A funny thing happened on teen-pop’s way to the bargain bin: It grew up. At least that’s what Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, co-headlining one of this summer’s first arena tours, would like you to believe. On both of their recent releases — Aguilera’s “Stripped” (RCA) and Timberlake’s “Justified” (Jive) — they take on more grown up roles as sometime-songwriters, and their public personas have also both taken on adult overtones. But trying to convince the world that a pop tart has transformed into an actual artist takes more than a sexing-up, and only one of these two seems ready to make the leap.
It isn’t Aguilera, whose “Dirrty” entrance mirrored the industrial setup of Madonna’s more than a decade-old “Express Yourself” video, complete with writhing dancers and oversized fans. It was the beginning of a typically over-the-top, sometimes cliche-ridden pop set: A piano intro always signified the beginning of a ballad, a dancers-only funk-ride meant that Aguilera would appear in a new costume — trashy during the dance bits, slightly more tasteful for the slower songs.
Though Aguilera told the crowd she was “grown up,” she chose to revisit some older hits — all in re-worked versions that only showed the holes in her material. “Come On Over (All I Want Is You)” was stripped down, a poor choice for the never-subtle singer, who chose to push her vocals instead of holding back to serve the material (the same mistake was made later in the set, for a bleacher-busting version of Etta James’ “At Last”).
Aguilera’s first hit, “Genie In a Bottle,” was poorly envisioned as a rock song, with an orgiastic, fire-filled set-piece dance not unlike the souped-up rave in “The Matrix Reloaded.”
Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro was a surprise guest guitarist for “Fighter,” and added absolutely nothing to the song, posing and preening but seemingly not even really playing.
But for every disingenuous moment in Aguilera’s set there was a genuinely entertaining one in Timberlake’s. Obviously the show’s main attraction, his hour-and-a-half was concentrated less on costume and set changes and more focused on music and dancing, with Timberlake seeming appropriately reverent of his top-notch band.
It’s almost surprising that Timberlake hasn’t worked a Michael Jackson song into his set: With only one album of non- ‘N Sync material to his name, there’s plenty of room for it, and Jackson’s 1980s output has made such an impression that Timberlake’s set almost seems like an out-and-out homage. “Rock Your Body” has the disco-funk sound of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”; his ballads soar with falsettos stolen from “Rock With You.”
And when Timberlake revisited material, unlike Aguilera, it actually worked. The new machine-gun beat of “Cry Me a River” took it to bounce city, and a percussion-beatbox-scratching routine — with Timberlake flying over the crowd — managed to name-check Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s hip-hop classic “It Takes Two” without seeming forced. And if his Jackson fetish occasionally seems a bit much, he can be forgiven: After all, it’s way past time for the King of Pop to have an heir. Too bad the name Prince is already taken — it would fit Timberlake well.