Where are you? Are you there? Remember.
These questions and an imperative, two calls and a response, appear as the only words on the first instrumental title track of Christina Aguilera’s eighth studio album Liberation (RCA, 2018). Woven into the background of “Liberation”, written and produced by Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell, are children laughing. This opening track raises questions the rest of the album seeks to answer: Who or what is Aguilera trying to remember? Who is she calling out for? Who are these children? With Liberation, what freedom from limit or thought or behavior is Aguilera achieving?
In recent years, much has been made of Aguilera’s tenuous relationship with pop superstardom, with many pondering her relevance in the post-melisma, auto-tuned digital age. In her book and subsequent public lectures, Marketing Communications professor Kristin J. Lieb argues, “Simply put, for all but the exceptional few, the career lifecycle for female artists is much shorter than it is for male artists” (89). Has Aguilera’s pop musical lifecycle ended? or is her truth and importance much more complicated?
In Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry (Routledge, 2013) Lieb develops a rubric to assess the vitality of particular pop female brands. In unfortunate terms, Lieb calls this model the “lifecycle for female popular music stars”. While her criticism of the music business is admirable and much of her evidence solid, Lieb’s failure is one of rhetoric, one that she at least is aware of: “I have used the language of music industry professionals, even when this language is problematic from an academic standpoint” (88). Generally, Lieb’s lifecycle model contains twelve female “types”: the good girl, the temptress, the diva, the exotic, the hot mess, the provocateur, etc. Each female artist must fit neatly into one box at any given time. Transgress and the lifecycle collapses with the artist reaching creative obsolescence. Beyond the “lifecycle” terminology, Lieb consistently refers to the “handlers” of female pop stars who learn lessons from other success stories in order to better handle their products (30). The reducibility of artists to a marketable brand, a handled and objectified commodity with a sell-by end-date, is implicitly accepted as a core reality of the music industry in Lieb’s work. And yet, Lieb leaves the door open: some female artists can be among the “exceptional few” whose careers can transcend the pop machine. But which ones survive Lieb’s model? Is there a woman both beyond and within the twelve types? Is there creative life beyond the standard pop lifecycle?
Perhaps more than any other modern pop star, Christina María Aguilera breaks the mold and pushes dramatically against Lieb’s suppositions. Although known popularly by the moniker “Xtina”, Aguilera refused from the outset to change her “too ethnic” sounding official name for brand mass appeal. Yet, despite a “brand” that is less concrete than many of her contemporaries, Aguilera is a force to be reckoned with on the popular music scene. In her book, Lieb is admittedly unsure what to do with Aguilera, thinking of her as something like a musical cat of nine-lives. She writes,
“Christina Aguilera is on her third or arguably fourth life as a female pop star […] the unicorn of the female pop star on her third or fourth life! It is critical to remember that Aguilera likely earned her multiple lives because of her legendarily powerful voice—and the fact that she has maintained her pop star good looks throughout her trials” (161).
It is the type of model Lieb sketches that Aguilera—female pop star unicorn—liberates herself from with Liberation. With this eighth album, 20 years into her career.
Aguilera remembers “Maria”, her middle name and the little-girl persona she crafts to remind her why she first loved singing before the music business twisted and sullied her passion, and indicts the pop industry machine that has made of her an objectified-mechanized product with a lifecycle and expiration date.
Listening to Aguilera’s Liberation on repeat since its release, with Lieb’s lifecycle model in mind, my mental loop returned to Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy, which narrates the too-short life of Amy Winehouse. (In another rhetorical critical failure, Lieb positions Winehouse’s “lifecycle” ending with the “hot mess” category). There’s a moment later in Kapadia’s film when seasoned singer Tony Bennett meets Winehouse in order to record the standard “Body and Soul” for his 2011 album Duets II. Winehouse is clearly besotted, star struck nearly to the point of incapacity. Bennett encourages her, reminding her of the strength of her voice, as they record take after take. Interviewed in the aftermath of Winehouse’s death in 2011, Bennett recalls their recording session together: “If she had lived I would’ve said, ‘slow down, you’re too important.’ Life teaches you really how to live it if you live long enough.”
“Body and Soul” was the last song Winehouse recorded. “She was a natural true Jazz artist,” Bennett states, comparing her to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and emplacing her within the great pantheon of Jazz vocalists. “She had the complete gift.” With her death, Winehouse joined an unenviable club of gone-too-soon greats; Amy reminds us how fragile and tenuous life can be even for those we revere. There’s always a vulnerable life wrapped up in the lifecycle, and attention to the precarity of that life is far more important than the necessity of the artistic product. If you follow the narrative of Kapadia’s film, you will understand one of its salient critiques is a lesson we would do well to remember: in our insatiable appetite as fans for a constant stream of music coupled with the artist’s personality and celebrity, we are complicit in sacrificing true talent and artistry to the pop machine. In refusing to allow time for artistic complexity and growth, we fully subscribe to the simplicity of marketed brands and product types and fail the artist as human being.
In producing Liberation, Aguilera defiantly slowed down and took her time. In speaking to V magazine about Liberation, Aguilera stated, “It may take longer for me to get my music out, but it’s really important for me that I create songs of substance and that I have messages that can inspire other people. It’s about getting back to the love of it before it’s a business… trying to de-machine it as much as possible… It’s about getting back to my truth. Not chasing a chart, but rather doing things that will have a long-lasting impression after I’m no longer here.” Liberation took six years to complete, a fact much discussed by critics and audiences alike. Six years is an eternity in pop music especially since the cycling of new music has increased exponentially with the advent of digital streaming. The pressure of a “comeback” album loomed large as Aguilera shaped her latest: how could she solve the problem of her declining relevance? Could she resuscitate her fading lifecycle? (Some perspective: Rihanna basically released an album every year before taking some time to record 2016’s Anti; since Aguilera’s last album, 2012’s Lotus, Ariana Grande has released all three of her albums. And Beyoncé’s “surprise” joint-album with Jay-Z, Everything Is Love, released a day after Aguilera’s Liberation, follows two years from Lemonade‘s release, a third of the time it took Aguilera to complete her latest.) In January 2018, a fan left two post-it notes on Aguilera’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star; they questioned: “Dear [Christina Aguilera] Where the f*ck is the new album?” Aguilera’s Instagram retort: “It’s coming bitches….” Playful (expletive-laced) banter aside, questions remain:
How often should we expect our artists to come into our lives? What’s the proper amount of time for creativity? Does art have a deadline? A sell-by date? A lifecycle? What are the costs of fame and our ethical responsibility to the lives of artists? What must artists sacrifice to meet pop cultural expectation and industry pressures?
Gloria Steinem writes in Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking Boundaries of Gender, “God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there’s no turning back” (Simon & Schuster, 1994, 270). Aguilera’s brand paired with her lengthy creative hiatuses raise many questions, but it’s a retrospective of her career artistry that most challenges the lifecycle model and deepens our respect of her. Liberation and its first official single “Fall in Line” both evoke the history of women’s liberation and extend Aguilera’s strand of pop feminism. Released 20 years to the day after her first single “Reflection”, a track from Disney’s Mulan, the album reminds us that Aguilera’s voice, in all its braggadocian bravado, is vital in holding a mirror to culture and making us ask basic reflexive questions. Like Mulan, Aguilera has entered a male-dominated world and held the men to account, transforming all of our preconceptions about the possibilities for women as pop artists (and beyond). Throughout her career, Aguilera has consistently challenged a misogynist culture that persists in constricting a woman’s choices and confining what’s possible for her, including expecting a woman to do something just because there’s desire and expectation and quotas of supply and demand to meet.
Aguilera the unicorn resists typecasting. From Stripped’s “Can’t Hold Us Down” (“So what am I not supposed to have an opinion? Should I keep quiet, not speak, cause I’m a woman?”) to Back to Basics‘ “Still Dirrty” (“Why is a woman’s sexuality always under so much scrutiny? Why can’t she do exactly as she please without being called a million things?) to her lion’s roar cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” at the 2007 Grammy awards, to Bionic‘s “My Girls” (“So ladies step it up and take control”) to Burlesque‘s “Express” (“Can you imagine what would happen if I let you get close enough to touch?”) to Lotus‘s “Sing for Me”, to Liberation‘s “Fall in Line” (“You do not owe them your body and your soul”) the point is clear: Aguilera as female artist will not conform or fall in line. She challenges; she questions; she pushes; she persists. On some stops promoting Liberation, a diminutive Aguilera stands in front of a screen reading: “Sometimes the king is not a man.” Other fandoms can have their Queens; Aguilera, however, wants to wear the pants.
Far from just lyrical and textual, the career-culminating womanpower messaging of Liberation is also highly visual. A brief selection of Aguilera’s statement t-shirts worn over the year’s evidences that she never shies away from speaking her mind through her clothing: “A man of quality is not threatened by a woman of equality”, “God sees no color”, “Auto tune is for pussies”, “You can do it like no one else”, and “Suck my dick”. Much of Aguilera’s recent Liberation promotional and video wardrobe follows this tradition in more subtle ways. She’s often literally wearing the pants, hiding her curvaceous figure in oversize menswear: leather trench coats, long t-shirts, exaggerated and broadened shoulders, and pin-strip pantsuits where her ample cleavage is often the only skin on display.
Furthermore, with Liberation, the woman is on top sonically. Beyond lyrical content, over the course of Liberation‘s 15 tracks, Aguilera often sings atop male voices, manipulating them or drowning them out. In opener “Maria”, she harmonizes with a young Michael Jackson while samples of his song “Maria (You Were the Only One)” interject throughout; “Fall in Line” pairs Aguilera and Demi Lovato’s titanic voices in a harmonizing bridge that roars defiantly against the digitized male voice that seeks to make them puppets and objects; in “Deserve”, the producer and songwriter MNEK, who had some less than flattering things to say about Aguilera in some recently resurfaced 2010 tweets, sings octaves beneath her for the song’s duration, reminding us that sometimes a person “says some f*cked up things just to hurt” someone else but true talent always deserves to be heard.
Sexy tunes like “Right Moves”, which begins with a male voice before letting the trio of women be on-top, and “Pipe”, which features unknown rapper XNDA responding to Aguilera’s dominant come-ons with something akin to reverent submission, allow Aguilera to be in full command of her grown-woman sexuality. Finally “Like I Do” allows Aguilera to respond to rapper Goldlink’s come-ons and to flirt both coyly and confidently with Anderson .Paak about her singularity as both woman and musical artist: “you were raised in all my glory… Where you want to be, I’ve been before… you can’t do it quite like I do.” In many of these instances, Aguilera flips the script, putting the men in their place and persistently reenacting in song-structure and vocal production an empowerment her career persona has long illustrated. This litany of male voices singing beneath her on Liberation functions as the Greek chorus to her role as full-throated Muse, a Goddess of Song, in full possession of her brand of King-like femininity and vocality. As she sings on Liberation‘s “Sick of Sittin'”: “I’m so emancipated.”
Throughout her career, Aguilera has patiently persisted in espousing a vein of female empowerment both in her own music and in the songs she chooses to cover, making her a rarity in a history of pop superstardom. For this display of strength, she has often been publicly and unabashedly slut-shamed, dismissed, objectified, fat-shamed, held to unreachable standards, her talent and artistry stripped of its potency in service of her use value as a sound bite, the butt of jokes, or a marketing counter tool. Much of Aguilera staying woke to womanpower has centered around her refusal to sanitize her own sexuality to meet either the norms of mainstream gender politics or mainline Feminism’s resistance to them; unlike contemporaries Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, Aguilera refused from the outset to play the role of virgin, an innocent void of sexuality. From “Genie in a Bottle” to “Dirrty” to “Nasty Naughty Boy” to “Woohoo” to Liberation tracks like “Right Moves”, “Accelerate”, and “Pipe”, Aguilera’s full-bodied commanding carnality has always been on full display and for some this has been off-putting. Resistant to binaries, she has refused to subscribe to the culturally comfortable notion that women are either Madonnas or Whores.
As Aguilera stated on Zane Lowe’s Beats One radio show in June 2018, she’s a “statement girl”, and the complexity of her statements refuse to obfuscate her very-human existence as a sexual being. Aguilera has used her stradivarian voice and the platform it has afforded her not to play it safe and inoculate herself from misogynist criticism but to push us to think more critically and openly about gender and sexuality as they intersect her creative expression. As she states in spoken-word on the Liberation track “Sick of Sittin'”: “I make it a policy not to tell anybody to sit down as just to encourage everybody else to stand up.” And for this, she has often been punished, held to a different standard than many of her pop contemporaries and forebears.
In some ways, Lieb was right not to know what to do with Aguilera the pop unicorn. Aguilera is both incomparable vocally and always compared culturally: a true pop conundrum. From the beginning, Aguilera has consistently served as a foil figure in the pop music landscape. Britney the good girl vs. Xtina the slut. Pink the badass vs. Christina the bitch. Kelly Clarkson the classy vocalist vs. Aguilera the sexpot wailer. Lady Gaga the visionary vs. Aguilera the copycat. In a disingenuous SNL skit, Katy Perry mocked Aguilera: Perry the princess vs. Xtina the joke. One could safely imagine that Aguilera has earned a specialized JD in pop music for representing herself as defendant in this succession of trials often orchestrated by industry bosses and exaggerated by media outlets.
These imagined and quashed past rivalries continue to reverberate in the Twittersphere where shortsighted fans (Aguilera ones included) jockey for position within a culture that accepts Lieb’s suppositions as a given: that there cannot be more than one female type in any position of power and musical significance. It is this peculiar condition of toxic fandom that spawns some of the worst vitriol: for Xtina haters (and therefore usually the fan of some other “pop” star) a typical attack involves calling her “Xtinct”, an unfortunate term that fits into Lieb’s lifecycle model. One imagines in our hyper connected world, Aguilera is both aware of this negativity and responds to it in her typical frankness with an opening Liberation tour montage in which “my existence has no expiration” echoes in disembodied voiceover. Despite presidential evidence to the contrary, Aguilera’s continued evolution evidences that lasting careers are not made from tweets, that artistic integrity and authenticity shape longevity more than popularity, chart performance, and commercial success. Furthermore, to state the obvious, legacies are far more difficult to craft than three-minute melodic pop songs or 240 character tweets. True artistry is something intangible, indefinable, and ultimately immortal. In other words, lasting artists exist beyond the lifecycle of Lieb’s classified types.
It’s important to remember that not all social-media music fandom is so toxic. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek like the popular “she does not have the range” memes that emerged in recent years. (Twitter user @KingBeyonceStan wrote of Aguilera: “Queen of ramp ups… she has the range”). Other times, the respect is clearly less playful and more earnestly reverent. (For proof, see another popular Aguilera social media hashtag: #Legendtina). As legacy artist, Aguilera is consistently mentioned by a younger generation of singers as an influence; Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, the late Christina Grimmie, Fifth Harmony, Camila Cabello, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, Sam Smith, and Adam Lambert are among some of the names that have cited her importance. In equal measure, peers like Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Pink have praised her. Perhaps the greatest praise for Aguilera comes from those she herself idolized and whose mantle she carries forth: Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Mick Jagger, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston chief among them. “At the end of the day, I’m a soul singer,” Aguilera tells Billboard magazine, and it is within this artistic tradition she emplaces herself. In spite of fading album sales and chart success, Aguilera’s legacy thus far seems to make her one of Lieb’s “exceptional few”.
Aguilera’s role as a lynchpin figure between the singers who really sang of yesteryear and an era where vocal talent can be manipulated with Auto-Tune and Melodyne software (in the service of melodic hooks and upbeat tempos) seems to have been on the mind of her team in beginning the road to Liberation‘s June 15th release. Last November, Aguilera delivered one of her most high profile performances in years, paying tribute to Whitney Houston and the 20th anniversary of The Bodyguard soundtrack at the American Music Awards; the social media hash tag used: #WhitneyxChristina. (Aguilera had earlier recorded a cancelled The Voice tribute in which she performed alongside a hologram of Houston; although it never aired, it is accessible online). More recently, Aguilera recorded a duet with another Disney child star who has long idolized her, Demi Lovato. They performed the single “Fall in Line” at the Billboard Music Awards in May promoting it with the hash tag #XtinaDemi_BBMAs. In this hashtag genealogy, #WhitneyxChristinaa#XtinaDemi_BBMAs, Aguilera serves as the bridge, connecting generations of vocalists and reminding us that her game is a long one in which she is attentive more to the legacy of her vocal artistry and support of female performers over her chart performances and the industry’s puppeteering and manipulated girl-vs.-girl rivalries.
As such, sharing “Fall in Line” with Demi Lovato makes the song both pivotal and seminal in Aguilera’s career catalogue. Aguilera both extends her legacy and pays it forward. “Fall in Line” begins with the jingling sounds of chains before Aguilera sings the opening verse: “Little girls, listen closely, because no one told me, but you deserve to know that in this world you are not beholden. You do not owe them your body and your soul.” In the music video, the innocence of little girls playing in an Edenic setting frames the narrative of adult women made to perform for cameras and the men who hide behind them. The combined lyrical and visual critique is clear: women are literally put into boxes, into cages, and made to shrink themselves and compete with one another before the male gaze. At the end of the “Fall in Line” video, the women escape their captors and emerge back to Eden as flashes of the innocent little girls they once were interject their newly liberated adult visages. I am woman, hear me roar; sisters are indeed doing it for themselves. Sure it’s heavy-handed but a surprising amount of Internet commenters have failed to grasp its messaging.
On Liberation, a spoken-word interlude tilted “Dreamers” precedes “Fall in Line”.
“Dreamers” features the voices of young girls stating their life goals and adamantly claiming their right to speak and be heard. These disembodied and unaccompanied female voices reverberate and echo into the void, reminding us as a culture that we sully little-girl dreams in our objectification of women as superficial spectacles and items for mass consumption. “Dreamers” and “Fall in Line” function as a crescendo moment in Liberation‘s critique of broader cultural gender norms and the industry’s (mis)handling of female artists. (In added texture, one of the song’s writers, Audra Mae, is great-great niece of Judy Garland, another child star who struggled with her personal demons, industry pressure, and cultural expectation in her adulthood). However, artistically, the opening triptych of songs ending with the gut-wrenching “Maria” contains Liberation‘s more subtle and complex statements. Aguilera has stated that “Maria” is her personal favorite track on the album. It is more deeply personal than “Fall in Line” yet equally as revelatory and liberating.
Aguilera has been publicly singing since she was a 12-year-old child, and there are a lot of children circling Liberation. There are children’s laughing voices in the background of the opening orchestration, the young women stating their dreams in “Dreamers”, the youthful a cappella soprano of interlude “Searching for Maria” where Aguilera sings a few lines from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Then there’s “Maria” itself which subverts vocal gender norms, with Michael Jackson’s high young boy’s voice woven through Aguilera’s matured, deeper timbre and low notes. “Maria” contains, like so many of Aguilera’s deeper cuts, a profound reflexive cultural question: “How was I supposed to know that it would cost my soul?” How was Aguilera supposed to know what the business would do to her when she started singing as a little girl from an untethered place of purity and passion? As Aguilera has stated publicly on numerous occasions, the character of Maria in The Sound of Music (played famously by Julie Andrews) served in her childhood as both her vocal coach and her escape from family trauma. In a 2011 interview with W magazine, she said, “I watched her twirl around those mountains, and she was just so free… I felt caged by my childhood. And unsafe: Bad things happened in my home; there was violence. The Sound of Music looked like a form of release. I would open my bedroom window to sing out like Maria. In my own way, I’d be in those hills… Sometimes… I still feel like going to the window and singing out all my troubles.”
For Aguilera, The Sound of Music‘s Maria was “just so free” to sing in her idyllic solitude even though all around her was encroaching chaos. Throughout her career, on tracks like “I’m Ok” and “Oh, Mother”, Aguilera has been vocal about the “bad things” and “violence” she witnessed in her childhood: namely her father repeatedly beating her mother before she eventually took the kids and left him. As Aguilera learned to sing, as she transformed herself into Maria and dreamt of a better world beyond her window in which she too could be a singer, her mother was being beaten. From the beginning, Aguilera’s sonic landscape has contained these echoes of trauma. Furthermore, she has spoken repeatedly on subjects of domestic violence and used the strength of her own voice to advocate for women in her music and in her charitable service.
And so I return to Aguilera’s trio of opening statements on Liberation: Where are you? Are you there? Remember. Such questions and their imperative response reflect the condition of disassociation following traumatic experience, the “disconnection or lack of connection between things usually associated with each other. Disassociated experiences are not integrated into the usual sense of self, resulting in discontinuities in conscious awareness.” In this case, the lack of connection is between Aguilera the jaded adult “superstar” woman and her younger self who first dreamed of being a professional singer. The invocation of questions in “Liberation”, its closing command to “Remember”, and Aguilera’s childlike voice in “Searching for Maria” conjure an enchantment wherein a young “Maria” appears.
At the opening of “Maria”, Aguilera speaks “I’m here.” This “Maria” is the disassociated, disembodied, giggling child persona Aguilera crafts to remind herself both of the source of her soulful voice (the trauma she heard and witnessed as a child), the source of her power (her refusal to conform or submit full control of herself to the male gaze, lessons she learned from her mother’s experience), and the innocence and dream of escape music offered her before the industry made her “feel worthless, used up” once she no longer seemed commercially viable and had reached the “limit” of her pop lifecycle. In searching for and locating Maria, Aguilera integrates the scared child who loved to sing within her adult person and liberates both of them for her creative future, a future hopefully beyond the confines of Lieb’s lifecycle model and industry expectation. Indeed, with Liberation, Aguilera is not chasing a chart; she’s articulating something much deeper, subverting chart importance to her voice and artistry as a fully realized grown woman. This three track progression at the top of Aguilera’s album—”Liberation”, “Searching for Maria”, and “Maria”—is perhaps the closest we will ever get to a representation of the dissociative aspects of childhood trauma and an adult’s reintegration and liberation from them in pop music. It’s genius, a transcendent masterstroke.
It’s Liberation‘s “Maria” triptych that made me first think of Kapadia’s Amy, a film that the director says forms the centerpiece of a trilogy of documentaries “about child geniuses and fame, and the effect it can have, and what they mean to their country and what they mean to people.” Cultural history contains plenty of cautionary tales about the cost of fame on child prodigies and child stars; the list is troubling and exhausting. Since appearing on Star Search and the Mickey Mouse Club as a child, Aguilera is aware firsthand of this narrative, and she has had her highly public (well-chronicled) meltdown moments. The lyrics of “Maria” reflect this lived-in knowledge and awareness: “How was I supposed to know that it would cost my soul? … I want to feel it… All my life’s been given… was too young to know the difference… I’m facing the mirror… where, where, where is Maria?” (The staccato here also reflects a dissociative state). Michael Jackson’s young voice appearing on the song’s bridge adds pathos and poignancy to Aguilera’s own understanding of this history. When Jackson sings to his fictional “Maria”, “Hear my plea for sympathy / I just want you here with me”, Aguilera’s indictment of a culture and industry that uses up child talent (of whatever gender identity) and spits them out as adults is damning. More than allowing herself to succumb to her own personal demons (see, for example, “Masochist” on Liberation‘s back half), more than becoming another cautionary tale in this ongoing narrative, Aguilera does what she has done best throughout her career; she flips the script and turns the mirror on all of us.
I return to my original questions in order to pose new ones. Who or what is Aguilera trying to remember? Who is she calling out for? Why are there children laughing in the album’s opening track? What freedom from limit or thought or behavior is Aguilera achieving? With Liberation, Aguilera is calling out to the little girl who giggled, who first loved to sing, and in finding “Maria”, Aguilera is freeing herself from the pop machine and making us all reflect on some really deep and troubling cultural questions. Can we hear the pleas for sympathy? Can we allow our greats to be here with us as complex human beings, do things at their own pace beyond the confines of brands and demand, and create art that has substance and longevity? Can we allow them to live and exist beyond the pop lifecycle?
Kapadia’s Amy closes with a succession of clips of a younger Winehouse before she hit superstardom, back when music was still something she loved to create. Aguilera’s “Maria” triptych is all about speaking to that little girl and reminding her that you make music first and foremost for yourself to escape all the elements in the world around you that you cannot control. In this vein, Liberation is less about freedom from limit or thought or behavior and more about a grown woman’s control of all of her titanic sound and fury, sexuality and sensuality, creativity and marketability. Liberation reminds us that little boys and girls can escape trauma and become successful grown men and woman. But we must all remember: the wounded child is still present, and each one of us is complicit in how we treat him or her. We all have dreams, but it’s only a matter of time before a dream deferred, stolen, or mishandled, explodes.
The entertainment industry does things to artists—shapes, confines, contorts, twists, packages, manages, controls, handles—especially following massive success and fame and whetted cultural appetites and the insatiable desire for more. And the results can often be (or at least feel) traumatizing to the individual. Some artists can emerge unscathed, either by escaping the business entirely or learning to work within the parameters given to them. Some don’t make it and all of us are the worse for it. But some—a rare, exceptional few—transform into something else, an uncontrollable force, a hurricane of talent that defies categorization and continues to challenge us in unexpected ways.
Andy Warhol’s Factory gave us the term “pop”, signifying that everything and everyone can be famous for 15 minutes. And yet, perhaps the term “pop star” does not capture the portrait of an artist like Aguilera whose longevity exceeds the lifecycle normally allotted to her. With Liberation, a true vocalist, a self-described “soul singer”, rages against this factory, defies categorization, and adds to her legacy. Liberation is far more than a carefully calculated feminist statement album in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp; it’s the culmination and continuation of a creative project Aguilera has been producing since sophomore album Stripped: beyond types and lifecycles and industry expectation, Christina “Maria” Aguilera is both a complicated soul singer whose gigantic voice is rooted in her own painful past and a female artist who has never and will never fall in line. The little girl with a big voice turned genie in a bottle turned “Dirrty”-girl Xtina turned retro-Baby Jane Vocalist turned Bionic Madame X turned Lotus flower turned Legendtina has finally become the grown woman with a big voice with something powerful to tell us about the gimmicks, the artifice, and the need for flexibility and change in the pop music industry.
With Liberation, Christina Aguilera—the female pop star as unicorn, the musical cat of nine lives, the de-machine woman—reintroduces herself to the world as a grown woman and reminds us that Maria-the-little-girl-who-sang-for-all-the-right-reasons against the chaos, that little girl is here to stay. How do you solve a problem like Maria? What do we do with a girl like Maria? Nothing. We do nothing. We just let her sing whatever and however and whenever she wants.
In “trying to de-machine it as much as possible” and get back to the joy of singing, Aguilera has given us something fragmented and revelatory, imperfect yet loose, visceral and important, troubling yet transcendent. From this point forward, what should we do with Christina María Aguilera? I think seasoned professional Tony Bennett was onto the right answer. We would do well to slow down and cherish our great singers while they are with us. They are too important.