Christina Aguilera – “Beautiful”

Released: 12.24.02

Peak: #2

The 2002 skankification of Christina Aguilera could have been enough to frighten the most permissive parents into keeping their daughter’s genie securely corked within her unrubbed bottle till she hit thirty. That once cutely flirty bare midriff had exposed itself as an insidious gateway fashion, the first loop in a spiral downward to a display of pierced, chapped, greased nudity. “Dirrty” was no spectacle of empowerment, but of sexual maturity devouring a young woman from within. And yet, such is art, but had “Beautiful” come at any other moment in Christina’s career, its platitudes would have rung hollow: Oh, how nice, the tiny little blonde thinks you’re pretty on the inside.

No one else but Christina was meant to sing “Beautiful.” And this sentiment comes from a guy who values her slim contributions to pop just slightly more than Celine’s and slightly less than Mariah’s, and would trade the lump sum even up for, say, my fifth favorite Britney song. Personally, I’d have preferred if Pink had convinced Linda Perry (then hoarding the song for herself) to let her record “Beautiful” for Missundastood (so long, “My Vietnam”). And the Clem Snide rendition, personalized by Eef Barzelay’s ugly-duckling voice, is a caring envoi from another generation. But my own tastes are irrelevant up against the needs of mass culture, for which Christina was ideal.

Compare Chaka Khan’s far smarter version. She digs into the song so fiercely that even Kenny G’s melodic wriggles almost make sense, but that requires her to pay more attention to lyrics about “debris” and “doom,” and unfinished puzzles that Perry likely thought profound, than any grownup ought. Christina’s style, by contrast, emphasizes performer over song, even though she scales back on the lazy pyrotechnics and hovers mostly in her husky mid-range. No other ballad has proven itself so well-suited to Christina’s limitations as an interpreter, and her drive to over-expression conceals the song’s greatest fib of all: Of course words can bring us down. If not then words couldn’t bring us up either. And then what good would inspirational pop do us?

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