In the history of pop music, there is exactly one good song about celebrity: Fame, which required the combined effort of David Bowie and John Lennon to be brought into existence. Otherwise, from the Rolling Stones' Star Star to Britney Spears' Lucky, the subject has been a disaster for any artist who comes near it. It's not that people aren't interested in celebrity--Mary Hart's summerhouse is a monument to the contrary--but that the pleasures it provides are voyeuristic, defined completely by the distance between the famous person and the average viewer. But great pop music erases distance. It takes our dumbest secret thoughts (He doesn't like me! No one has ever loved as deeply as I am loving right now!) and, with three chords and some magic dust, renders them glorious and universal.
On their enormously hyped end-of-summer albums, Christina Aguilera, Paris Hilton, Beyoncé Knowles and Jessica Simpson all at least pretend to provide their listeners with the universality of great pop. But each singer--or, in Hilton's case, the person whose voice rises and falls rhythmically on the album--is known as much for her multiplatform celebrity as for her songs. All four women feel the need to tend to constituencies that may have wandered over from TV, the multiplex or the gossip-mag rack, and inevitably they usher their notoriety into their music. For those of us who like pop for pop's sake, the degree to which the albums succeed is entirely a function of how much the singers keep any mention of their fame--and the distance it creates--to a minimum.
With her previous album, Aguilera became a much bigger story than her music, largely because she appeared to have arrived on the set of the video for her song Dirrty direct from an intergalactic hooker convention. (She earned that extra r.) Aguilera's latest is titled Back to Basics, a signal that she's put away the assless chaps and is ready to focus. Basics, already the top-selling album in the country, sprawls over two discs, the lesser of which is dedicated to the singers who have inspired her. On Back in the Day, over vinyl scratches and a minimalist beat, she ticks off her roster of heroes (Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, etc.) as if the past is a green room in which she can mingle with legends without regard for their individuality; in the end, all the greats just get filed under "fun music." Aguilera doesn't know much about history, but she has a voice with the blasting power of a fire hose and the gumption to treat every song like a five-alarm blaze. She absolutely devours Makes Me Wanna Pray and Ain't No Other Man, a great big goofy love song that moves with such pace and brass that you can imagine taking two quick steps, thrusting out your chin and taking flight over its chorus.