Keeps Gettin’ Better: A Decade of Hits
Original release: November 11, 2008
You know you’re getting older when the next generation’s pop heroes are in a reflective mood and have (sorta) enough of a catalog to back it up. When I was a kid, I discovered my mom’s copy of Peter, Paul & Mary’s 10 (Ten) Years Together collection. A whole decade, I marveled. That’s a really long time. While Christina Aguilera hasn’t been a public icon for exactly ten years — her first single, “Genie in a Bottle,” charted in the summer of ’99 — her longevity is certainly something to behold, especially when you recall how fleeting we’d predicted her career would be.
Christina was part of a bold late-’90s teen superstar wave, in what I snootily called at the time “the Spice Girls’ foamy, fluffy wake.” We were all sortsa high-horse then, those of us who’d “survived” the previous post-adolescent bonanza of the late ’80s and predicted a new cultural Armageddon via pitch-correction, drum machines, and Diane Warren claptrap mewled by faux-earnest sissies on bended knee (Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC) and pout-lipped Lolitas swiveling for daddy (Aguilera, Britney Spears). Back then Britney and Christina seemed to be locked in near-weekly battle for cultural relevance. (Jessica Simpson, though a combatant, didn’t matter.) Despite their individual popularity, Christina was forever the underdog to Britney’s deceptively wholesome, milk-fed appeal, despite being by far the stronger singer. You could hate her all you wanted, but you could not deny that Voice.
We first heard it in those halcyon days of the dot-com boom. Nothing but clear skies that summer and sex-kitten purrs through every opened window. “Genie in a Bottle” was a ubiquitous presence wherever you went. You couldn’t escape the robo-handclaps, that throttling bass, and a 19-year-old’s new come-hither. “If you want to be with me,” it warned, “baby, there’s a price to pay.” Unlike many of her pop-tart counterparts, Christina wasn’t angling for your love, boy. There were rules: hers. Aguilera’s follow-up, “What a Girl Wants,” was further demonstration of this independence: “I want to thank you/for giving me/time to breathe…while I got it together.” As much as I loathed both singles, I must admit they’re infectious as hell. That I remember their money-shot choruses without prompting — and I’ve never owned a Christina Aguilera album in my life — after all these years is undeniable proof of their strength and potency.
Keeps Gettin’ Better covers all the Christinas we’ve seen over the last nine years. That’s a lotta wild bouffants, lotta buttery acreage of flesh, lotta donning and discarding of personas in near-perpetual confusion. Offerings from her eponymous debut cast the young singer as teen vixen still awkwardly stumbling in her first pair of pumps and tugging her Cosmo talk to absurd lengths (“sex-shu-al-uh-tayyyyy,” in “Come On Over Baby [All I Want Is You]”), moves likely followed by an astonished naughty giggle. But she also plays the Disciplined Good Girl at the school recital, rending eyes a-shimmer across a darkened auditorium with well-practiced schmaltz (“I Turn To You”).
Unfortunately, she suffered the fate that befalls many a young artist making the public transition to adulthood, where growing up is less about maturity than about becoming an object of fantasy. Although a hit, “Dirrty” might not have been the wisest career move, one made when she and Britney were still desperately trying to out-slut each other. (Christina apparently won with an eye-popping Maxim shoot and by fondling herself under guit on tha cover of tha Rolling Stone, but Kentwood‘s Pride & Joy checkmated by marrying twice at lightning speed and siring two kids with actual human filth.) Aguilera righted that wandering vessel with 2006’s “Hurt,” an astonishingly adult composition, the painful flip to “What a Girl Wants”: “I’m sorry for blaming you for everything I just couldn’t do/And I’ve hurt myself by hurting you.” Not that she still couldn’t deliver the wink and a promise, shimmying to the retro swing of “Candyman” with a spirited Andrews Sisters impression so bawdy it’d make even the most promiscuous bugle-boy swoon.
After exploring its subject’s many sides, Keeps Gettin’ Better finally unveils Future Christina via a retro-space-age Barbarella cover shot and four new songs. Well, not exactly new, per se: “Genie 2.0” sends her ’99 debut down ominous erotic alleys while “You Are What You Are (Beautiful)” rebroadcasts 2002’s “Beautiful” as a spooky transmission from a long-dead planet. Of the remaining pair, the title track is rescued by a forceful four-alarm chorus (“Some days I’m a super bitch up to my old tricks/but it won’t last forever/Next day I’m your super girl, out to save the world/And it keeps getting better”). Sadly, poor little “Dynamite” might not be around for roll call on subsequent packages.
Paint by numbers though it may be (Aguilera’s hit-string more or less demands a specific track list with little deviation; obvious omissions include her holiday fare, Spanish-language heritage tributes, and “Lady Marmalade” collaboration with P!nk, Lil’ Kim, and Mya; but, then, could the song, without a one-performer focus, appear on any of those artists’ career retrospectives?), Keeps Gettin’ Better is an admirable attempt at corralling the whirlwind of Aguilera’s ongoing trajectory. Meanwhile, rival Britney, battered by life and tabloids, prepares for her second comeback in two years. Christina, on the other hand — as this collection handily proves — never went away.