The first notes Christina Aguilera sings onstage as part of her “Back to Basics” tour are the passionate, wailing “He-e-e-e-y!!” that opens up “Ain’t No Other Man.” With its superhuman power and melismatic fury, it’s a vocal turn calculated to make you sit up and take notice — and Aguilera has a set of pipes that are second to none. It’s impressive, but when that moment is repeated every five or so minutes, it’s numbing. For all her talent, the 90-minute show that pulled into Staples Center Tuesday night was a strictly one-note affair.
Aguilera claimed she wanted “everyone to relax tonight,” but the show is anything but relaxing. With every song structured to give Aguilera room to spin a series of breathtaking vocal runs that show off her range and prowess, the show had more in common with ESPN’s “SportsCenter” than a concert; it’s a highlight reel of vocal calisthenics. It’s exhausting.
The lyrics often emphasize that pugilistic sense, either confrontational or presenting Aguilera as beset by others’ opinions. “It really don’t make any difference now/if you don’t like what you see,” she sings in “Here to Stay,” claims “I still got the nasty in me,” in “Still Dirrty,” and in “Fighter” she stamps her feet and howls “You won’t stop me.”
But the show built around her is mostly tame. The early going is a monochrome fantasia of speakeasies, midcentury tabloids (whose headlines scream that Aguilera has gone from “crass to class”) and a short film (accompanying “I Got Trouble”) that presents her as a silent film siren. The latter half adds color and circus imagery, but feels cribbed from past tours by Madonna and Janet Jackson, down to her pulling a member of the aud onstage to be tied down and softly whipped during “Nasty Naughty Boy.” Even this stunt was blunted when Web gossip Perez Hilton was chosen to be the “victim”).
While the awful, boomy and hollow sound of Staples Center may have undermined Aguilera’s impact, it was hard to get an emotional handle on the ungainly, indifferently paced show. It’s certainly a good sign that the young singer is looking back toward some of the best ones of the 20th century, but she will never match them until she learns restraint.
Aguilera plays Madison Square Garden March 23.