PERMANENT RECORDS: TO ALL YOUR FRIENDS YOU'RE DELIRIOUS
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change.
Today's entry goes out to my favorite pop buddy, Sarah Grace McCandless. She's justified, and I'm stripped.
48. CHRISTINA AGUILERA - STRIPPED (2002)
Executive Producers: Christina Aguilera & Ron Fair /Label: RCA
I don't believe in the concept of "guilty pleasures."
The denial of it is rather simple: like what you like, no need to qualify. If it entertains, if it inspires a positive reaction, then it's yours, accept it. Why feel guilty about it? In fact, the very idea suggests that somehow I should be looking to other people to validate my tastes, and I can't abide that. Think about it? Any time a "list your guilty pleasures" thread pops up somewhere on the internet, what is really going on? People aren't unabashedly celebrating something that brings them pleasure, they are looking for approval from the cool kids. The hope is that others will respond with, "Oh, no need to feel guilty about that. I love that!" and then you'll be able to huddle with the herd to stay warm in the taste storm.
Well, fuck that. Call it the existentialist in me, but I set my own life compass. I know the e-word is terribly outré, something I should have gotten over when adolescence ended, but I don't care. And I don't feel guilty about it, either. So, nyah! Though, I do understand the mentality of such deriders. It's like when someone tells me how much they love Charles Bukowski, and I can't help but look askance at them and wonder with an arched eyebrow, "How long have you been out of college now? You know the man only has, like, six books or something, and all the rest are exactly the same, right?" But the joy in being an existentialist is that I can dismiss your judgment of me while being able to freely indulge in being judgmental myself. Even from here, I can dismiss you judging me a hypocrite. I am Sam Spade, and you don't tell me what to do, dollface.
Nothing gets people's high horses up off their knees faster than an admission to loving pop music. And I'm not talking a neo-hipster, indie kid insistence that someone like Death Cab For Cutie writes excellent pop songs, I'm talking real life, top-of-the-charts, right-now POP! I'm talking Shampoo and the Spice Girls, and up to Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and Girls Aloud. And no irony either! This entry is about Christina Aguilera's second album, and I am writing it with that previously arched eyebrow lowered, set in the position it grew in at. I love Stripped with all my heart, and I'm not going to apologize to you or anyone for it.
Don't think I don't know what you're doing right now, either. I can feel it. You're judging me even after I told you not to. Can you feel me not caring coming right back atcha all over again? Go ahead and be snooty, but you better be damn sure you can confidently invite me into your house and let me browse through your own music collection without finding some objects of derision. "Oh, look at all these Wilco albums! My, aren't you sensitive and precious?" "Hey, it's Beck! Way to think outside the box...without ever really having to!" And don't even get me started on what's wrong with you Led Zeppelin fans.
The thing is, we all have things that other people think is crap. Some of it might even be critically lauded, but that doesn't mean I can't think it's cheesy. It's all relative, so why look elsewhere when your ears are already telling you everything you need to know?
And before we go on, let's get a couple of more things out of the way:
(1) Yes, I am a dirty old man (too dirty to clean my act up, as they say), and yes, I want to have sex with Christina Aguilera. So what? I also want to have sex with Polly Jean Harvey, think J.C. used to be cuter than Justin (but now, no way), and have made come-ons to Brett Anderson and Damon Albarn, so my lust knows no boundaries of gender or genre.
(2) Yes, Christina writes only a portion of the songs on Stripped. So what? This slavish devotion to the misguided notion that there is something more pure about writing and performing your own material sort of forgets that music is traditionally meant to be sung by everyone. You don't denigrate stage actors for performing in plays that other people wrote, do you? Furthermore, how many songs did Frank Sinatra write? Dusty Springfield's name appears exactly zero times in the writing credits of Dusty In Memphis. And what of singers like Roger Daltrey, or how Elton John's best material has lyrics by Bernie Taupin?
These are pop music prejudices, and they are yours. Take them, keep them, shove them.
Okay, now that you're all huffy and puffy and your arms are folded and you've been sufficiently shut up, you ready to talk about one of the best pop albums of recent memory? Good.
Stripped is an audacious record. It's long: 20 tracks over 78 minutes. It's loud and varied in sound and mood. Some people think Christina hits too many notes, has too many of what the American Idol judges would call "runs" (and yes, you can have some fun with the double play of that word), where she lets her voice trill off in uncharted directions. Stripped could be attacked for being over packed, but really, it's an embarrassment of riches. Christina didn't know where this trip would take her, so she brought everything.
This is the record an artist makes when she's dying to explode. Every pop star reaches a point where they want to break out of the record company stranglehold. The Beatles began as a covers band, don't forget, until one day they decided they wanted to write their own songs and experiment in the studio. Boy bands sue their management to get out of their contracts, and pop divas get sexy, willful, and if we're lucky, outrageous. It doesn't always work. Pink was too contrived, and really, not that good to begin with. Britney waited too long to grow up, and when she claimed she had, we didn't really believe her. We hoped someone would pull her aside and tell her money doesn't equal education, platinum records don't breed sophistication, and hearing her drawl "y'all" just wasn't cute anymore.
Neither of those eventual failures was any surprise. We all suspected that both lasses would eventually reach their sell-by date. It was just a matter of time. Or maybe just I did, I don't know. A lot of people I knew really liked Pink, so it's hard to say. I do know that I was always rooting for Christina. She was the real deal, she had the voice, and even when she was playing the game, it appeared like she knew it and didn't care. Who else would show up to an awards ceremony wearing a giant blonde afro wig? Back when she came to Portland on the final leg of the tour to promote her first album, I wrote the blurb on it for The Portland Mercury. I did it as an open letter to Christina, imploring her to get bold, to be more like Madonna and expand on what she was doing. I like to think she read it, agreed, and Stripped was the result.
(Small aside: My friend was working at an indie record store when that issue of the Mercury was out, and some schmoe she was dating at the time came into the store and said to her, "Did you see that some dude is in here defending Christina Aguilera?" My friend replied, "Yes. That's that guy Jamie I've told you about." He didn't own up to whether or not his shoe tasted good, but he later took her to a Karate show, so fuck that guy. Seriously.)
Part of the appeal of Stripped is that it's an artist on the defensive. Part of the tone of this review is taken from that: yes, I know what you're going to say, but I have news for you, you don't know what I'm going to say and I'm gonna mess your shit up. The single "Fighter" is the best example of this, a girl's anthem saying exactly what I said above. Another single, a collaboration with Lil' Kim, "Can't Hold Us Down," was about the double-standards women are subjected to in games of love, romance, and most of all, sex. Even the album intro is contentious, using clips of Kurt Loder and Fred Durst to revive old feuds and squash them. I wonder if Eminem was too cowardly to give her the license to kick him in the nuts, too?
And yet, though she comes out of the gate swinging, Christina is smart in her sequencing of the album. If we are to accept her thesis that this album is called Stripped because it represents her dropping all pretense, presenting herself as she really is, then she has to show us every emotion, every flaw. The bravado of "Can't Hold Us Down" is followed by the insecurity of "Walk Away." It's the tale of how Christina was duped, how she let the wrong lover trick her into believing he cared, and though she can identify the problem, "the one thing I need to walk away from" is also the hardest link to break. You can have all the strength in the world, but it still takes courage to use it. Thus leading into "Fighter," the display of that strength, where our girl finally learns "just how capable I am to pull through...'Cause if it wasn't for all of your torture/ I wouldn't know how to be this way now and never back down...I am a fighter and I/ I ain't goin' stop/ There is no turning back/ I've had enough." Thus concludes the first salvo.
The rest of the album from there is a representation of Christina's many moods, the various aspects of her personality. There's the party girl of "Dirrty," all cacophonous noise and bold proclamations; the wanton romantic who indulges in "Infatuation;" the dreamer as realist, demanding no less of a soulmate than "Loving Me 4 Me." There are more songs concerned with breaking out of whatever traps you are in, such as "Soar" and the Sugababes rip-off "Make Over" (the opening riff sounds exactly like "Overload," and that word even appears in the chorus), and while that is probably the most dominant theme of the record--the stripping down of one's life in order to run free, the overall effect of Stripped is viewing a woman in all of her aspects, no matter how overwhelming the amount of notes it takes to express them all. It's like a longer version of that horrible Meredith Brookes song, "Bitch."
Like that, but good.
Good because it's filtered through a pop prism. By "pop," one means "popular," and by "popular," one means accessible. That doesn't mean it's not a deep record, it just means that it's presented in such a way that is pleasing to the ear and can be absorbed and understood by as many people as possible. I always say that's the glory of pop music, and in such cases, I usually point to old live footage of Duran Duran where Italian girls with hairy armpits sing along to "Save a Prayer," understanding the emotion despite the language barrier. That's what good pop music does: it stirs us on levels that are beyond intellectual reasoning. It has less to do with chords and charts and technical mumbo jumbo than your average math-rock band, and as a result, it's far more effective. Pop music is more visceral, dropping calculation for level of feeling.
Which isn't to say that this music isn't smart. Christina got a lot of crap when this record came out, especially for the "Xtina" image of the "Dirrty" video and the provocative promotional photos, but Stripped had more going on than just the bump 'n' grind (not that there is anything wrong with that). People wondered what kind of role model Christina Aguilera was for young girls, and I'd have to say, is it really a bad one who tells them to believe in themselves and to not accept the disingenuous, contradictory messages of society? While the first three songs on Stripped are about the political battles of the heart, the final three appeal to the teenage existentialist in me: they're all about standing tall in one's own shoes. "The Voice Within" is about trusting your own instincts, your talents, your personal powers; "I'm OK" is about saying just that despite the people who try to pull you down (here an abusive father); "Keep On Singin' My Song" is the final flight, releasing oneself from all obligations except the ones to ourselves. "I'm gonna carry on...I'mma keep on singin' my song." (Okay, so maybe she's not a grammar role model.)
Of course, I've skipped the best statement of this self-belief, and probably the most popular. On her tour for the album, Christina would save this song for last, coming out by herself in just a T-shirt and jeans. "Did I forget something?" she'd ask. I've played the same game with you, passing right over "Beautiful." It's hard to decide what adjective to use for a song as beautiful as this, since it's already called "Beautiful"--but that's what it is, a real beauty. Ironically, it's one of the two songs on the record Christina didn't co-write. Linda Perry did it all, proving the broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day cliché. Then again, it takes a well-honed performer's instinct to recognize quality material, to find the right vehicle for your voice, so credit is due.
Everyone has heard "Beautiful" because it was everywhere, a rightful hit if ever there was one. Its message is simple: now and again, we all feel a little down about ourselves, but it's not worth dwelling on, we have to love who we are. TLC attempted a similar message a few years before in "Unpretty," but they were too self-conscious about their own attractiveness to tackle it straight and hid behind third-person anecdotes. Christina has no such fear. It's what allows any of us to step into the narrative. It's from a first-person point of view, but addressed to all. "Now and then I get insecure, from all the pain/ I'm so ashamed/ [But] I am beautiful no matter what they say/ Words can't bring me down." I feel it, you feel it, we all feel it--we're all in this boat together. The song starts with a whisper ("Don't look at me") and builds to a roar, Christina opening up those famous pipes as wide as they'll go. "...the sun will always shine/ And tomorrow we might wake up on the other side." It's a transcendent moment of pop music, the point where the personal becomes the universal. Humanity is the only access code you need to identify.
Which is exactly why everyone reading this should own a copy of Stripped, because regardless of your preconceived notions, somewhere on this record, Christina Aguilera is talking about you.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: The first mash-up that I recall gaining international prominence was "A Stroke of Genius," when Freelance Hellraiser married the vocals from Christina's "Genie In a Bottle" to the music of some Strokes song (I forget which one, but does it matter? They're interchangeable), and everyone realized, "Wow, this is what the Strokes should sound like all the time." In another stroke of genius, a couple of years later Christina turned around and officially hired Freelance Hellraiser to remix "Fighter." He's given it a spy-movie funk line and a driving beat while replacing the bombast with video-game bleeps and bloops. It's just waiting to soundtrack some outer-space battle with lasers and sleek fighter ships, including a big, distorted, atmosphereless explosion after the bridge where Christina lets out a wail and Freelance Hellraiser starts twiddling his knobs. It's excellent, and can be found on the "Fighter" single, as well as a promotional EP that Target put out to promote the Justin/Xtina tour.
Reminder: As always, this post is full of links to Amazon. Click on any one of them when shopping, and Amazon will shave a few pennies off their take to give to me. So, if my reviews make you all hot and bothered and you just have to own one of the things I'm talking about, use my link and contribute to buying me more stuff to review. (Those reading a Live Journal feed will likely have to click to the actual blog page first before heading over to Amazon, though.) Either way, thanks for reading.
Current Soundtrack: Morrissey, "I Will See You In Far Off Places;" Colin Meloy, "Shankhill Butchers (live @ the Birchmere)" & "Charlie;" Sarah Nixey, "The Collector;" Paul Weller, "Alone"
Current Mood: exhausted (it is 4 a.m., after all)
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich