Know how to be all things to all men. A discreet Proteus – a scholar among scholars, a saint among saints. That is the art of winning over everyone, for like attracts like. – Baltasar Gracian
Is Christina Aguilera the new Lady Gaga?
My favourite quote: “I miss the old Christina Aguilera.” Which one would that be?
With her first album, Aguilera had a very clean-cut image. She was the sweet, innocent teen with the look in her eye that tells you she’s not so innocent. She had, in short, exactly the same image as most teenage popstars (particularly around that time), mostly because it’s an effective one. Every straight man on the planet wanted to rub that genie in a bottle.
Her second album was three years later, and a huge change in tone. Britney Spears, on the other hand, put out three basically identical albums in a row, one each year, until she started marrying hillbillies. Aguilera said she didn’t like the idea of putting out a new album every year just to keep up, and when she released Stripped it was very different, and so was her persona. Rather than cling to the Cute Teen image long past its expiry date (like Britney or Madonna) she reinvented herself. With her new quasi-R&B sound came a quasi-ghetto look – just as hyper-sexual as the last one, but replacing the teen coquette with a badass slut.
Her third album was a new direction again – this time a throwback to the music and fashion of the early 20th century. The Back to Basics persona was more restrained sexually than her previous two personas, but only just. And the fourth album does seem, on first glance, to be following in what you might call a Lady Gaga-esque line, but I suppose it will remain to be seen. The point is, the idea that Aguilera has suddenly changed her image because she’s feeling insecure or jealous of Gaga is ridiculous. Christina Aguilera changes her image like Facebook changes layouts – as soon as you start getting comfortable with the old one, she reinvents herself again.
Now, is she a copycat? This is a bit more difficult to answer. She follows the trends, certainly – there were a million Bubblegum Teen popstars in the late 90s, and R&B was on the rise in the early 00s. Back to Basics was more risky but still based on good market sense – throwbackism as a general concept was picking up momentum at the time (throwback jerseys, shoes, etc) and Human Nature were having great success with their nostalgia albums. This is not even to mention Panic at the Disco’s burlesque-themed music videos and concerts, which Aguilera adapted and ran with. I have only heard one single off her new album, and only seen one promo photo, but it seems to be in keeping with what everyone else is doing. Not with what Gaga is doing specifically, just with what the current market wants.
She is admittedly never really doing anything radically new, but who in pop music is? She’s certainly ahead of the pack with it, largely because the pack tends to copy her – Britney attempted (unsuccessfully) to adopt a more badass image recently, and she and Pink both adopted the circus-burlesque themes for their concerts.
People who change their identities as often as this fall into two categories: you’ve got people who have no real sense of self, who hop between identities and hold onto them fiercely because they’re searching for something that makes them feel complete, and then you’ve got the masters. The ones with an internal, private sense of self that is strong enough that they can play with their public image without it affecting who they are on the inside. You see a lot of the former in teenagers – finally getting a little control over their own lives and changing a lot emotionally, most teenagers try on a few personas to see what fits – but it seems increasingly childish the older a person gets. This is the reason it is more or less acceptable to be a stereotypical emo or jock at 17, but much less so at 27. The latter, however, are the ones that stay in the public focus for years and years – before their image gets stale they reinvent themselves.
Aguilera is calculating with her personas. She doesn’t just churn out a new album – and a new persona – every year. She spaces it out, waits for the public to get complacent before she surprises them with the new one – which is good, because if she were doing it more often it would cross the line from “constantly fresh and interesting” into “schizophrenically attention-seeking” and people would become bored with her.
She is undoubtedly one of the more talented vocalists going around at the moment, but it is her mastery of her media persona that will keep her in the public eye long after her contemporaries have faded into obscurity.