of the show from Big Band revue into a bizarre circus themed burlesque (thankfully, the editing of the DVD plays this bit down from how it was live). The stage-resetting “Enter the Circus” / “Welcome”, complete with calliope and carnival barker, opens things, as do a parade of Christina’s dancers done over as clowns, fire breathers and stilt walkers. As spectacle, it’s rather staid and unimaginative, and nearly brings the show to a halt even as it tries to launch it into the stratosphere.
Fortunately, the music and song choice brings the show away from the big top and into the cabaret. Aguilera exchanges her flowing gowns and Hollywood dresses for skimpy lingerie and tight corsets (thankfully, she left the chaps at home), and struts her way through an excellent, jazzy version of Stripped‘s “Dirrty” (a vastly underrated song which I always thought was unfairly overshadowed by its risqué video), proving she in no way means to apologize ever for her perceived missteps (see also “Still Dirrty”, a companion song from Back to Basics, which popped up in the first set).
The second set emphasizes the sort of slow-burn, sex drenched, bleating horned jazz that she tried to get at on the second album of Back to Basics, pairing the bawdy, Andrews Sisters’ knock off “Candyman” with the striptease of “Nasty Naughty Boy” . The whole thing wraps up inevitably with “Lady Marmelade”, which Aguilera has pretty much wrested away from her Moulin Rouge cohorts and made her own.
After a short interlude, she returns for a two song encore, both of which she plays straight. “Beautiful”, probably Aguilera’s best and um… ahem, most beautiful ballad, is acceptable, but not the most showstopping version I’ve heard, which it really should be every time out. The fist pumping, confetti drenched climax of “Fighter” is better, with the band, the dancers, Aguilera and all the crowd going bonkers at once. It’s a great song to go out on, even if it really doesn’t fit in, sonically or aesthetically, with anything that preceded it.
Shot over two nights in July 2007 in Adelaide Australia, the DVD release of the Back to Basics tour is substantially the same as the American leg, with the exception perhaps of the crowd. I don’t know what it is—a deeper appreciation of spectacle for spectacle’s sake, a thirst for the histrionic and outlandish—but Australian audiences just seem to drink up huge pop productions better than Americans. Of course, I’m basing this entirely on watching other live DVD releases shot Down Under, mostly featuring Kylie Minogue, so perhaps this perception is skewed a bit. But given the choice, and bottomless pockets, I’d probably fly to Australia to take in all the big top 40 pop shows I could. I love it—it’s hard to feel the enthusiasm and energy of a crowd through a TV screen, but the Australians always seem to come closest to bringing the full live experience into your living room.
The DVD is also accompanied by a second disc featuring interviews with everyone involved with the production of the show, from the dancers and the band, to wardrobe, up to Aguilera herself (and, separately, and rather inexplicably, her husband Jordan Bratman). The best of these is a lengthy discussion with her live musical director, Rob Lewis, who goes into some detail about the long gestation of the Back to Basics album and tour, and the course of Aguilera’s musical education and reinvention during the period following Stripped.
Aguilera herself doesn’t really address any of this in her interview, focusing more on the future, and the possible paths her career may take with motherhood now a part of the equation. She hints at a quick follow up to Back to Basics, and the only sure thing one can say about it is that we would probably be totally wrong with any guess about how it will sound, and this again is a very, very good thing.