Oprah teeters on the brink of it every day. Rosie O'Donnell was so full of it, she's currently committing one of the most public career suicides since little Lisa Bonet straddled Mickey Rourke in a rainstorm of blood in Angel Heart. Michael Moore seems to thrive on it. And if Martin Lawrence's last concert movie didn't have its moments of outrageous humor, audiences would be able to remember only its self-importance.
But there's nothing worse than when a musical performer decides to hop aboard the train to Indulgenceville and set his or her preachy concerns to a beat. Some even turn it into a career, releasing album after album of I-will-survive proclamations that have far less to do with good music than they do with the maintenance of a precious image. (Notice how no one is really looking forward to the new Whitney and J.Lo albums?)
Narcissism is the star of Christina Aguilera's Stripped, which as a title is far more descriptive of her revealing outfits than any soul-baring lyrics. (And what is that look she's trying to capture, anyway? Postapocalyptic action heroine? Around-the-way girl from Queens? An update on the late Wendy O. Williams?) Inadequately draped hot bod notwithstanding, her music should be the focus of conversation. And while Stripped purports to be Aguilera's leave-taking from bubblegum pop, it seems less like a radical departure than it does an ego trip, chock-full of huffing and puffing.
Working with a slew of writer- producers (most notably, former 4 Non Blondes front woman and Pink collaborator Linda Perry), Aguilera stands atop her glittery soapbox, swells her chest and rails against all of her detractors over and over again, though her tirades are occasionally cloaked as love songs. Nearly every tune finds Aguilera praising her own indomitable spirit, with titles and lyrics that have the diva alternately basking in her glowing self-regard (don't even ask about the sappy ballad "Beautiful") or sounding just plain ornery. She's even gotten other persecuted pop girls to join her crusade: She teams up with fellow barely covered pop entity Lil' Kim on "Can't Hold Us Down," and Alicia Keys composed and produced "Impossible."
All too often when pop stars decide to become "serious," they're not sure what sound should channel their newfound significance. Aguilera is no exception -- she ventures far and wide here, dropping such cross-genre bombs as the much-discussed, loud-and-nasty club anthem "Dirrty" and the Latino pop number "Infatuation." A couple of these attempts are kind of entertaining. "Make Over" has a Moroccan tinge to it that makes Aguilera sounds like she's auditioning for Nina Gordon's old position in Veruca Salt, and the next track, "Cruz," makes you wonder if the CD suddenly turned into Faith Hill's new album.
It's always a shame to hear Aguilera wrap her voice around astoundingly mediocre material. It's been said ad nauseam, and even with the appearance of this weak album, it still holds true (c'mon, let's say it together!): Christina Aguilera is a powerfully talented singer. The album's standout, the Scott Storch-produced "Loving Me 4 Me," is a beautiful soul ballad that captures a relaxed, cool and undeniably sexy Aguilera. It shows off her potential to be a mature, serious performer, and you wish there were more tracks on Stripped that showcase her in that light.
Alas, Aguilera's not letting her guard down. If she did, people might mistake her for yet another pop pushover. So instead, she's gonna tell it like it is. But the cold hard truth Aguilera claims she's dishing out sounds more like sham rants and raves, and showing up everywhere half-nekkid can't camouflage that. Now cover up before you catch your death.