In the summer of 2006, Christina Aguilera dipped into the hot-honey-rag jazz era for her theatrical soul album Back to Basics. Drawing inspiration from jazz-era icons like Billie Holiday, Etta James, and Bessie Smith, she adopted an entirely new look that dripped of old Hollywood glamour. It's not hard to imagine watching Aguilera performing songs like "Ain't No Other Man" and "I Got Trouble" at Harlem's famed Cotton Club, all while sipping a glass of bourbon and wiping sweat from your brow on a steamy New York City night.
Since then, Aguilera has adopted a more modern, electronic sound that contributed to commercial flops like Bionic and Lotus. For someone whose voice harkened back to the giants of soul and one of the few modern pop singers who could be a successor to Whitney Houston, Aguilera shied away from R&B songs that highlighted her vocals. Bionic sounds like a cobbled-together attempt at capitalizing on Lady Gaga's success, and Lotus is more remembered for the fact that the hashtag #BuyLotusOniTunes has become a meme. It's a stark contrast to a career that began in 1999 with simple R&B and pop songs like "I Turn to You" and "When You Put Your Hands on Me."
That is, until the debut of Aguilera's latest effort, the song "Telepathy" recorded for the Netflix series The Get Down. Since the series chronicles the birth of hip-hop and the rise of disco in late '70s New York, "Telepathy" is a disco-tinged track produced by Sia and Chic lead guitarist Nile Rodgers. Rodgers, who has recently contributed his skills to throwback hits such as Daft Punk and Pharrell's "Get Lucky," gets Aguilera to dip back into her vinyl collection and pull out her own throwback vocals. But instead of jazz, this time the backward-looking inspiration is different:
As a new identity for Aguilera, it absolutely works. Disco relies heavily on synthesizers, but also on soaring vocals. Steeped with as much emotion and sexual energy as jazz records, it's the music of the outsiders. Queer and black culture thrived in discos where Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor hits played. Whereas jazz singers like Ma Rainey were some of the black community's first notable queer icons. Aguilera has long associated herself with queer culture, as is the norm for most pop stars, but her last two albums are even more of a push in that direction.
"Vanity," the best song RuPaul never recorded, might as well be a drag queen anthem with its brash and sassy lines like "v is for vanity / every time I look at me / I turn myself on" and "if the shoe fits wear it bitch / read my lips / I'm a vain bitch." So it's more than fitting that when we hear "Telepathy" for the first time on The Get Down, it's at a gay disco club performed by a drag queen. Adorned in a Grace Jones–esque, sequined, hooded dress, the drag queen provides the soundtrack for Jaden Smith's character, Dizee's, first kiss with another man.
Burgeoning sexuality is a running theme in The Get Down, whether it be with Dizee or the transformation of Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) from choir girl to seductive disco diva. It's also how Aguilera mounted her career with the virginity-shedding anthem "Genie in a Bottle," which makes now the perfect time for her to embrace the disco aesthetic for a career resurgence.
Just like Mylene under the iron grip of her evangelical father, Aguilera's voice has been sheltered as of late in over-the-top EDM beats that only allow a brief wail when she gets restless with the monotonous pop she's had to deliver on forgettable tracks like "Not Myself Tonight" and "Let There Be Love." A voice like Aguilera's is begging to dive into the rich history of disco and all the release it has to offer. The Get Down has provided Aguilera with the creative spark; now it's up to her to burn the disco out.