By Maureen Tant
Is Lady Gaga dirty? It might seem cruel to begin a critique of Christina Aguilera and her latest album, Bionic, with this reference. Aguilera has been accused of “appropriating” Gaga’s sound and style, especially during her recent performances (one of which included an LED-lit crotch).
To answer the question, no—Gaga isn’t dirty, at least not according to popular opinion. Though her lyrics are raunchy and she’s been known to wear little more than bubbles, she isn’t something we’re inclined to hide—instead, we celebrate her. Fans of Aguilera, on the other hand, think of her as a secret shame first and (hopefully) an artist second.
Notions of good and bad are inherently subjective, but examining both Aguilera’s and Gaga’s most recent music in terms of contemporary culture reveals the two to have nearly equal merit. Gaga is lauded for her videos, but even their complexity can’t hide lyrics like, “Just a second, its my favorite song they gonna play/And I cannot text you with a drink in my hand, eh?”
In continuing analysis through this filter, Aguilera is not any more or less dirty than Gaga—though she is older, and has been in the media much longer. This might seem like something that would give Aguilera an advantage. She has more experience than her fresher counterparts; she was “Dirrty” first, and she has several hits under her belt, some of which are at least as complicated as Gaga’s chart-toppers. Our aversion to Aguilera’s attempt at a comeback points to a conditional acceptance of liberated sexuality: we’ll take vulgarity, to a point.
Like so many phenomena, popular beliefs about liberating and repressing sexuality come in waves. In the early 2000s, the red-leathered, “slut-wave” of the 90s finally began losing momentum but it wasn’t until about 2006 that the next wave—a trend toward modesty—was totally visible. Aguilera’s new look (soft curls, natural make-up, preppy clothes) was considered a keystone of that movement. She was applauded for cleaning up—an appropriate change considering the birth of her first child in 2008.
Earlier that year, Gaga’s “Just Dance” was released, though it didn’t break out of its “sleeper hit” status until the beginning of 2009. As much as Aguilera solidified “the modest approach,” (remember all those magazine spreads with side-by-side photos of a greasy-looking Aguilera and her newer, “purer” incarnation?) Gaga represents a return to sex.
We’ve established it is more difficult to be a fan of Aguilera’s music and work than Gaga’s, and in terms of launching trends in music, Aguilera beats Gaga—in addition to beginning her own mini-movement, Aguilera has a several hit songs and videos under her belt, as well as more experience in the industry.
It was easy to embrace Aguilera’s decision to wash off all that eyeliner because it seemed like she was finally taking control of her career. When she reverted back to vinyl swimsuits, it follows that those decisions appeared unintentionally disingenuous: Gaga’s deliberate deception was preferable (she might’ve been fond of rumors about being transgender, but at least those had political bite—at least they were something unusual).
There isn’t a single track on Aguilera’s Bionic worth listening to—they’ll each give you a headache after about 10 seconds. That Gaga comes out on top in this comparison has nothing to do with the music, though, or even that she’s the thing being emulated rather than the emulator. Upon closer examination, Gaga’s ideology is first concerned with self-expression, not exhibitionism. Gaga celebrates all sexual persuasions, including fans who would rather “cover up.”
Aguilera did everything right—according to the invisible, image-cultivating model of celebrity. Gaga’s directness in this area (in exaggerating her media character) makes us aware of how wrong Aguilera got it. She took Gaga’s messages about open-mindedness and used them to limit herself.
The beginning of Gaga’s career looks similar to Aguilera’s at its height, but through Aguilera’s shifts and reverses in character we’ve come to understand her as a product of both “the industry,” and strategies that don’t work anymore. When Gaga plays us, we know she is playing us—there isn’t an executive pulling her strings. As musicians, they’re equally terrible, but we forgive Gaga for her shortcomings because she’s genuine.