Christina Aguilera and Lana Del Rey both released collections of new music this week. Neither artist is a great diva in the neo-classic, pop sense of the word, but both have potential. To evaluate their diva status, I will shamelessly crib a comparative schism that Tyra Banks has routinely used on America's Next Top Model: each of them has what the other does not.
Christina Aguilera's seventh studio album, Lotus, is a stylistic mess. In that respect, it feels like an accurate expression for an artist so lacking in taste; it's almost as if tastelessness is her taste. A mixed bag of attempts at replicating what's happening now in pop, none of Lotus' petals are quite the same but most sound familiar – there's EDM, there's hip-hop, there's piano balladry, there's some vaguely country pop, there's some even more vaguely rock-ish pop. It is absurd that Aguilera has repeatedly referred to the flop that preceded her current one, Bionic, as "ahead of its time," but in comparison to Lotus, which is so desperate to be of its time, the argument is almost convincing.
Meanwhile, Paradise, an EP Lana del Rey is packaging with her album Born to Die, is all taste. Style is its substance, as the young woman who infuriated so many people earlier this year for being a pop star invokes more of the Americana imagery she was obsessed with on Born to Die (open roads, dying young, taste for older men, Springsteen, motorcycles, "Blue Velvet") to a consistent setting of languid tempos, tender strings and gentle break beats. It may not be good taste, but it is certainly her taste, and here she is wrapping her biography (which is to say her utter lack of mythology) around her interests. "Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn's my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend," she sings in "Body Electric." "My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola," she sings in "Cola." "Let me put on a show for you," she sings in "Yayo."
She's never been less believable as a human or more realized as a pop cultural persona. In the same way that RuPaul's Drag Race is among the realest reality shows for being plainspoken about its artifice, Lana Del Rey is more invested in the reality of her pop-star situation than most of her kind – she is deeply soulful about being soulless.
Granted, you can call yourself a pop star and act like one, but that just amounts to performance art without actual hooks and hits. Del Rey has none, Aguilera has a few potential killers here. However, they are mostly sung in soul-tradition drag with as much contrivance as in Del Rey's image. She is at her least sincere in "Sing for Me," which goes for Prince's "The Beautiful Ones," but ends up sounding like a shoddy imitation of Justin Timberlake's "Until the End of Time." Aguilera blows out speakers and her internal organs while describing being alone in her room and singing for herself: "I don't even care what the world thinks ‘bout how I sound," she lies. Continuing, she announces, "'Cause when I open my mouth, my whole heart comes out," It's a bold declaration that's made believable by her pronunciation: "ooooooohw-paa-haaan my my-ee-yowwwwth," she sings, and the required force makes it almost possible to envision her gaping pie hole spewing her actual heart along with the words. Aguilera is definitely gifted and she's talented, but her nonstop cord torrent feels like she's mostly wasting this gloriously acrobatic voice for the sake of showboating. Sometimes it works ("Let There Be Love" is the kind of EDM rush that calls for a total assault) and when she explores nuance, like in the highlight "Red Hot Kinda Love," which finds her luxuriating in a design of squeals, moans, oohs and coy backing vocals, it can be heavenly.
But mostly, it feels like she's wrestling with her material and the struggle is exhausting. Nothing on Lotus is an easy listen - the album is difficult to get through in both its 13-track issuing edition and the 17-track deluxe edition. The album nags with Aguilera's sense that she has so much to prove, which is bizarre because everyone knows her potential (if you were sleeping, surely it has woken you up by now). Her desperation is similar to that of the people she mentors on The Voice, even though her raw talent exceeds most humans' exponentially.
Lana Del Rey, too, has maybe a tenth of Aguilera's vocal prowess but at least twice the confidence. She takes risks that result in flat notes, turbulent upward trajectories and a high register that's as brittle as the economy. She is, in fact, overconfident. It is as though she is unafraid to sound ugly, whereas Aguilera doesn't realize that she often does.
Another new release this week, I Will Always Love You: The Best of Whitney Houston, reminds us how astonishing it is when these disparate elements come together, how magical a combination taste and talent and forward-thinking (as lite as Whitney was, especially in her early days, bringing the church to pop created the modern vocal standard) can be. Over the course of 16 of her best-known songs (and two previously unreleased ones), we get the full 360 of public existence, this vessel of perfection and humanity alike who released a trove of indelible songs that she had nonetheless mastered.
The most simple definition of a pop diva is one who is bigger than her songs. Whitney was an Amazon. Aguilera huffs and puffs and comes up short; Del Rey lays around and thinks she is. There is still so much distance between them and their thrones.
[Images via Getty]