Christina Aguilera has been nothing if not thorough while plotting her current comeback. New look. Done. Contemporary sound. Done. Sexy video. Done. Hot rappers in tow (Ty Dolla Sign and 2 Chainz). Done and done.
So why did “Accelerate,” her first single as a lead artist in five years, get stuck in neutral after its May 3 release? It’s barely made a dent on the charts worldwide, which might not bode well for “Liberation,” Aguilera’s eighth studio album and first since 2012’s “Lotus.”
Can the artist otherwise known as Xtina make a bonafide chart comeback in 2018, nearly two decades after becoming a star? The odds seem to be stacked against her. Of all the princesses in her turn-of-the-millennium pop class, only Beyoncé and, to a lesser degree, her “Lady Marmalade” co-headliner Pink have retained their commercial clout. Even Justin Timberlake, Aguilera’s one-time touring partner, has struggled with his latest album, “Man of the Woods,” which, four months after its release, has yet to go platinum.
Aguilera’s uphill climb seems steeper still when you consider that many of the generation of pop princesses that followed her — Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus, among them — have stumbled from their own once-lofty thrones.
The singer who used to rack up hits in such quick succession — from “Genie in a Bottle” to “What a Girl Wants” to “I Turn to You” to “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You)” in a matter of months — has suffered diminishing returns since 2006’s platinum “Back to Basics.” She’s done some of her best work since then (2010’s “Bionic,” in particular, deserves a critical reevaluation or at least a gold certification), but her most recent successes have been via guest appearances on hits by Maroon 5 (“Moves Like Jagger”), Pitbull (“Feel This Moment”), and A Great Big World (“Say Something”).
What happened to the star who once seemed so poised for Mariah Carey-level chart longevity? In some ways, it’s not her, it’s us.
Our demand for nostalgia entertainment is at an all-time high, but it works differently in music than it does in movies and on TV. We enjoy watching old characters in new situations on the revivals of “Will & Grace,” the now-cancelled “Roseanne,” and even the rebranded “Star Wars” series, but we tend to prefer our music stars from back in the day (pre-2006ish) singing their old hits rather than new material. That might partly explain the relatively muted reactions to the recent long-awaited returns of Shania Twain and Sade.
Meanwhile, social media and the anybody-can-be-a-star mentality that accompanies it has made it easier to reboot an old TV series than a pop career. Young music fans want to feel like they’re discovering new talent, like they’re the first ones on the bandwagon.
Consider the sheer number of pop breakthroughs over the past year, from Cardi B to the K-pop boy band BTS. In past decades, most of them would have been destined for one-hit wonder status. Today’s charts, though, are dominated by artists we hadn’t heard of a few years ago. It may be harder to make money from album sales in the download era, but it’s never been easier for newcomers to score hits.
This makes it trickier for an established star to return to the spotlight after a lengthy absence. The emphasis on shiny and new is a significant hurdle even for a vet as youthful as Aguilera, who, at 37, is considerably younger than Tina Turner was when she launched her ’80s comeback, or than Cher (Aguilera’s “Burlesque” co-star) was when she re-cemented her immortality with “Believe” in the late ’90s.
I interviewed Aguilera in 2000 at the height of her early stardom, and although she was runner-up to Britney Spears in terms of album sales and popularity, I expected her to win the long run. I thought she’d still be the kind of megastar who greets a journalist while having an assistant rub her feet 18 years later.
Back then, the debut of a new Christina Aguilera video was an event. “Dirrty,” the first single from her 2002 “Stripped” album, didn’t set the charts on fire, but it was deconstructed as enthusiastically as anything this side of Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” or J.Lo’s “Jenny from the Block.” Aguilera still knows how to grab our attention, but her makeunder got more of it than the music.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, and it probably shouldn’t be all about the music anyway. There have been several turnovers of female pop stars since Aguilera’s heyday, and many of her old peers have diversified successfully in response. Britney Spears became a Las Vegas attraction. Jessica Simpson parlayed reality-TV stardom into a mega-successful second act as a fashion entrepreneur. And Mandy Moore is the star of the hit TV show “This Is Us.”
Aguilera has only branched out as a sometime-actress and as a coach on “The Voice.” The latter seemed like such a gutsy move when she made it in 2011, but it’s since become an almost-cliché fallback for female pop stars past their commercial prime.
The movie career that seemed so inevitable after the success of 2010’s “Burlesque” never really happened. Lady Gaga ended up with the “A Star Is Born” role that would have been a perfect next-phase vehicle for Aguilera five years ago.
But it’s not over till the “Beautiful” lady sings, and with her new stripped-down look, Aguilera has never been more beautiful. Her vocal prowess is undiminished, too, whether she’s busking in disguise with Jimmy Fallon on a New York City subway platform, or alternately (and occasionally, simultaneously) conjuring defiance and vulnerability on standout “Liberation” tracks “Sick of Sittin'” (a sort-of “Fighter 2018”), “Masochist,” and “Unless It’s With You.” Her liberation is the freedom to own both her strength and her weakness, equally and unapologetically.
Since “Stripped,” Aguilera has stayed on top of trends without pandering to them, and she never sounds like she’s baiting airplay or chasing hits on “Liberation.” The indestructible Beyoncé aside, her knack for quality control when constructing albums remains unparalleled among women in pop.
The female-empowerment message of “Fall in Line,” the second single from “Liberation,” has a zeitgeist-y feel, and Aguilera and co-star Demi Lovato make a potent vocal combo. The official video has racked up 17 million YouTube views in three weeks, which is three million more than “Accelerate” has collected in one and a half months. So there’s still hope that Xtina’s comeback will take hold.
No former pop princess would deserve it more.