Remember The Human: Christina Aguilera's Brazen Sexuality and Our Reaction To It
Unsurprisingly, I am mesmerized by the new Christina Aguilera video “Not Myself Tonight.”
No, that's a misstatement. I am mesmerized by the response to Christina Aguilera's video “Not Myself Tonight.” Look beyond the allegations that she's hijacked elements of Lady Gaga and late '80s/early '90s Madonna and zero in on the reaction to the brazen sexuality presented in the video.
A bejeweled ball gag, canes and crops, that chic Atsuko Kudo latex number, the Betony Vernon petting double ring (a charming piece that holds your fingers in the focus position common in meditation, and most convenient for a proper handjob), a bowl of liquid latex, exquisite collars, those glorious ballet stilettos -– these are just a few of the items showcased in the orgiastic lead single of her album Bionic.
And its got the nation's panties up in a bunch.
Sexuality, despite the assertion of many to the contrary, is not something with which our society is entirely comfortable. We're still waging wars about whether we can teach our children about sex in schools, allowing an artist's sexual preference to influence our decisions about the scope of his talent, and just last month a Kotex commercial that spoke a little too frankly about vaginas was banned from two major networks.
When I interviewed 30 Seconds to Mars' Jared Leto, I joked that their album This Is War, seemed to explore very sensual themes between the lines of their call to arms.
“I think rock and roll has gotten really asexual,” he told me, growing serious. “That’s obviously a big part of all of our lives, and I thought it important to address some of that.”
This Is War toed the line. Similarly, Lady Gaga has walked to the edge, but despite some of her more provocative lyrics and ensembles, she manages to put a space between herself and sex via absurdism, irony and kitsch. Say what you like about Aguilera making a desperate attempt to become relevant by clawing at Gaga motifs: the truth is that a closer look reveals that the two performers are tracing very different trajectories in their work, whether or not they're wearing the same dress.
FROM BUBBLEGUM POP TO DIRRTY GIRL TO HOLLYWOOD SIREN
Aguilera is no stranger to the backlash that comes when sexual expression suddenly finds its way into your work. Though a commercial success from the moment RCA Records picked her up, Aguilera was displeased with the lack of input she had on her music and image. After parting from her management and taking creative control in 2002, Aguilera completed her second studio album Stripped, which did more that raise a few eyebrows.
The sexually provocative album, accompanied by the singer's numerous appearances on the pages of magazines in various stages of undress, took a toll on Aguilera's popularity in the United States. The album ended up going four times platinum nevertheless, but the distaste remained, becoming apparent once again when Aguilera finally released Back to Basics four years later, a well-received double CD with accompanying videos and publicity that offered up the singer in '20s Hollywood glam.
Critics called it “maturing,” and comments such as the following that appeared in AllMusic began to surface in music publications around the country:
Back to Basics also makes clear that Stripped was a necessary artistic move for Christina: she needed to get that out of her system in order to create her own style, one that is self-consciously stylized, stylish, and sexy.
She needed to get unabashed sexual exploration out of her system so she could adopt a more conservative image and thus be sexy. That's an interesting statement.
I don't write about music or trends –- so why am I telling you all this?
Because it matters.
BACK TO BASICS, ON TO MOTHERHOOD AND BEYOND TO BIONIC
Aguilera married music marketing exec Jordan Bratman in 2005, just a year before the release of Back to Basics. She continued touring and released a hits album and a DVD before giving birth to her son Max in 2008. Then the focus shifted to motherhood. She stayed under the radar for about two years before she began to work on her newest album Bionic.
Naturally, much speculation surrounded the release of the album. Aguilera was even pulled into the unfolding mystery of iamamiwhoami (a viral campaign promoting an artist who to date remains anonymous), a series of clips so utterly bizarre, nothing else could have better illustrated our expectations for the album.
And now we have the first single, “Not Myself Tonight.”
BUT SHE'S A MOM
Twitter and the blogosphere came to life with criticism immediately upon the premier of the video. The obvious similarities to Madonna, Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson were brought up. But the biggest issue seemed to revolve around what was described as excessive sexuality portrayed in the video –- along with the fact that Aguilera is a mother. Melinda Newman at Hitflix didn't hesitate to jump in with the now common scandalized cry of “think of the children!” She writes:
Christina Aguilera is going to have some explaining to do. In a few short years, her young son Max is going to want to know why mommy has a gag in her mouth, why she’s on all fours drinking from a water bowl and why she’s kneeling between another woman’s thighs in her video for “Not Myself Tonight.”
Let’s be clear about one thing: If Aguilera’s goal is to show that she is one hot MILF without having to pose for Playboy, she’s made her point. She looks amazing. But we kind of get that the first 10 times she strips down to next to nothing. A little of this stuff goes a long way. By the end, it’s practically visually assaulting. The whole thing would have worked much better as a five-photo pictorial in Vogue. [ ... ] Christina, you’re better than this.
The furor surrounding the vide was such that Aguilera felt compelled to respond. She excused herself, telling AccessHollywood that her attraction to the erotic previously seen in her Stripped days had not disappeared and certainly not due to motherhood.
“I never claimed to be a cookie-cutter soccer mom,” she said. “That’s all good for some people. Not for me.”
Here's the funny thing about this. We live in a culture that has practically fetished the MILF (Mom I'd Like To Fuck). The issue isn't actually about her being a mom. Britney Spears did similar things after having her children and we didn't have too much of a problem with Circus.
Like Aguilera, Spears changed, too, but she changed publicly and consistently. We watched her downward spiral –- hell, by the way we devoured every piece of news that came out about her, it could even be said that we demanded it. So we allowed her this dip into the realm of sexuality. It fit our expectations. She's not “better than that.”
Christina Aguilera, on the other hand, has thoroughly confused the public. She has been inconsistent in the presentation of her personal brand, and this personality crisis has resulted in something particularly annoying: We have seen her as human. If we allow the introspection, we may even admit that we have seen our own trials in her grasping at identity not just within her own industry but also within her own body.
This is uncomfortable. The extra dimensions are confusing –- especially when you throw sex into the mix. This collide of her humanity against our limited, two-dimensional image of her conjures a frustrating, if not paralyzing, combination of emotions.
We don't like that. We like Lady Gaga, whose Warholian-inspired videos can best be described using a quote from the artist himself: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it.” Or, if we're going to allow for some degree of folly, we prefer the kind we feel we have somehow curated, like in the case of Britney Spears.
But let a woman disappear and reappear with the sort of gaps that Aguilera does, with that level of inconsistency and on top of everything throw in variables like a family life we know little about and now this blatant sojourn into the real of sex?
No wonder everyone is furious. Doesn't she understand anything about celebrity? Icon, the term we use to describe those who reach a certain status, doesn't refer to a two-dimensional representation for no reason.
There's a word for the sort of relationship we have with Christina Aguilera: parasocial. It refers to a one-sided interaction that carries with it the illusion of intimacy where none exists. As someone who writes for an audience, I am familiar with the much smaller variation of this phenomenon. I know what it's like to receive statements like, “You write so well; you're better than that.”
“That” meaning, of course, any expression of myself that doesn't fit the brand that readers have become accustomed to engaging. I've been criticized for being too extreme in my accounts of my exploration of sexuality. But because I have worked for over a decade to cultivate an audience, a certain level of sexuality has come to be expected simultaneously. Which means I've been criticized as well for being too emotional.
The model of the parasocial relationship that puts the audience at the mercy of the observed is incomplete. The truth is that the observed is also at the mercy of the audience.
My calling, as it regards writing, is to foster conversation about relationships and sexuality. I started writing online about my own experiences before there were blogs. I found that in sharing, I was creating a space for others to come and do the same, and that in so doing, readers were heartened and empowered in their own lives.
I have always known sexuality is important. I have always known it can be a labyrinth of conflicting constructs and instincts. My own experience has taught me that we are never done exploring and metamorphosing. We are human. Change is natural. Ideas change, desires change, priorities change, our bodies change –- everything changes and it never stops changing.
As someone creating a body of work with which people can identify and feel less alone, less confused, less misunderstood, and more willing to explore, to assess and to address themselves and their lives, it is a risk to change.
The problem here is that as humans, we're not static. We will change. We have to if we mean to continue on our own journey –- the one that feeds us and enables us to create the way that we do.
Many of you reading this create content online yourselves and have your own audiences. And all of us form part of someone's audience, too. What I am going to ask of you now is revolutionary, however familiar you may be with the expression. Are you ready?
Remember the human.
Your favorite fiction writer isn't just the creator of a world you like to live in. The sex columnist you read isn't just someone giving you juicy details of her life –- and she certainly isn't only made of those juicy details.
And Christina Aguilera isn't just a singer trying to make a desperate comeback by throwing Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga and Madonna into a blender, pouring the mixture over her head and then humping some furniture. She's a woman who's coming back into her own, within her industry, her body and her life.
Instead of resisting her journey and trying to corner her –- or anyone -– into your idea of who and what you think she should be, why don't you sit back and see where the journey takes her, and, as part of her audience, you?
Let her grow. Let her change. Let her have dimensions. Let her be a mother and a performer and a sexual being.
Let her be human.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.