It's been a decade since Christina Aguilera first battled Britney Spears for pop supremacy. The age of multiplatinum album sales and cultural omnipresence has given way to guerrilla marketing and a fragmented audience.
But if Aguilera is going down, she's going down swinging.
Circling back to the grungy-sensual style found on 2002's Stripped, Aguilera ditches the '40s glitz of 2006's Back to Basics for an in-your-face carnality that would make R. Kelly blush. Bionic tries to assert Aguilera's dominance in the age of Ke$ha, but instead comes off like a scattered, desperate collection of ideas.
Bloated at 18 tracks, Bionic veers between the just plain stupid (the Nicki Minaj-assisted Woohoo, which celebrates, um, lady parts; Elastic Love, a song surely underwritten by Office Depot) and the genuinely moving ( Lift Me Up, a poignant track Aguilera premiered on the Hope for Haiti telethon).
Hearing a talented vocalist like Aguilera so plainly adrift is a bit startling, considering how firmly she gripped the zeitgeist just four years ago. Bionic's various moods never cohere.
Rather than chase trends, the 29-year-old needs to seriously consider her next step. The attempts to out-Gaga the competition have plainly failed, but that doesn't mean she should walk away from music altogether. Rather, Aguilera could reinvent herself as, say, the iPod generation's Barbra Streisand, a peerless set of pipes with a tasteful eye for material.
Just about anything would be a better use of time than more albums like Bionic.