Bionic may have been Christina Aguilera‘s most iconic, failed era, but statistically, it’s nothing compared to its successor two years later, 2012’s Lotus, which was barely an era anyway.
But before we begin deflowering Lotus, it’s only fair to highlight certain key events in Christina’s career in between albums.
2011 saw the singer, now past 30 years of age, experiencing some unprecedented success. First, she joined NBC’s new singing competition The Voice as the show’s only female judge/coach, and was the highest-paid of the lot.
The show turned out to be an instant hit. It stole viewers from American Idol, which was declining in ratings even with Jennifer Lopez shaking up the judging panel, and cast a shadow on Simon Cowell‘s The X Factor, which couldn’t turn things around even when it enlisted Britney Spears as judge a year later.
Amidst the career tribulations, Christina was winning her peers again. She had scored her first #1 hit in 1999 with “Genie in a bottle”, the year Britney and Jennifer did the same with “…Baby One More Time” and “If You had My Love” respectively. Over a decade later, she was back on top (at least on TV) while her peers struggled beneath her.
That wasn’t even the only success she experienced that year. The Voice introduced her to Adam Levine, lead singer of Maroon 5, and together, they created a career-reviving #1 hit with “Moves Like Jagger.” Christina may have only sang the bridge and ad-libbed the final chorus, but it was nonetheless a chart-topper with her name attached, at a time when people had written her off as a flop.
But what seems to be a period of flourishing proved temporary, because come 2012, Christina’s attempts to reignite her music career extinguished fairly quickly.
Lotus, her fifth studio album, was slated for release in November, only two years after her last album, the shortest wait between Christina Aguilera albums. This also meant Lotus enjoyed the least amount of refining, but two years is still an adequate, common gap between pop albums. Besides, artists like Rihanna were churning hit albums annually back then.
Named after the “unbreakable flower,” Christina conceived Lotus almost as a second Stripped, describing it as deeply personal once again. The album cover even took a leaf from that of Stripped‘s: Christina’s long hair covers her otherwise bare breasts, though the 31-year old singer was now completely naked, only ray of light protecting her modesty.
She also saw the new album as a gift to “the next generation,” inspired by the crowd of young, budding singers competing on The Voice.
The album was spearheaded by the release of the lead single “Your Body” in September, coinciding with the third season of The Voice. …and that was pretty much the only strategic move on Christina and her label’s part, because everything else that unfolded was an indisputable mess.
The sexy dance-pop track was Christina’s way of reconciling pop with mainstream EDM, not the experimental kind that misinformed Bionic. Co-written and produced by the esteemed Max Martin, who was responsible for many radio hits over the years, (including “…Baby One More Time” and Katy Perry‘s “I Kissed A Girl”) “Your Body” was concocted as a career comeback. Christina herself was not one of its writers; this was the label clamping down that she needed a strong audience-pandering single to lead Lotus.
And musically, it was Top 10 material– Top 20 at least, except Christina’s mainstream popularity had taken a hit since Bionic. It seemed that even with the success of her on The Voice and “Moves Like Jagger,” the public just wasn’t keen on a solo Christina song.
Meanwhile, EDM was starting to oversaturate in 2012. The biggest hits that year were surprisingly non-electronic: Carly Rae Jepsen‘s infectious bubblegum pop “Call Me Maybe,” fun.‘s indie rock “We Are Young” and Gotye‘s indie alternative “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Even with the correct style of electronica, artists could not guarantee a hit, especially if one’s popularity had been waning in recent years.
As a result, “Your Body” entered the charts at #34, 11 spots below Bionic’s lead single “Not Myself Tonight.” It began to decline the Billboard Hot 100 as the weeks went by, thanks mostly to a lack of promotion.
Christina never once performed “Your Body” during the Lotus promotional cycle. She couldn’t perform it on The Voice, which at the time of the single’s release, would only commence with live shows in two months. But instead of looking elsewhere, Christina waited that two months… only to perform it once on Jimmy Fallon, as part of an a capella segment using office supplies. What transpired was more a comedic skit than an actual pop performance.
“Your Body,” which was crucially meant as Christina’s comeback solo single, never bested its #34 position. It’s still a higher chart rank than “Dirrty”‘s #48, but while people talked about “Dirrty” back in the day, no one cared about “Your Body.” “Dirrty” also stuck around on the charts for 20 weeks; “Your Body” disappeared after nine.
On album release week, Christina finally began proper TV promotion for the album, starting with a performance of album cut “Make the World Move”, which features fellow The Voice judge Cee Lo Green.
The choice of song was understandable: a duet between judges always makes good telly, but the song was ultimately not serviced into a single. That means the general public didn’t need to care about the song. It was a wasted opportunity at pushing a would-be single.
To make things worse, a plumper-than-usual Christina couldn’t have made a worser choice of outfit during the performance, opting for an unflattering dress and a ridiculous pink wig. She then ended the performance botching her high note. It’s since become a staple in montage videos on YouTube of vocal blunders.
A week later, Christina appeared at the American Music Awards (AMAs) to perform a medley comprising album cuts yet again. Similar to her Bionic medley two years ago at the MTV Movie Awards, Christina begins with the awful title track, (this time, the horrifying “Lotus Intro,”) which chewed up one of her only four minutes allotted on stage.
Her second part of the medley, a non-single “Army of Me,” is a lesser sequel to “Fighter,” but frankly I’d rather she perform this one than redo “Fighter” for the billionth time. Unfortunately, Christina botches the high note in this one too, yelling searingly into the microphone.
Finally, Christina ended with “Let There Be Love,” the only song worthy of an award show performance, except she jumped straight to the chorus because she only gave it one minute of her time; the same length as the unneeded “Lotus Intro”.
The AMAs medley was a choppy, half-assed mess and definitely didn’t contribute significantly to sales, as observed when Lotus debuted at #7 (four spots lower than Bionic) with sales of 73,000 copies (40,000 less than its predecessor). When people had thought Bionic was Christina at her lowest, Lotus proved everyone wrong by going lower.
To add to fans’ misery (what little fans she had left by now), “Let There Be Love”, the fan favorite that was also produced by Max Martin, never became a single, even after its inclusion in the AMAs medley.
The song eventually gained traction with club DJs, and in June 2013, reached #1 on Billboard Dance Club Songs, a chart ranking the weekly most-spun songs in US clubs. But even that wasn’t an indicator to the label that the song could save the withering Lotus. As a thank-you to fans that rooted for the song, Christina put together a music video using home video footage, most of which don’t show the singer herself.
Instead of “Let There Be Love,” the label opted for the album’s country ballad as its second single. “Just A Fool,” the album’s closer which features Blake Shelton (also a judge on The Voice), was honestly single material like “Let There Be Love”, but it didn’t ignite anyway. After all, it received the “Woohoo” treatment: no single cover, no music video, and sparse promotion.
By 2013, the Lotus era had ceased, marking only four months of existence.
Does it even matter if the album was any good or not? For one, it was decently listenable for the most part, yet it lacks the conceptual distinction that made Christina’s past four albums unique, Bionic included.
In other words, the music from Christina’s first four albums had a unique sound that listeners could identify and peg the tracks to. Christina’s debut album was a teen pop record. Stripped took a more grittier, urban, sometimes soulful direction. Back to Basics was most distinct with its fusion of blues, jazz and pop, while Bionic was primarily an electronic album.
Conversely, Lotus sounds like an average pop album with no particular sound embodying and unifying the record. It’s not incoherent, but it falters with self-identification.
That said, like every Christina Aguilera album, Lotus possesses a few select gems, such as the whimsical “Red Hot Kinda Love,” which Christina could’ve easily fitted into her first album, and “Blank Page,” a confessional ballad co-written by Sia, who had by 2012, exploded across the American mainstream.
I never expected Lotus to be a huge hit and right all the wrongs of Bionic, but I never thought it would do much worse than its predecessor and sink Christina further into the deep end. I do blame it on poor marketing decisions, although I sometimes wonder how much would’ve changed even if Christina’s label made the best choices.
Writing this Xploring Xtina series has been thoroughly enjoyable. Even though I may sound like a hater half of the time, it’s really because I paid close attention to Christina Aguilera since becoming a fan in 2009. I do want the singer to succeed, and it’s agonizing that her commercial success was limited to only the first seven years of the career.
With Liberation coming out next week, I don’t expect the next chapter in Christina’s career to do any good. My fingers are just crossed that it will produce one decent hit. But if that doesn’t happen, at least I’ll forever have “Genie in a Bottle.” And “What A Girl Wants.” And “I Turn To You.” And “Come On Over Baby.” And “Dirrty.” And “Beautiful.” And “Fighter.”
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.