After Beyoncé and Jay-Z beyoncéd their joyous joint album Everything Is Love Saturday evening, the memes turned to Christina Aguilera. Mere hours earlier, on Friday, she released her eighth studio album Liberation—her first in six years—and so it seemed she’d been eclipsed. What was supposed to be her comeback turned into another missed opportunity.
Arguing that the public’s attention had been diverted, though, assumes it had been trained toward her in the first place. There’s little evidence for that—Aguilera released four tracks in advance of Liberation. None so much as dented the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The second single, “Fall in Line,” came closest, peaking at No. 1 on the Bubbling Under chart.
And anyway, the Carters’ album and Aguilera’s bear no actual similarities as products. The difference between Love and Liberation is precisely the difference between the output of inspired artists and that of a performer without a clear storyline. The former presents a clear sonic and narrative vision and executes it with such agility as to leave naysayers speechless. Whatever you think of Bey and Jay’s actual relationship behind the scenes, their synergy on record is undeniable. They’re such complementary forces, they’re the musical embodiment of #RelationshipGoals.
Liberation is just another Christina Aguilera album. Its grandiose title clashes with its content, like an Instagram caption used to justify the posting of a thirst trap pic. I’ve listened multiple times in its entirety, and I still have no idea what the concept of liberation means to Aguilera. There are no clues to be found in the title track, a nearly two-minute overture, which opens with her whispering, “Where are you? Are you there?” A child laughs and then squeals and then laughs some more, piano and strings weave together an increasingly fraught, cinematic design, and then, at the conclusion, Aguilera asks, “Remember?” Uh…no? Later on, there’s the trip-hoppy “Fall in Line,” another entry in her empowerment songbook, in which she and Demi Lovato wail, at each other, refusals to comply with male expectations.
She seems liberated there, as do the young girls who make up the preceding interlude, “Dreamers,” by reciting things they’d like to be when they grow up (a screenwriter, a superhero, the president). But when she busts out the whips and chains for the midtempo synth ballad “Masochist” (“I! Must! Be! Some! Kind! Of! Masochist!/To! Hurt! My! Self! In! This! Way!/’Cause! Lovin’! You! Is! So! Bad! For Me!/But! I! Just! Can’t! Walk! Away!” she howls during the hook), she subverts the concept of liberation in a manner that seems more ill-considered or even accidental than anything.
A particularly egregious R. Kelly reference (“Damn boy, you remind me of my Jeep”) during “Pipe” is enough to suggest to me that maybe Aguilera doesn’t know what liberation means to her either. How could someone who’s been singing about women’s equality for so long be comfortable invoking a man who’s been accused of literally imprisoning women? On an album titled Liberation, no less?
Her definition of liberation is unclear even in the press accompanying this album cycle. To W, she said, “Liberation is about getting back to that little girl me.” But this is a grown record, as evident in “Pipe” (“I get loud when you put that pipe down, pipe down, pipe down”). To Out, it seems she was suggesting she’s liberated from her stint on The Voice. That seems like relatively low stakes to orient an album around, but I guess the sheer variety of humanity means triumph exists on a sliding scale.
By now, we know that whatever Aguilera says is secondary to how she says it, and how she says it is often in a sort of melodic projectile shouting, curdled with rue. Her signature belting style reminds me of that of the roaring shark at the conclusion of Jaws the Revenge, not only in tone but in that I’ve heard it and wondered, “Is that… carbon-based?” I’m not a big fan of the way Aguilera uses her voice, but I almost admire the intensity—there’s something that hearkens back to classic melodrama in her near-constant state of agitation. There’s a line on the Liberation piano ballad “Deserve” that makes me laugh every time I hear it: “Sometimes we can’t kick the habit of being dramatic/It’s almost becoming a sickness.” If that’s the case, Aguilera has been almost sick for 20 years now.
It’s all in service of making blowing people away as literal of an experience as possible. I know she’s got power, but I know she’s got 101 ways to use that voice—she suggests Gwen Stefani with perfect pitch when she dons a babydoll persona on the sparse dancehall of “Right Moves” and even at full-throttle, her voice cruises over the oohs of “Deserve” with a surprising smoothness. The last minute of cooing during “Accelerate,” the album’s clear bonkers highlight (a percussion-free hook!), is as sublime as any recording she’s ever released. But overall, listening to her full albums, as I always do (I! Must! Be! Some! Kind! Of! Masochist!), makes me tense. When she isn’t virtuosically barking out words and melisma, I’m on edge wondering, “When is she going to start yelling at me?” Listening to a Christina Aguilera album is like spending time with an oppressive parent.
This press cycle, Aguilera has taken to calling herself a soul singer in multiple interviews. There she has stumbled into a thought experiment: Is it possible for a star who has never gone further than No. 38 on the R&B singles chart to be considered a “soul singer?” That is, if Aguilera hasn’t connected with the most concentrated audience for soul in any substantial way in the past 20 years, can she still be considered soul? She might think so, but her Whitney Houston tribute at this year’s American Music Awards was widely mocked, particularly by Black Twitter. There is innate soul and then there is the performance of it, and while the latter may share traits with the former, it’s actually its diametric opposite.
Regardless, Aguilera has been singing this way for so long that even if it falls short of (or even defrauds) the soul tradition, it is her truth. And maybe Liberation, on which Aguilera says little she hasn’t said before or doesn’t go on to somehow contradict, is revealing despite itself. Maybe the lack of concept is the concept itself. What else is Aguilera going to do at this point besides keep releasing new albums in attempt to reconnect with a general public that has been increasingly apathetic since her TRL-era breakthrough almost 20 years ago? As a former child star, this singing life is essentially all she knows, career-wise. Despite her last two albums— 2010's Bionic and 2012's Lotus—notoriously flopping, she keeps on going. What’s she going to do, work at Strawberry?
Aguilera’s status as a pop star precedes her, mostly given the success she had in the first 10 years of her career, though by now that legacy (as, at least in some minds, one of the greats) looks like an ill-fitting sweater she hasn’t yet grown into. The treadmill of releasing an album that doesn’t connect, and then attempting a few years later for a comeback by doing the exact same thing with different songs, seems more like a prison than liberation. Maybe the title is her version of protesting too much.
Correction: The original version of this review stated that “Accelerate” came the closest of any of Liberation’s releases to hitting the Hot 100 chart; this is untrue—“Fall in Line” hit No. 1 on the Bubbling Under chart, which is to say that it still failed to hit the Hot 100, but failed slightly less (“Accelerate” hit No. 24 on the Bubbling Under). The text above has been amended to reflect this.