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Nov 19

CHRISTINA AGUILERA – “Beautiful”

Popular12 comments • 1,256 views

#949, 8th March 2003

One of the notable things about “Beautiful” is that having written it, Linda Perry wanted to keep it for a proposed solo career – it was one of her “personal” songs. So the question is – would the song make more sense sung by a woman staring down forty, her big hit a decade gone, in a business that’s notoriously unforgiving to women who age? Is its scenario – panic’s sudden grab at the throat – one that transfers?

It’s a rhetorical question – very clearly it has transferred. “Beautiful” is a song about self-acceptance and self-belief, but it’s also a song that’s plain-spoken about the barriers to that happy state: anxiety, doubt, the baffled condescension of friends. Those are, surely, as universal as anything else pop can talk about.

The strength of the song, in fact, lies in its layers of ironies and overlapping meanings. “Words can’t bring me down” could be a statement of empowered strength; it could also be a rosary clutched in desperation against oncoming despair. The performance is a showcase of Aguilera’s melisma and lungpower, but she wanted to re-record it, hearing the imperfections most listeners would never register. A miniature of the song’s main point – that anxiety doesn’t align to actual abilities or circumstances – it can lurk unspoken under the most perfect or bombastic exterior.

As communication of that idea, “Beautiful” succeeds – indeed it performed beyond any expectation, forging a subgenre of self-belief pop which we’ll be returning to again and again. As a performance, it steamrolls you. Aguilera moans, she whinnies, she trills, she sighs, she bellows, she unlocks all the show-pony tendencies she held in check on “Dirrty” but still comes from a place of conviction.

As an actual listening experience, though… I like it, on balance, but I somehow don’t quite trust it. I like the corny but unashamed way it builds momentum, but I don’t like how it shifts to “we”, making a claim for something universal. I like the way it captures the suddenness of insecurity, but I don’t like how beauty is the solution. In the end it’s a dilemma the credo of self-love always runs into – is the aim to transform your flaws into virtues, or just to acknowledge and live with them? Where does defiance become narcissism? It’s unfair to ask a power ballad to answer those questions, but the more “Beautiful” asserts itself as an anthem, the more pressing they become.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 27 Nov 2019 #

    AHEM. Sorry about that. What happened was, this went up on Patreon over a month ago, I decided I wanted to rewrite bits of it, then I just didn’t have the time (it coincided with my shift in work which was designed to give me more time, but let’s not get into THAT). And THEN when I came to rewrite it I couldn’t even remember what I wanted to say differently.

    Normal service now to resume – on the Patreon we’ve just done Busted…

  2. 2
    ThePensmith on 28 Nov 2019 #

    To be fair Tom I’ve had that happen before. Even wrote a blog once and thanks to a click of the mouse managed to delete the whole thing due to lack of sleep/butter fingered manoeuvre of the mouse. To err is human as they say!

    The angle of what might have happened had ‘Beautiful’ been held back for its original writer Linda Perry is an intriguing one Tom. Indeed, it would’ve been more interesting to discuss had that situation prevailed. On the flip side of the coin, much was made in the years immediately after Cathy Dennis wrote ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ and (to a lesser extent) ‘Never Had A Dream Come True’, about what it might have done for returning her to pop after a prolonged hiatus. In fact this debate was still ongoing with the success of another of her bunnied co-writes about one Popular year from now.

    ‘Beautiful’, and the other three unbunnied singles from ‘Stripped’ immediately turned the hordes of R&B loving popular set girls in my year at school into worshippers at the altar of Christina, who’d worn their copies (pirated or otherwise) of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ into the ground the previous year and now did the same with this album. I remained unconvinced however, primarily because of all the vocal show boating, on both this and also ‘Fighter’ which followed it, to the point of parody – as indeed this brutally funny mickey take ‘I Am Virginal’ from US sketch show MadTV did, where ‘Stripped’ had struggled initially to take off in the same way it did here: https://youtu.be/JcT6QtttR-o

    Fortunately we have better examples yet to discuss ‘self help pop’ as this isn’t one of them, primitive and insincere as it is. 3 for me.

    #2 watch – DJ Sammy’s generic trance rendering of Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’ in its first week. Dannii Minogue then scored her biggest hit of her career with ‘I Begin To Wonder’ on its second week. I mentioned this on another post but the accompanying album ‘Neon Nights’ – her fourth album – remains her best work to date for me. The singles on that album – this, ‘Put The Needle On It’ and ‘Who Do You Love Now’ with Riva were excellent and really positioned her on the same level if not better pegging than big sis where their musical efforts in 2003 were concerned. If it had made it that would have been an easy 8 or 9 for me.

    One other song from the time ‘Beautiful’ entered at the top that I’m annoyed we don’t get to discuss – it peaked at #3 on its second week and stayed in the top 10 for two whole months – is ‘Move Your Feet’ from the quite brilliant Danish duo Junior Senior. Resolutely one hit wonders in this country but for me that was one of the singles that summed up what I loved about pop music in 2003.

  3. 3
    Purple K on 28 Nov 2019 #

    I’m not the biggest fan of “self-help” songs as they very easily slip into lyrical cliches, but I do think this is one of the better ones. Still wouldn’t ever listen to it out of choice, though.

    #2, I absolutely ADORED that Junior Senior song at the time, and having just done a relisten it still holds up very well. The pixel art music video is very good too.

  4. 4
    AMZ1981 on 28 Nov 2019 #

    I didn’t really rate this at the time; I considered it rather thin and dirge like. At the same time it seemed to strike a chord with people in a year where the number one single would stop changing like the weather and become a `thing` again (even if single sales were tumbling). Beautiful has grown on me since, to the point where I would easily give it a six and might even push to a seven. It’s also worth saying that this has a certain thematic similarity with its predecessor at the top and the video serves to emphasise this. And two successive number one singles featuring same sex couples in the video can only have been a good thing.

    I remember that in his chart commentary James Masterton predicted that Junior Senior would dethrone T.A.T.U and of course that didn’t quite happen, although Move Your Feet would ultimately outsell Beautiful in the long term. By way of a side note (and something I said in the Heaven thread) I’m normally quite damning of dance remakes, particularly of a song as amazing as The Boys Of Summer but I can live with DJ Sammy’s take as it captures something of the essence of the original. Also bubbling under at this time; one song that some people might have considered a number one contender was Melanie C’s comeback single but she didn’t get close.

  5. 5
    James BC on 28 Nov 2019 #

    Didn’t like this at the time and still wouldn’t listen to it, though along with everyone else I can appreciate that it’s a classic example of its type. The I -> you -> we progression of the choruses is such a simple idea but it’s just the ticket here.

    Christina certainly makes the song her own, so much so that I can’t imagine Linda Perry or really anyone else performing it. Maybe the message is actually more universal when performed by someone widely considered young, attractive and talented, since it makes the point that insecurity can and will affect everybody at one time or another.

    +1 for the Junior Senior love. I actually saw them at Glastonbury that year (headlining the Pyramid Stage after Queen pulled out if I remember accurately) and they didn’t look or sound at all like I expected. Great, great song and video but one hit wonder status is about right.

  6. 6
    CriticSez on 28 Nov 2019 #

    I’m back! This is my first post since the login system changed and I’ve been locked out for ages.

    I reviewed all the #1s back in 2015-6 and have been keeping up to date ever since.

    As Dance Bunny maintains an iron fist, let’s revisit this.

    I called this “slightly awkward” and “choppy,” a term I didn’t know the meaning of. I commented on how ballads weren’t her type, too, even though I kind of like The Voice Within.

    A high 5, almost a 6.

  7. 7
    will on 28 Nov 2019 #

    Flushed with cash around mid 2003, I actually bought the Junior Senior album…

    …And then found out why they’d be one hit wonders.

    As for Beautiful, well, it was records like these that made me think I was getting too old for what passed for chart music. I thought it was a load of hackneyed manipulative tosh, but then I was 33 at the time.

  8. 8
    AMZ1981 on 28 Nov 2019 #

    #7 By this point it was £4 to buy a single and you could pick up an album in the supermarket for £10 so if you had enough money it was worth that extra £6 to see if the album was any good. From this era I have a lot of albums by one hit wonders.

  9. 9
    ThePensmith on 28 Nov 2019 #

    #8 – very true. Although towards the end of this year, record companies tried to combat that with the introduction of the 2-track CD single, for which it cost no more than £2. I think I got back into buying singles more for the next couple of years as a result. It certainly explains why the turnover at the top increased again the year after.

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 28 Nov 2019 #

    showing my age but the anthemic chord progression on this reminds me of Hey Jude and Eclipse (from Dark Side of the Moon).
    I suspect there are a lot of dodgy ‘sincere’ covers of this song so I am happy that CA decorates her performance with her vocal gymnastics – for me it somehow emphasises that the sentiment maybe a little cliched but still has some value

  11. 11
    Ed on 1 Dec 2019 #

    “Forging a sub-genre of self-belief pop…”

    Wasn’t it ‘My Way’ that did that? 😉

    I mean: I know ‘My Way’ didn’t really forge any kind of genre, but it seems like a relevant antecedent.

    And even more relevant: Whitney Houston’s 1985 version of ‘(The) Greatest Love of All’.

    I wonder if Perry had either or both of those in mind when she wrote this.

  12. 12
    Shucks Mahoney on 11 Dec 2019 #

    My experience of this was always filtered through reading an interview with Perry talking about Xtina’s album, Stripped, just before it was released, saying that there was a song called Beautiful and “it will win a Grammy.” I always found the song had the same level of hubris as the statement, the same calculated maudlin sincerity as an inspirational quote in cursive printed over a sunset, stuck on a coaster and shoved on a Mother’s Day gift display option down Asda. I felt the same about the music video – the queer representation felt like a calculated play for fans/shock value for tabloid columns (that said, I didn’t know that Perry was gay back then, and to my knowledge for all Aguilera’s alleged dodgy behaviour I’ve never heard of her throwing her LGBT fans under the bus like some *cough cough* Katy Perry, Paris Hilton, Khia…) Looking back, I feel more sympathy for the song’s narrator now than I did when I rolled my eyes at it back in the day, thinking “Gee, please tell me more about it, conventionally pretty, thin, rich pop star.” Aguilera always had a consistent point of view as a pop star, and she was willing to put aside likeability to maintain it. Still, it never quite makes the mark as a gold standard power ballad for me. But it’s at least a silver.

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