Pop fandom in 2012 is still big-tent to those who skim its surface via radio playlist and passed-along YouTube clips, although the Internet's rabbit-hole-studded landscape has allowed for a deeper, more sinister brand of loving (and hating) an artist. In the comment sections of blogs and endless message-board threads, huge fans of particular pop stars—referred to as "stans," in honor of the 2002 Eminem single about a crazed acolyte—take arguing about music to the next level. Even the most anodyne post about any of today's most popular top-40 singers—Rihanna or Gaga, Britney or Demi, Christina or Beyoncé—can provoke all-out war, with sarcastically deployed animated GIFs and derisive nicknames flying like bullets from an AK-47.
Christina Aguilera's banner is flown in such wars, although her detractors have pushed past the comment-box boundaries in order to make their voices heard. The Twitter account @floptina_legend has a picture of Aguilera drunk and passed out as its user icon, and sends out semidelusional missives regarding her success. There's a YouTube series called Xtina Living that shoehorns unflattering pictures of Aguilera into embarrassing fanfiction scenarios—having a breakdown over the lousy sales of her 2010 album Bionic that results in her overeating, or auditioning for The X Factor and being ridiculed by her former Mickey Mouse Club co-star Britney Spears. It's poorly done, from the jokes to the Photoshopping, but the fact that so much effort has gone into it speaks to the way Aguilera touches a nerve.
In part this is because of how she's made herself over multiple times since the release of her debut single, the sinewy 1999 track "Genie in a Bottle." While that song's instructions to "rub me the right way" were barely an entendre and a half, it was in 2002, when she put out the libidinous "Dirrty"—accompanied by a video in which she wore chaps and sweatily walked around an anything-goes sex party—that she announced her intentions to grow up in a much more forward way. Her voice, an instrument that despite its ability to leap octaves has a low-end grounding similar to that possessed by opera singers, remained constant as its packaging continued to shapeshift: "Dirrty" gave way to "Beautiful," the Linda Perry-penned slice of self-motivation that's one of the building blocks of It Gets Better-Core; that, in turn, gave way to marriage and motherhood; then came Back to Basics, a retro-drenched album that even came with songs devoted to fealty; and then there was the era of Burlesque, her feature film debut, and Bionic.
Bionic came out in the middle of 2010, right around the time of Peak Gaga ("Bad Romance" and "Telephone" topped the charts; she was selling out arenas on the Fame Ball Tour), and as such it was hard for many people not to see the album as a reaction to the way pop had shifted while Aguilera was off having a kid. The cover depicted her as half-woman, half-android. The throwback stylings of Back to Basics were replaced with something more forward-sounding; collaborators included M.I.A., Le Tigre, Sia Furler, and Peaches. On "Elastic Love," she veers between a robotic delivery and offering lines exactly the way co-writer M.I.A. does; the clamorous yet inert "Not Myself Tonight" comes off like a less anthemic "Bad Romance." (The video for "Not Myself Tonight" had clear homages to earlier clips by Gaga-inspiration Madonna, too.) Bionic was long—18 tracks in the nondeluxe edition—and confused, seeming like three different albums smushed together; it had some solid tracks (particularly the minimalist declaration "I Am," co-penned by Furler, and the appealingly subtle getting-ready track "Glam") and even a Linda Perry-penned ballad, but the record sank.
Authenticity and pop have a relationship that should be tenuous at best, yet the combination of Aguilera's flailing fortunes and her obvious attempt to latch on to the trends of the time caused quite a few people to sharpen their claws and question her integrity. (The manner in which Burlesque, which co-starred Cher, whiffed at the box office didn't exactly help.) These critiques had more than a hint of misogyny present as well, often less focused on sound than looks. Aguilera, who had been in the public eye since 13, vaulted herself to adulthood in a way that was about her own sexual pleasure, not about pursuing a rom-com happy ending; there's a strong undercurrent of "she was asking for it" in her less fact-based critiques, particularly those which fall back on calling her a slut.
But since Bionic—not to mention a flubbed "Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XLV and a March 2011 arrest for public intoxication, as well as a lot of chatter about her no longer being built like a teenager—Aguilera has been in career-rehab overdrive. She got a judge’s slot on NBC's swivel-chair singing-competition The Voice and returned to the pop-charts summit thanks to her assist on Maroon 5's inescapable "Moves Like Jagger."
And now here's Lotus, Aguilera's first album since Bionic. It's a much leaner affair, with only 13 tracks in its standard form. There are triumphant runs, though there are also some moments where her voice is audibly punched through a computer. There are also quite a few hints that the chart presence she and her team are taking on now is Rihanna; at times Aguilera tries to fit her voice into the rat-tat-tat patois that is the Bajan pop steamroller's specialty. Which is silly, given that Rihanna's singing style is a way for her to work around the fact that she isn't the most gifted vocalist. Aguilera's strength lies in the power of her vocal cords, even when she's reining it in as she did on "Beautiful."
The weakest songs are, perhaps predictably, the ones where Aguilera takes on her critics directly. "Circles" has a diamond-bright shine and Aguilera taunting those who might want to engage in "superhatin'" in a patois; while it's exhilarating at first, it get a bit wearying after three and a half minutes, because, well, she's offering up this plaint on a record that had a ton of money poured into it, while said "superhaters" are, at best, churning out endless streams of content for gossip blogs that invite readers to simultaneously hate and love beautiful women. The song isn't a complete failure; on the chorus, she invites her detractors to "spin around in circles on [her] middle middle finger" through a scrim of vocal distortion, and it's enough to make one wonder how she'd sound fronting a band basing its aesthetic off, say, that of the bent-pop act Garbage.
When she brushes the metaphorical dirt off her shoulders and sings about those people who are in her orbit, and not on the Internet, the album shines most brightly. "Just a Fool," a duet with fellow Voice judge Blake Shelton, shows how her voice can fit into the context of the honky-tonk's last call; "Blank Page," co-written by Furler, is mournful and spare, Aguilera's voice curling around heartbreak like it's a security blanket. "Let There Be Love" adds her to a standard-issue four-on-the-floor dance track and the results are serviceable, if only because her voice seems made for club cuts where she can act the diva. By far the best track is "Red Hot Kinda Love," a bubbly dance-pop tune; it pulses in an effervescent way that makes it sound like it belongs on the radio next year, when radio stations will have finally got over the robot-pop trend. (Hey, we can hope, right?) More importantly, Aguilera lets loose. "Red Hot" is a flirty song that actually sounds like a dance-floor flirtation, all inviting smiles and pointedly shaken hips. It's a shame that more of Lotus wasn't this confident and self-inspired—it would have taken the wind right out of her detractors' sails.