She's got a voice Britney would kill for, but lately it isn't rubbing Chris Willman the right way
Christina Aguilera’s oversinging is dangerous to her career
When Christina Aguilera’s debut album came out last year, I said such nice things about her vocal talent in the pages of EW that her record label prominently quoted me in ads they took out to trumpet the release. Well, I just finished giving another listen to Aguilera’s holiday album, ”My Kind of Christmas,” and I’d like to take most of it back. It’s all chops and no maturity, resulting in some of the most ruinous oversinging since the glory days of Cher. Christina’s kind of Christmas involves hitting every note on the scale as often as possible, simply because, as another mountain climber once said, they’re there.
Oversinging is the curse of the gifted child singer, although relative elders like Celine Dion suffer from it as well. If you know much about music, you’re familiar with the term ”melisma,” which refers to the fine art of taking a syllable and stretching it through multiple notes. The word itself sounds almost like a disease, though, doesn’t it? Bingo. Mariah Carey is the Typhoid Mary of the highly contagious malady that makes every young female singer want to go to R&B’s most melismatic and melodramatic extremes. Carey is pretty much an empty vessel herself, but her voice is perfect enough that, at times, you might forgive the fact that she’s all about show and not connecting with her material. (It helps that said material is generally pretty vapid stuff.) But the Mariah venerators don’t get away with it so easily. Aguilera, for one thing, has a slightly nasal tone that really only becomes obvious when she’s overselling a song.
Aguilera wanted to make her first album more Mariah like, but producer Ron Fair wisely reined in her soul diva aspirations and came up with something more frothily attuned to the teen pop market while not completely abandoning her inclinations toward R&B balladry. As a result, that debut, while no great shakes overall, bears a few fairly nifty pop singles. I was reminded how I enjoyed parts of it as I watched Aguilera perform the charming ”Come On Over Baby” at the My VH1 Awards show at the Shrine. (No, it wasn’t the hot pants, you perv.) In a modest number like that, she can hint at the power she’s holding in reserve — a great voice, like sex appeal, benefits when you hold a little something back — and the song is too fast and tight to allow her to showboat much, anyway.
But on ”My Kind of Christmas,” Aguilera’s mentor, Fair, either wasn’t minding the farm or simply had to give up and let his now multiplatinum charge run roughshod over him. There are a couple of numbers here so fantastically oversung they’re appalling. One is ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin’s delicate music box of a tune, which was never meant to support heavy lifting along the lines of ”Hang a shining star upon the highest bough- ow- ow- ow- ow- OO- oh- OO- oh- oh- oh- oh- ohhhhh…” Needless to say, the bough breaks under all that weight. Two and a half minutes into the song, she hits some Mariah- like high notes that can be fully appreciated only by Mr. Winkle, and, exhausted just from following along with these gymnastics, you sigh relief that it’s over — but hey, that was no climax! She’s just getting started!
And I can scarcely begin to describe the abject unholiness of ”Oh Holy Night.” Two thirds of the way through that tune, after one particularly vampy bout of a cappella melisma, she lets loose with a self conscious chuckle. Is it the birth of Jesus that’s making her laugh so? No, she’s either snorting in appreciation of her own just proven gifts or signaling the listener that the song is about to kick into a campy, choir backed gospel overdrive. Either way, it’s all about the singer, not the song.
And that’s the very hallmark of oversinging right there: a lack of generosity on the performer’s part toward the tune that brung her to the dance, and an assumption that the song itself is a vehicle to be misused and discarded. This kind of murderousness knows no bounds: Indeed, many perpetrators of melismatic overkill in R&B brag about how they picked up their style in church, as if trying too hard somehow connotes holiness. And anyone who’s ever been through a few gospel marathons knows that some of the singers are in touch with the spirit of the Lord and some sound like they’re trying to whip the audience up at ”Star Search.”
Now, some readers will think we ought to cut Aguilera a big break because she’s one of the few representatives of teen pop who can carry a tune, much less run with one. That was my line of argument when the first album came out, too. But saying Christina is a much better singer than Britney Spears or Mandy Moore is like saying The Rock is a better athlete than Crispin Glover. It’s true, but irrelevant. She’s still a veritable lass and still has time to develop into the Barbra that Ron Fair once told me he envisioned her turning into. But it’s becoming evident that along the way she’ll need someone to convince her to use her superpowers for good, not evil.