Christina Aguilera's just-released and much-talked-about comeback video, "Not Myself Tonight
," features the diva back in full Xtina mode. In one scene, she's tied up; in another, she kisses a female model. In other scenes, she brandishes a riding crop and crawls on all fours; is grabbed by backup dancers while her face is masked; and straddles a shirtless man while wearing only lingerie and (product placement alert!) her namesake cologne. Oh, and she also flips off the camera at one point.
Of course, overt sexuality and even outright raunchiness from Xtina is nothing new. After a start as a deceptively sweet teen warbler of Disney movie ballads, she broke out long ago as a sexy corseted courtesan in the all-star "Lady Marmalade" video, smooched Madonna onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards, and took her all-grown-up persona to a whole new adult level in her David La Chappelle-directed foxy boxing "Dirrty" video--a clip so racy and wild, it was parodied on Saturday Night Live, widely criticized by parents, and even banned by some outlets. But "Dirrty" was different. The iconography in "Dirrty" seemed original, thoroughly Xtina's own, while much of the imagery in "Not Myself Tonight" seems borrowed from other artists.
The pop-cultural references are obvious in some "Not Myself Tonight" scenes. The stark white background contrasted with Christina's black patent leather catsuit evokes Madonna's "Human Nature"; the contortionist yoga poses bring to mind Shakira's "She Wolf"; a moment when two male backup dancers grab her from behind is reminiscent of Janet Jackson's iconic Rolling Stone
cover portrait; and the scene in which a feline Christina laps from a bowl on the floor seems lifted right out of Madonna's "Express Yourself." And of course, there are multiple similarities to today's biggest female pop star, Lady Gaga: Her leather mask resembles a headpiece used in the audiovisuals on Gaga's "Fame Monster" tour, for instance, while Xtina's all-white ensemble and a scene when she lights the set on fire is reminiscent of Gaga's "Bad Romance" video. Perhaps the most "shocking" thing about Christina's new video isn't its sexually graphic imagery, but its lack of originality.
Of course, Xtina was around long before Gaga, and a couple years ago when Lady Gaga first hit the scene, it was Gaga who was compared to Christina, not the other way around. But when Christina married in 2005 and became a mother in 2008, she told the press that she was ready to leave her sexy image behind, out of fear of what her young son, Max, might think of her once he grew up. Christina's last album, 2006's Back to Basics, was in fact a notably more toned-down affair: Its sound hearkened back to 1920s, '30s, and '40s jazz and blues, and the more covered-up image she boasted at the time of the disc's promotion was all about old Hollywood glamour. But with her upcoming album, Bionic, she now seems ready to put the "X" back in Xtina and a third "r" in dirrty.
All this begs the larger question: Does Christina, despite her earlier affirmations that she wanted to be more conservative from now on, feel pressured to compete in an increasingly sexualized pop marketplace as she releases her first album in four years? If so, she's probably not the only one. In an age where now even teenage Miley Cyrus dances provocatively at the Kids' Choice Awards, and the burlesque-style Pussycat Dolls videos that once raised so many eyebrows now seem almost downright quaint, it seems pop stars, particularly female ones, are endlessly pressured to up the sexual ante. It's no longer enough to just make a cute video wearing a typical skimpy outfit; now females must push it farther and farther. It's not enough anymore for Shakira to shimmy her non-lying hips in a sarong; now she has to wear a flesh-colored unitard and twist herself into double-jointed pretzel poses in a wolf cage. (Miley appears in a cage in her latest video, too.) Britney Spears no longer titillates by performing in a schoolgirl skirt, red plastic bodysuit, or with a live snake; now she must appear in naked profile in a sauna and sing about threesomes. And even M.I.A., one female artist who's never used her sexuality to market herself, apparently still felt the need to make a shocking video that would get people talking, so she went another route and shot the extremely violent and disturbing "Born Free."
This is even the case with Lady Gaga herself. Gaga's lighthearted first video, "Just Dance," simply depicted her living it up with her fabulous friends at a raucous New York loft party; now in "Telephone," she's making out with butch female prisoners, plotting murders with Beyonce, and wearing little more than yellow "CAUTION" tape. And Gaga is hinting that her next video, "Alejandro," will be even more over-the-top. What's next? A snuff film?
Even the queens of pop haven't been immune to such seemingly internal pressure to be wilder, racier, and more controversial with each career stage. Madonna once shocked the masses by merely rolling on the floor in a see-through wedding dress, but later her career got to the point where she felt she had to release an entire coffeetable book filled with softcore photos of her romping with Vanilla Ice and Dennis Rodman and hitch-hiking in the buff to get attention. Nelly Furtado stopped being a cute granola girl and became a "Promiscuous" one. And Janet Jackson thought she could effectively promote her Damita Jo
album with that little "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. Obviously, not all attempts to be "shocking" pay off. That wannabe-sexy stunt almost killed Janet's career.
So, will Christina's "Not Myself Tonight" video pay off for her career? Well, in the past Xtina (like Madonna) has done a stellar job of reinventing herself--morphing from teen starlet to dirrty girl to jazz chanteuse to now, on Bionic, an edgy electro-goddess who collaborates with Sia, Santigold, Goldfrapp, Le Tigre, Ladytron, and even M.I.A. (Although some might argue that Bionic is an attempt to mimic Lady Gaga, too.) So it's possible that Christina's latest incarnation will prove successful as well. It'd just be a shame if "Not Myself Tonight" was merely a transparent and desperate ploy to keep up with the Gagas in an accelerated sexual age.
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