Will we ever see or hear Xtina outside the prism of other high-profile female artists? She hit big once fellow Mouseketeer Britney Spears opened the door for singers just like her at the turn of the century. Next, she decided to go raunchy, retreading Madonna's blazed trail with cheaper, inferior product. By 2006's "Back to Basics," she of the brassy voice at least tried to show it off in a wide gamut running from swing to techno. Ambitious, yes -- and clearly a vocal talent that could put most of the others to shame -- but a chameleon. Will she ever be unique?
The answer on "Bionic," at first, is a triumphant no. She has the technology, but she can't rebuild a respectable sound. Even Aguilera herself sounds bored with the overproduced dreck she has to sing on the title track, vowing to "get you with my electronic supersonic rocket, ah-ah!" Hearing her powerful, flawless voice made to jabber through the dancefloor mush of "Not Myself Tonight" is positively infuriating. "I'll go back to the girl I used to be," she promises, "but, baby, not tonight" -- and the electronics splice up her last syllable. Cuz that's all edgy and stuff. Whatever.
From there, the skank returns. "Woohoo" uses that word as slang for female anatomy, just as tastefully as you imagine but at least with a sense of humor. (That track also employs the rapping of Nicki Minaj, whose debut CD has been pushed back all year, likely to gain a boost from this guest shot.) "Des Nudites" attempts to apply European glamour to stripping. "Glam" shamelessly -- OK, embarassingly -- apes Madonna's "Vogue," down to the sing-spoken fashion advice: "Don't let the clothes wear you."
But there's hope. Pay attention to the CD's cover art: a photo illustration of a primly made-up Aguilera, with half of her face peeled away to reveal cogs and circuits inside. Indeed, slightly more than half of this album is computer-crafted hackery, but in the middle are six back-to-back tracks that are jaw-droppers, and show stoppers -- all of them ballads.
Despite its title, "Sex for Breakfast" is the least lewd of the hormonal ditties here. More than that, the machine-made music backs off and lets Aguilera do what she came to this earth to do, which is sing so strong and so clear as to remind you why human voices evolved. Remember how George Michael closed "Faith" with "A Last Request," that "reprise" of "I Want Your Sex"? It was a softer moment, a slightly more desperate and hungry solicitation at a later hour, and the way he cooed it reminded us there was something more to him than his camera-lovin' butt. Aguilera succeeds similarly here, almost sounding like an actual adult when she sings (instead of pants), "I can see break of day beging through the curtains / and I'm so certain / soon I'm gonna feel your honey drip / my juices start to flow." Yeah, well, I said almost.
After that, it's a punishing reign of balladry blows: "Lift Me Up," a cliche-ridden but mighty and inspirational ballad that could go into the ring right now with the biggest Celine Dion contenders and come to a draw; "All I Need," a creative tune with an earthy refrain; "I Am," in which she sings like a lioness and begs/promises, "Take me / Free me / See through to the core of me / There will be no more pretending."
But, alas, yes there will. Because after the run of timeless ballads, she nips this in the bud with three more vapid dancefloor jams, complete with Xtina declaring herself to be "a fly bitch" in the sex-drenched "Vanity." Sigh. As long as she keeps giving us at least half of her human side, I suppose we can tolerate the bionic side. But just barely.