IF Christina Aguilera ever loses her steamroller voice, she could consider a career as a silent-film star. In a short clip shown midway through her "Back to Basics" tour stop Monday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, the diminutive powerhouse did her best Clara Bow in a bathtub, on a chaise and falling into a heap of pillows after puffing on a hookah. Rolling her moony eyes, pursing her cherry lips, Aguilera was great as a bordello vamp. Her future may be in period pieces.
More than any other mainstream pop artist of her generation, Aguilera cares about her cultural progenitors -- not only music genres such as blues and soul, but also visual motifs such as the circus and the speak-easy. It's one successful trick she's picked up from Madonna: Instead of merely trading in moves now recognized as hot or cute, she presents her own performance as a sex symbol within hallowed traditions of female spectacle. This tour, which promotes Aguilera's jazz and blues-inflected "Back to Basics" album, matches her songs of sexual charisma and self-love to a pageant that whirls through the realms of Vegas showgirls, fan dancers, sideshow tassel-twirlers, dominatrixes and burlesque queens.
Taking her first bow on a Vegas-worthy stage in the white suit she wore to pay homage to James Brown at the Grammys, Aguilera sang "Ain't No Other Man" at full throttle, getting the chops issue out of the way fast -- this 90-minute show would provide plenty of big vocal runs and hard-hit high notes, Aguilera's specialty. (There were also backing tracks for her to follow, standard in a dance-heavy show.) Her big band raced through ultra-hot arrangements of old and new hits. The worst was a jarring, reggae-inspired version of "What a Girl Wants"; the best were songs already wired for speed: the rocking "Fighter," the confrontational "Dirrty."
If there's one thing Aguilera might rethink as the tour progresses, it's the pacing. It would have been wonderful, for example, to linger a bit in the circus atmosphere of "Welcome" -- complete with fire spinners, dancers on stilts and trapezes, and a few costumes pinched from Cirque du Soleil -- before moving into the strip club merry-go-round of "Dirrty."
An "On the Town"-style naval setting suited the Andrews Sisters-inspired "Candyman," but with a snap of the whip it was gone, replaced by the dominatrix fantasy of "Nasty Naughty Boy."
The titillation soon turned to tear jerking as a giant crescent moon descended, and Aguilera returned in her umpteenth Roberto Cavalli costume -- a feathery gilt robe -- to croon the torchy "Hurt."
That song afforded Aguilera a breather, and instead of just surging on through, she found its nuances. "Hurt," written by Linda Perry, revealed a truth about Aguilera's gift: Though she wants to tap into swing or jump blues, she excels at power ballads -- the big, clean-lined weepers that have really existed only since the 1980s. Aguilera's traditionalist belting, based in her study of R&B; greats such as Etta James, lends depth and seriousness to these often slick songs. She treats them like classics, and her will transforms them.
Aguilera may someday step away from the sequins and props and turn inward, finding what's classic in her own life and art. There's plenty of time for that future. This tour, she's having fun with history.
Openers the Pussycat Dolls (Danity Kane also performed, for about 15 minutes) exhibited barely a fraction of the historical sense Aguilera is mastering. The problem wasn't the group's catchy, provocative hits, or even the fact that four members hardly sang -- main Doll Nicole Scherzinger ably handled vocal duties, her warm, sultry tone recalling the songbirds of 1970s disco.
What's bothersome is how disappointing the Pussycat Dolls were as burlesque dancers. The group's concept is grounded in the erotic arts -- choreographer Robin Antin founded the troupe 12 years ago to help modernize the burlesque tradition -- but only redheaded bombshell Carmit Bachar possessed body and vavoom enough to invoke the slightest memory of greats like Lili St. Cyr and Sally Rand. The rest were like skinny Strippercise instructors bouncing and bopping to a backing track. Aguilera not only outsang them, she outclassed them in the bump and grind. And that's where the Pussycat Dolls should win.