When surface-similar acts emerge at the same time, there’s an urge to paint them as rivals – not just personally but aesthetically. A pop moment becomes such when you have points to draw a line between. How much of this is marketing strategy, how much media shorthand, and how much the micropolitics of fandom? It’s hard to say. All we know for sure is that Christina Aguilera’s own strong-willed progression towards a singing career was swiftly and sharply reshaped to fit a story about an emerging generation of new teenpop stars. And in particular, she was compared to Britney Spears: the women’s shared Mouseketeer background making the pairing irresistible.
But the lines of this division were never well-drawn. They rested too much on these 1999 first impressions. What “Britney and Xtina” really have in common is the difference between the music they imagined they’d make, the music they ended up building a long-term career on, and the singles in between that made them famous. Just as Spears fancied singing husky Southern MOR more than dance-pop, Aguilera was shaping herself up as a big-voiced soundtrack artist, with a song for Disney’s Mulan her initial breakthrough, and she would later tack hard away from “Genie In A Bottle”’s modern bubblegum sound. Watching her 1999 interviews, she reminds me of an elite athlete as much as a pop star – much talk of focus and preparedness and a level-headed understanding that the real challenge is sustaining the peak, even more than reaching it.
The comparison points between the two artists fell on a very old, familiar scale: the authentic and the inauthentic, the popular favourite and the connoisseur’s pick, the “manufactured” and the “genuine talent”. These all spun out of one tough-to-deny point – Aguilera was the technically better singer – and a far more rickety comparison between Britney’s exaggerated wholesomeness and Christina’s slightly more worldly material. In fact, both women’s breakthroughs were products of compromise – dance-pop was required and dance-pop is what Christina got.
Where she got lucky, though, is making her debut at a moment when the idea of what made-to-order dance-pop might be was dramatically tilting. “Genie In A Bottle” is following a playbook of 90s pop number ones stretching all the way back to “The Right Stuff” – reaching across for inspiration to the R&B or hip-hop charts. But where such moves often sounded comically awkward, the music “Genie” is partly drawing on for its production ideas – the futurist R&B of Destiny’s Child, TLC, Aaliyah et al – is a tremendous fit for pop vocalists: interesting enough to let weaker singers sink into the production, while creating a gymnasium for stronger ones.
“Genie In A Bottle” isn’t that kind of modern R&B track, though. The reason the Freelance Hellraiser’s graft of Christina’s vocals onto the Strokes’ “Hard To Explain” in 2002 worked so well is that “Genie” is a production-agnostic pop song – structurally straightforward and never built around its production in the way an Aaliyah or Kelis hit might be. The borrowings from R&B – the stuttering rhythm lines and staccato keyboard s – are basically decorative, reminders of a thrilling sound rather than attempts to engage it. But they mesh wonderfully with all the other decoration that’s thrown in here – the introductory piano flourish, and the gorgeous splashes of Latin Freestyle synth before the “My body’s saying let’s go…” line. And R&B is so fertile in 1999 that even something half-reminiscent of it can end up one of the most exciting pop records of the year.
Faced with all this ornamentation, and a genre that she doesn’t particularly care about anyhow, Aguilera goes rococo herself, treating the song as a showcase, matching it curlicue for curlicue. For the first half of “Genie” she’s mostly ticking off the fact that, yes, she can do teenpop very well if she’s asked to – though if there’s a flaw in the song it’s that she’s no melodramatist, and the “racing” hormones sound as under control as anything else. At the back end, though, Aguilera shifts gear, offering a delirium of overlapping vocal lines and tones and tricks all tumbling over each other to match the song’s bombast. It’s marvellous – and like “Baby One More Time”, “Genie In A Bottle” is a hell of a calling card. Unlike “Baby One More Time”, it’s slightly more impressive for the futures it seems to promise – pop that surrenders more fully to R&B; Christina Aguilera songs built for her – than the present it delivers.