Dec 14


Popular61 comments • 6,267 views

#837, 16th October 1999

aguileragenie 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.



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  1. 1
    mrdiscopop on 7 Dec 2014 #

    I didn’t care for this much at the time. It felt too deliberate compared to Britney. A genuinely “manufactured” pop moment, with none of the ease or spontaneity of Max Martin’s masterpiece.

    But then I heard the a capella and I was blown away. Her phrasing is impeccable, her pitch is flawless and she sounds completely in control of the material. As Tom suggests, she never sounds 100% engaged with the lyrics but I think that about a lot of the big divas’ delivery (Aretha, Whitney, etc).

    There was better (and much, much worse) to come from the Aguilera stable but she never quite capitalised on the early promise of this vocal performance. A seven from me.

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    Izzy on 7 Dec 2014 #

    Yes, a terrific record. I think the review gets it pretty much right.

    I would only add that the first chorus falls a bit flat, and that although this gets fixed later as it gets generally livelier (which is not a problem on the verses at all), the faint feeling of disengagement does linger. I’d be really interested to hear later Christina tackle it, to see if she’d choose to ham it up, and if the song copes. (8)

  3. 3
    Utter Dreck on 7 Dec 2014 #

    This was when I really began to love the teen-pop era, when the R&B spikiness and sense of play snuck in. Have fond, bandanna-friendship-bracelet-hair-mascara-wearing memories of this song inspiring an episode of teen satire show Popular.

  4. 4
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Dec 2014 #

    Fabulous piece of pop music – both playful and determined, musically, vocally, lyrically. Such a debut seemed to presage an outstanding career – but overall it turned out to be more “interesting” (to switch into the language of Yes Prime Minister euphemism), albeit with some notable highlights, rather than that. This, though, is a surefire NINE

  5. 5
    JLucas on 7 Dec 2014 #

    I really, really dislike Christina Aguilera and everything she stands for as a pop force. She’s a proto-Jessie J for me, the manifestation of what happens when sheer technical proficiency is elevated above any kind of love or joy for the art of pop music. There are some bunnies to come that I would rank amongst my most strongly disliked pop songs of the age. I would also single out another hit single from this album that didn’t go to number one – Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You), which is possibly the most joyless teen pop song I’ve ever heard in my life. The numerous reports about her being a deeply unpleasant individual don’t help me to warm to her either, although I could look past them if the music was any good.

    This, however, is a great pop song – but for me it’s great in spite of, rather than because of her. I think it’s very telling that she basically had to be forced to deliver a restrained vocal here, it’s just about the only moment in her career where she doesn’t bulldoze her own material with showboating. She’s everything Mariah Carey was (slightly unfairly) accused of being in the mid 90s.

    8 for a great pop song. I’ll be delivering considerably lower marks when we see her again.

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    StringBeanJohn82 on 7 Dec 2014 #

    Yeah have to agree with Tom on this one – a very very good pop/R&B song. Shame she never really topped it. I remember at the time she was kind of billed as ‘like Britney – but she can actually sing!’ I guess as Tom alludes, like a lot of people, she will forever be associated with the act she followed.

    I also felt even at the time that it was quite an explicit sexual reference for a number one song. I guess we’ve had ‘Freak Me’ so ‘gotta rub me the right way’ is pretty normal now. It never made any sense to me anyway – ‘if you wanna be with me, baby there’s a price to pay – I’m a genie in a bottle, gotta rub me the right way’. I fail to see how this is a price to pay.

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    Tom on 7 Dec 2014 #

    #5 I agree in places, disagree in places (as we’ll find out) – but evidence A for your argument isn’t just “Come On Over Baby” but her Christmas album, where (from memory of the one time I heard it) she really does fit the ‘what Mariah was accused of’ template – excruciating, pointless over-elaboration. Obviously Mariah’s own Xmas hit is a standard now. (And Britney’s “My Only Wish” is agreeably jolly, come to that).

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    tonya on 7 Dec 2014 #

    …and young Christina swore that never again would she appear to be hesitant about sex.

    This version’s a 9 but the Strokes one is a 10.

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    lonepilgrim on 7 Dec 2014 #

    I was faintly aware of this at the time but wasn’t engaged with chart music so it passed me by. There’s a lot to admire about the production (which is some of the best I’ve heard on Popular for a while) and her vocal technique but whereas I could buy the idea of Britney as an ingenue in ‘Baby hit me one more time’ Christina sounds a little too world weary or disengaged here to convince. I developed a (probably undeserved) suspicion of her talents when old lags like Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones began praising her vocal skill.

  10. 10
    mapman132 on 7 Dec 2014 #

    The unfortunate thing about Christina is that she clearly had the talent but so often squandered it on utter crap, including one particular glaring example we’ll eventually encounter here. This wasn’t a bad start, however, even though like I say so often on 90’s/00’s R&B-flavored stuff, “it wasn’t my style”. 6/10.

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    Ed on 7 Dec 2014 #

    @7 Yes! I was just about to mention the Christmas album, having stumbled across it on a Spotify playlist about an hour before I read this entry.

    Actually, the pyrotechnics there are so flamboyant I find myself going past boredom and irritation and coming out the other side again into amazement.

    Back in the entry for ‘I Will Always Love You’, where I started a bit of a kerfuffle by incautiously using the word “overblown”, I compared Aguilera to Yngwie Malmsteen, and I think that parallel holds. it is empty flash, but the flashiness is so spectacular that for a while you can forget – or forgive – the emptiness.

    The use of the word “pyrotechnics” is apposite, I think. No asks what fireworks are trying to communicate, or whether they are sincere.

    I incline to the position I think Tom is leaning towards: with great power comes great responsibility, and Aguilera’s technical skill can often end up damaging her performances.

    But sometimes you have to just stand back and say “ooh!” and “aah!”

  12. 12
    Rory on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I’ve known and loved Freelance Hellraiser’s mashup since it appeared, but I don’t think I’d heard Aguilera’s original until last week. It’s good, but it’s no “A Stroke of Genie-us”. Seven for this, nine or ten for that.

  13. 13
    Shiny Dave on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I *think* me and a friend heard Come On Over Baby having a milkshake in Southampton in December 2009. Not sure if it was this or some other oversung shot at a modern Christmas song by a singer of her ilk, but I think we actually laughed.

    This song works because it’s throwaway enough that the artistic impression isn’t hurt by Christina’s technical merit. There’s a bunny of hers to come where it probably knocks my mark down by multiple points, but for now it works as pure brand differentiation – “like Britney – but she can sing!” Of course, we’re now in the age of “can sing” being defined in a very particular way, one that owes a lot to gospel as filtered through Mariah and Whitney – low verses to contrast against the high belting, melisma everywhere it can go and a few places where it can’t – and Aguilera ticks every one of those boxes. If Aguilera hadn’t been picked up by a big label in the late 90s, she might well have become a star as the winner of the first season of American Idol a couple of years later. (We’ll see the actual winner of that on Popular in time.)

    Interestingly, musical theatre would eventually make a beeline for this sort of pop – very often with singers at least as technically adept as Aguilera, and obviously rather better at actually using that technique to communicate – but at this point Les Mis and Phantom were the archetypes for a lot of new shows if memory serves. I very well recall Anne-Marie Speed – a musical theatre specialist at the Royal Academy of Music who’d just finished a season as X-Factor vocal coach – mentioning at a workshop I attended that at this point the “belting” sound was out of favour around this time, before “Wicked” became a huge hit and latterly the archetype. This was at least partly because a member of the original Broadway cast made a change to the end-of-act-1 song “Defying Gravity,” throwing in more high belting, and this change absolutely stuck – “Defying Gravity” became the show’s iconic song, the envelope was pushed, and now basically all new shows on Broadway and the West End follow it.

    (This reaches its logical conclusion a decade later – same singer, similar material both vocally and thematically but without the very stage-specific elements of “Defying Gravity” that extend it into a six-minute duet, thrown into a Disney movie to create… wait, “Let It Go” is not bunnied?!?)

  14. 14
    Tom on 8 Dec 2014 #

    #13 great comment! And no, “Let It Go” isn’t bunnied, in fact it didn’t even go Top 10. On the one hand, every year has examples of clearly major hits that don’t get to No.1. On the other, “Let It Go” would have had a way better chance of getting to No.1 in the physical release era. But – according to Wikipedia at least – Disney blundered, building up a Demi Lovato version of the song as its pop release (which did nothing) and letting the Idina Menzel version come out on the soundtrack. Obviously “blundered” is a relative term applying only to the single releases – “LIG” has done very nicely thankyou – and in a way it shows off the strength of the modern charts: we now have a situation where a record company fumbling release dates doesn’t really matter, all it means is that the 700,000 Brits who bought Let It Go have done so at a relatively steady 10-20,000 a week rather than in a more concentrated burst. Bit annoying for this site, mind you.

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    Mark M on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Re13/14: I also wonder in a way if Let It Go would have sold quite as much if it had got to No.1 – it wouldn’t have had that incremental spread and might have burnt itself out rather than – as is the case – sitting at No.26 after a year.

    The fact that it is built – as Shiny Dave says – for a big Broadway voice – hasn’t in any way discouraged tonally suspect seven year olds from singing it…

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    Tom on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I don’t think big songs do burn themselves out much these days – “Bunny”, the years biggest seller (and also a soundtrack smash), was No.1 for weeks but had a big run of sales before and after that. One of the things the digital era has revealed is how fast the product churn of physical singles was: a hot new release will clearly always be a better use of limited shelf space than a declining old one, so peaked hits dropped a lot faster than seems to be their ‘natural’ rate now you don’t have to worry about such things.

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    Mark M on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Back to Aguilera – it’s the chops plus power thing that can be so annoying in her case. So many tricks and at such volume. It feels like hers has been – as I guess we’ll be discussing down the line – an incredibly random career. Lots of styles, lots of looks, no particular sense that there’s much of a plan…

    But Genie In A Bottle is indeed terrific, and that’s a fine write-up by Tom.

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    JLucas on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Let It Go has had a long road for two reasons. The first – as mentioned – is that Idina Menzel is 43, so the idea that she be pushed forward on a pop hit – madness! To be fair Disney have form with this stretching right back to the 90s so they must have had every reason to expect success for the Lovato version. Imagine if Angela Lansbury had enjoyed a top 10 hit in 1992 over Celine Dion & Peabo Bryson?

    Also, I don’t think Radio 1 ever picked up on it? Given their much-publicised desire to tap into a younger market, that was a massive error on their behalf, but I’m still very cynical about their methods of determining what ‘the youth’ are listening to.

  19. 19
    Tom on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I can imagine a 47 year old man getting “Circle Of Life” to sing :)

  20. 20
    glue_factory on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Great spot about the Freestyle keyboards. I’d never noticed, but the whole track sounds like a slowed-down Latin-Freestyle record, updated with some contemporary R&B production on it. No wonder I loved it so much at the time. I wonder if it featured strongly in the US Latin charts.

    Annoyingly, despite being a huge bootleg fan (more to follow) the Freelance Hellraiser mix seemed to remove all the bits of the original I loved, meaning I could never completely fall for a Stroke of Genius.

  21. 21
    Mark M on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Re 18: I wonder how many people even now know who sings it – the video (I haven’t watched it all the way through) seems to be entirely from the film. The song is sung by the character (I’ve not seen Frozen) as much as, say, Kermit sings Rainbow Connection. Maybe that was part of the Demi Lovato mistake.

    I get the feeling that teachers have embraced both Let It Go and the bunny that Tom mentioned at #16. The other song for obvious reasons, but my guess with Let It Go is that the kids led the way.

  22. 22
    JLucas on 8 Dec 2014 #

    #19 – Tom, isn’t that just the point though? If you’re a man, your age is far less of an issue.

    Although The Lion King is also a bit of a Disney anomaly in that its score was written with and around a major recording artist. Idina Menzel is a hugely popular broadway star, but before LIG she had no chart career to speak of.

  23. 23
    iconoclast on 8 Dec 2014 #

    With a bang and a flash, another 21st Century Pop Diva appears. What an appropriate title!

    Unfortunately, that’s about the most notable thing about this release by the inevitable Britney-that-is-not-Britney: even more so than its predecessor, it sees no need to be anything more than mediocrity incarnate. Only the occasional lyric suggests that anybody felt the need to try at all; otherwise it’s an overwrought dreary trudge which resolutely fails to interest in any way. Its pervading air of can’t-be-arsedness merely further fuels the suspicion that, in its Third Age, popular music is being treated strictly as a series of marketing exercises in personal branding – or, as the less cynical Iconoclasts among us prefer to think, some kind of elaborate conceptual game. But it’s not about the song any more, Grandad, it’s about the performer, so get back to your rocking-chair with your James Lasts and your Val Doonicans. FOUR.

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m listening to the same record as the rest of Popular. Do I inhabit some sort of weird parallel universe or something, where everything is the same except the contents of Number One records?

  24. 24
    Tom on 8 Dec 2014 #

    #21 – My 5 year old’s class has some kind of regular ‘song time’ where the kids are allowed to pick a song to play – I assume on a rotating basis, but whether by rotation or vote more often than not it was “Let it Go”, much to his fury, as he always wanted “Everything Is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie. After months of raging against the Frozen song he came over sheepishly one day and said “Daddy, I have a big secret”. OK, I said, and he leaned forward and whispered “I like Let It Go”

    As for the other bunny, yes, that one’s teacher led. 6 times in 90 minutes at the school summer fete.

  25. 25
    glue_factory on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Re: 24, a school fete with music tailored for the children? What a strange idea. At my son’s school in South-East London, they get 80s funk-and-soul whether they like it or not. Hopefully there’s a lot of 6 year-olds who really like Maze.

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    James BC on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I don’t think there’s anything very suggestive about “rub me the right way”. It’s just an inversion of the common expression “rub me up the wrong way” combined with the genie idea. If it was a man singing it, I’d probably concede that it was a bit rude-sounding.

  27. 27
    pink champale on 8 Dec 2014 #

    #I am a bit mystified how you can hear this a a record that no one has been arsed over. There’s a million different production ideas going on, with all manner of strange little background flourishes going off, Xtina singing as if she’s taken a bet no to phrase anything in the same way twice and each phrase then getting a different wierd production effect. And it’s not like there’s not a strong song there either, there are four or five great hooks. Okay so the lyrics are basic, but no more so than ‘You really got me’ or something. I like it very much, an eight or a nine.

    I recently went to a sing-along-a-Frozen with my very keen six year old and about 50 of her contemporaries. In many ways it was lovely. Harmonically it got avant garde in places.

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    Rory on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Primary school kids are a relatively older market as far as “Let It Go” is concerned. My daughter is in the Big Room at nursery and it’s all the rage with the 3-to-4 set. She would sing it to us based on hearing it second-hand from her friends long before I cracked and watched the movie with her. Hearing it sung properly hasn’t changed her own delivery much. (Frozen is good fun, by the way, as these things go.)

    I’m not sure how much younger kids would drive sales of the single, though. They would be hearing it from endless viewings of the DVD or the song’s YouTube video, rather than as a stand-alone song. Or second-hand from their friends.

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    Tom on 8 Dec 2014 #

    The thing with a purely sexual reading of “rub” is it pushes the meaning of the chorus into “If you want me you have to get me off”, which would be in broad contradiction to the verses, which are more “Yes I’m turned on but I’m not ready”. For the verses to make sense “rub” needs to be a stand in for “treat”. As Christina repeatedly said it was in interviews. Not that it’s unheard of for meaning in a pop song to fall apart under inspection, obviously! And clearly the double meaning is there if you want it. But I’m inclined to believe her.

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    Mark M on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Re25: If they don’t, how are they going to grow up to be proper South Londoners?

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