‘Bionic’: How Christina Aguilera became a flop (Xploring Xtina Part 4)

Bionic. Flop. Even to this day, either words evoke the nostalgic memories of when I was a 16-year old teenager witnessing the miserable unfolding of Christina Aguilera’s fourth studio album. The Bionic era is iconic for all the wrong reasons: my hopes were huge, fresh off of me discovering her discography a year earlier, and I have not personally experienced a more memorable flop era in pop music since (maybe except ARTPOP, but that’s debatable).

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I recall the Bionic days with great detail. It was 2010, and the year had started with fans having no idea what the album would be called. All we knew was that it would be the opposite of Back to Basics (a throwback to old sounds), venturing into the future with electronica. The world already had a little taste of it in 2008, when Christina commemorated a decade in her career via a greatest hits album and one electropop single: “Keeps Gettin’ Better”, which debuted at #7.

Who knew that would be Christina’s only successful attempt at electronic music, and that was pre-Bionic, I have to add.

In February 2010, Christina shared in an interview with Marie Claire that the album would be called Bionic, and fans (myself included) were beyond enthusiastic. The title was the perfect blend of electronica with empowerment, one of Christina’s most-sung themes as a postfeminist.

Two months later, her website was redesigned and featured a daily countdown revealing bits of information of her new music, such as the title of the lead single: “Not Myself Tonight”.

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When the song, co-written by Pitch Perfect’s Ester Dean, dropped in April, it quickly became my most-listened song of the week, then month, then year. “Not Myself Tonight” was my favorite song of 2010. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for pretty much the rest of the world.

Even though it was the most-added song on radio the week it premiered, the song entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #23 and never went any higher, a notable contrast to “Keeps Gettin’ Better,” a greatest hits single that entered in the Top 10. But it had been two years since 2008, and to say the music industry had changed drastically would be an understatement.

2009 saw the arrival of a new pop juggernaut, the inescapable Lady Gaga, and along with the reinvention of the Black Eyed Peas. Both acts propelled electronic dance music to the top of the charts, dominating airwaves with gigantic hits: “Just Dance,” “Poker Face”, “Boom Boom Pow”, “I Gotta Feeling”. At the tail-end of the year, Kesha‘s “Tik Tok” blew up on radio. EDM took over the world, and 2010 would see fellow artists jumping on this electronic bandwagon.

“Not Myself Tonight”, a three-minute electropop song produced by Polow da Don, now had to compete with many other EDM singles, including the colossal hits churned out by Lady Gaga herself. It also didn’t help that two years ago, Christina was accused of stealing Lady Gaga’s platinum blonde look. Christina’s diminished relevance (owing to another four-year absence), coupled with Gaga’s monstrously growing popularity, meant Christina was fighting an uphill battle.

Then came “Not Myself Tonight”‘s music video, which was supposed to pay tribute to Madonna‘s “Justify My Love” and “Express Yourself” videos. Instead, viewers redirected the video to Lady Gaga; they found to be an S&M freak show blatantly attempting to out-freak Gaga’s shocking, unconventional style. And even with Gaga out of the equation, viewers were no longer intrigued by a sexualized Christina video; “Dirrty” did that in 2002.

While the comparisons to Britney Spears did little to drown Christina back in 1999, the Gaga headlines were swarming Christina mercilessly. Perez Hilton, who was a valiant Gaga supporter back then, was rumored to be fronting a smear campaign against Christina. The “Beautiful” singer had to do damage control on radio shows, insisting that there was no rivalry between her and the Lady she once bluntly referred to as a “newcomer” in a magazine interview.

Meanwhile, “Not Myself Tonight” was losing even the little traction it had acquired with listeners. Christina and her label had to shift gears to a new single: “Woohoo”, an upbeat song about vaginas (“all the boys think it’s cake when they taste my woohoo”) and features Nicki Minaj, who at the time, was still relatively new.

At a medley performance at the MTV Movie Awards, Christina performed a medley, starting with “Not Myself Tonight,” then title track “Bionic” before closing with a chorus of “Woohoo”. The performance ended with a closeup of Christina’s crotch lit up by a heart-shaped light. It barely made headlines; if people wanted to discuss Christina, it would only be when they were comparing her to Gaga.

And somehow, that performance was the only time Christina ever promoted “Woohoo.” For unknown reasons, it didn’t get a single cover or a music video, so without any decent promotion, the song fizzled off the charts after only a week at #79. (To think “Dirrty” was considered underwhelming at #48.)

Finally, Bionic dropped in June and sold 110,000 copies in its first week, a far cry from the 346,000 she sold four years ago with Back to Basics. It entered the Billboard 200 at #3, behind the Glee and Twilight soundtracks. Stripped may have missed the top spot as well when it debuted back in 2002, but it still sold thrice the amount Bionic pulled.

Elsewhere around the world, the album did ordinarily. It entered the UK charts at #1, but with the lowest number of copies ever sold for a chart-topper, then registered the biggest fall off the top spot one week later when it sank to #29. (Fortunately, these records have since been bested due to the advent of streaming.)

The disappointing performance of Bionic cemented Christina as being a bonafide flop. At this point, one may be quick to blame it all on the pro-Gaga smear vehicle that ruined “Not Myself Tonight” and eventually the album. However, the album’s questionable merits do warrant its lack of success.

“Not Myself Tonight” remains my favorite song that year, but sonically, it’s unlike anything else on the album. The song was a last-minute addition to Bionic, following additional sessions after Christina had wrapped up her first movie, a musical musical film called Burlesque. This meant that the singer didn’t have time to write in the studio, but was requesting pre-written tracks to consider recording. The song was also Christina’s strongest contender of impacting the charts, because everything else on Bionic was pretty bad.

Electronica is a diverse genre, and during the years conceiving and producing the album, Christina found herself lost on the wrong side of the electronic spectrum. Many of the electronic songs on Bionic are experimental and just don’t sound as polished compared to the sledgehammering beats of RedOne and will.i.am.

The titular “Bionic” is an absurdly textured track with cheesy lyrics: “gonna get you with my electronic, supersonic rocket, ey!” “Elastic Love,” which sings about rubber bands and staplers, was produced by M.I.A., an indie electronic artist. “Prima Donna” and “My Girls” are produced so thinly, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta. Even “Glam,” which was originally intended as the first single, would never be played in a club in a million years.

If it makes any sense, Bionic sounds more like an alternative, experimental electronica record, Christina exploring the electronic sounds that that don’t appeal to bonafide EDM producers. (Eventually, Christina would adopt mainstream electronica when she collaborated with Max Martin on some of the tracks on her subsequent album, Lotus, but that’s a story for another time.)

In attempt to salvage Bionic, Christina and the label decided to release a non-electronic ballad as a second single proper: “You Lost Me,” penned by Sia, who was then-unknown to mainstream America. This was RCA pulling the same strategy again: issue a ballad as a second single the way “Beautiful” and “Hurt” were hits to varying degrees.

Albeit the questionable production of the electronic songs on Bionic, the “organic” ballads in the middle of the album that Christina calls “the heart of the record” were actually good.

Unlike “Woohoo,” “You Lost Me” got the full promotion: a single cover, a music video, more televised performances and even a radio remix to bolster sales. Sadly, the unthinkable happened: “You Lost Me” failed to make any of the Hot 100’s chart positions, signifying that Bionic was a certifiable, unsalvageable flop.

Christina abandoned the Bionic ship following the failure of “You Lost Me.” A Bionic Tour planned for the third quarter of 2010 was initially “postponed”, but it was really cancelled owing to underwhelming sales. Had it gone as planned, it would have included Leona Lewis as an opening act, something the British singer would’ve also needed because her career was also slowing.

In November, Christina reemerged in the media in an entirely different mode: to promote Burlesque, with no mention of more singles or tour plans for Bionic.

It’s a really tragic story every time I recount the Bionic era. Christina was so pumped up for the album. In one interview leading up to the album release, she had mentioned how the single releases would each demonstrate a different flavor. Releasing only two singles properly was certainly not how she had planned for the world to experience Bionic.

In future interviews two years later, Christina described Bionic as an “artistic record” that was “too ahead of its time”, an interesting shift from her original rhetoric. When she first promoted Bionic, she saw it as a mainstream record where she returned to her “pop” roots; nothing “artistic” or experimental like the critics had eventually saw Bionic as.

And while I can let the “artistic” comment slide, I can’t agree that Bionic was too ahead of its time, because nothing ever sounded like Bionic in the end. The album was an electronic album gone wrong. It’s not an atrocious album; I do revisit a few electronic tracks (“Desnudate”, “Vanity,”) but the album is a gross misfire put out at the worst time: when EDM was competitive, selective and pop culture had become more unforgiving than ever.

Without experiencing any success, Christina’s fanbase shrank even further, attention and relevance shifting over to a newer crowd of pop stars led by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Kesha, all of whom only emerged in the last two years.

So I reminisce the Bionic days bittersweetly: some of these songs throw me back to my 16-year old days, a momentous time in my life (the album accompanied me through some painful science schoolwork.) But its ramifications on Christina’s career were deathly… and she hasn’t escaped them since.

Xploring Xtina is a weekly series of retrospective articles about Christina Aguilera’s albums, leading up to the release of her sixth studio album Liberation on June 15.

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