They're young, thin and sex-obsessed - just perfect for pop stars in the 21st century. And now, after extended layoffs, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera are back with new albums, both of which - surprise! - are at the top of the charts.
Back in the day, to quote a title and lyric from Aguilera's ambitious double disc Back to Basics, the main criteria for making it into the Top 40, and onto American Bandstand or Soul Train, were melody and memory.
Today, it's all about rhythm and provocation. Just check out the first three songs on Timberlake's awkwardly named Futuresex/Lovesounds: the title track, "Sexyback" and "Sexy Ladies." Do you also see a trend here?
What's ironic, then, is how these slices of robotic techno funk don't come close to generating any heat. While Timberlake's role model for his 2002 solo debut, Justified, was sleek Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson, the former NSYNC leader and his en vogue collaborator/accompanist Timbaland (no relation) must have been listening to Prince circa 1984 when they were writing and recording this album - and Timberlake just doesn't have the soulfulness to pull it off.
Nor does he come up with a melody of any kind in the album's first five mono-chord songs. Though the tuneful, bluesy respite of "What Goes Around" shakes the thin dance floor veneer off the proceedings a little, Timberlake quickly moves on to underperform in another well-worn genre with "Damn Girl," a shlocky Seventies-style R & B romp that may remind old timers of catchy but disposable hits by the likes of the Hues Corporation.
Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that the only thing harder to take than R & B Justin is Balladeer Justin. "Until the End of Time" could have been decent in the hands of someone like George Michael, but Timberlake's gospel makeover doesn't quite cut it against a background of thudding techno drums and the song's hokey call-and-response finale.
But hokey is only just beginning, with the anti-drug parable "Losing My Way" unfolding like a particularly melodramatic made-for-TV movie. As randy and sex-driven as the first part of the album may be, the last third is simply Wonder Bread - spongy and loaded with empty calories.
AGUILERA, on the other hand, has never had a problem singing with "flava." She can capture basically any style because of her vocal gifts, and on Back to Basics attempts to demonstrate her mastery of all genres. The album's first disc resembles Timberlake's production ethos with its mix of dance and R & B, while a second retro disc pays tribute to the Andrews Sisters on one song and Billie Holiday the next.
With a couple exceptions, Disc One is even more infuriating than Timberlake's album, in this case because it's clear Aguilera is capable of so much more. But like Timberlake, she ignores melody in favor of syncopation, and somewhere in every song uses that sliding-down-the-stairs banshee wail she patented in her 2001 cover of "Lady Marmalade." Her lyrics - about how she wants to be compared to the greats, how she's still "dirrty" despite her elegant new persona and how she's "here to stay" - leave one to conclude that she must have the biggest ego in showbiz. The closing "Thank You," which is dedicated to her fans, actually features recordings of fan club members deifying Aguilera - the ultimate exercise in self-aggrandizement.
But somewhere along the way, there are also musical highlights, especially on the swaggering "Makes Me Wanna Pray," a musical twist on Traffic's piano-driven "Glad" (which here features a rather surprising guest star in Steve Winwood).
Heartfelt ballads like "Oh Mother" and "Without You" allow Aguilera's astounding vocal abilities to shine, but more often than not, the underbaked songs and lack of melodic imagination sabotage any sparks that could potentially have been created.
Disc Two, a collaboration with star producer Linda Perry (Pink, Courtney Love), is the keeper here.
Torch songs like "Nasty Naughty Girl" and "I Got Trouble" join upbeat WWII-era-inspired barn burners like "Candyman" as fun romps that display Aguilera's talents to their fullest. It's only with songs like these that the singer begins to fulfill her self-proclaimed goal of earning comparisons with the soul and R & B greats who preceded her.
For both Aguilera and Timberlake, the desire to join the pantheon of pop superstars is undermined by one big problem. They certainly have the talent. But with Stevie, Aretha, Marvin, Otis, Smokey and so many others, success was ultimately a product not only of the singer, but of the song. For now, Timberlake and Aguilera have only half of the formula in place.
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