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Theater of the adored
The Justin & Christina variety show

Once upon a time, in the age before rock and roll, Americans went to theatrical musicals for their pop thrills. Now, in the tabloid age of American Idol, Behind the Music, Making the Band, and The Osbournes, we increasingly look to pop musicians for our theatrical drama, to satisfy the place in our collective imagination once filled by the great Broadway stage and Hollywood screen musicals of yesteryear. Every now and then there’s a Moulin Rouge or a Chicago, and the lights of the Great White Way haven’t dimmed, but the shows put on by blockbuster pop artists like Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Madonna over the past decade have been refined into entertainment spectacles energized by cutting-edge song-and-dance routines, special effects, and a dramatic undercurrent that may or may not have a cohesive narrative structure.

It’s no wonder that savvier pop musicians have responded by playing to their melodramatic strengths. Justin Timberlake’s "Cry Me a River" is an innovative pop song, but it probably would not have captured the popular imagination quite so well without an accompanying video framed expressly as a revenge against his famous ex-girlfriend. The story lines of the "Justified and Stripped" tour that he and Christina Aguilera brought to the FleetCenter last week were established well in advance: two ex-Mouseketeers united in an uneasy alliance against a third; and, more important, the evolution of teen pop into something with a longer shelf life.

Of course, each performer had his or her own agenda. During the pre-tour media blitz, Aguilera accentuated the aggressive flirtatiousness that she consistently mistakes for a display of self-confidence on her latest album, Stripped (RCA). Timberlake could scarcely contain his disdain — he looked like a boy who’d been saddled with his little sister’s annoying friend for a prom date.

In the theater of pop, it’s not often that the highlight of a carefully scripted superstar mega-concert comes before the opening bell has rung, but so it was on August 4, the first of two Boston dates of "Justified and Stripped." Progressive hip-hop outfit the Black Eyed Peas were just wrapping up their appetizer of a set when Timberlake, in street clothes, sauntered on stage to reprise his role singing the featherweight hook on the Peas’ "Where Is the Luv?", the first single from their new Elephunk (Interscope), which happened to be a left-field #1 hit at Boston’s biggest Top 40 station that week. An eruption began on Timberlake’s side of the stage and drove outward, the volume of voices gaining in intensity as it reached the Fleet’s farthest rafters. The roar was still building halfway into the first chorus as people rushed back to their seats from the concession stands. With the lyric’s why-can’t-we-all-get-along naïveté and its sunny-delight melody, "Where’s the Luv?" is closer to ’N Sync than anything on Timberlake’s solo debut, Justified (Jive), an album of songs that drift hazily into focus and pass like a summer storm. It’s hard to say which was more rewarding: the Peas letting their dogs out for some Disneyfied hip-pop, Timberlake’s effortlessly above-the-fray rendition, or the audience’s unrestrained joy at the simple and honest surprise of getting a little more than their money’s worth. Call me a romantic, but the sound of 17,000 kids going bananas along to the novelty hit of the moment still sends a chill up my spine.

JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, it seemed safe to assume that the late-’90s teen-pop rush, like the craze that spawned New Kids on the Block and New Edition a decade before, would take the form of a continuous barrage of flashes-in-the-pan. There would be a glut of overproduced digitized fluff, but then rock and roll would retrench, grit its teeth, and mount a counterattack. Which, of course, it did — see the White Stripes, the Strokes, the Hives, etc. But after these new rock bands failed to topple the existing order — or even top the album charts — something far more interesting developed. ’N Sync’s Pop blew up and thus failed to become their Hangin’ Tough, and just as Pink’s Missundaztood appeared to put the final nail in the prefab-pop coffin, Avril Lavigne showed up to turn the casket into a soapbox racer.

We now live in a world where No Doubt, Liz Phair, and Jewel are making records in much the same way that Britney and Christina do. The phenomenon has even trickled down to the underground, where the NYC production duo the DFA, indie rock’s answer to the Neptunes, are giving dance-floor makeovers to post-punk bands. The war between rock and pop has reached a stalemate, with the truce coming at precisely the moment you’d have expected the garage-rock revival to dash teen pop once and for all. And there’s no better reflection of that new world order than the work of a DJ called the Freelance Hellraiser, who took the vocal track from Aguilera’s "Genie in a Bottle" and streamed it over the Strokes’ "Last Night," inspiring like-minded mash-up remixes of the Hives with TLC and Destiny’s Child with Nirvana, to name just a few. These days, when the avant-metal band Dillinger Escape Plan cover Timberlake’s "Like I Love You," they don’t thrash or mash it up: they simply play it note for note. Rock and pop are finally getting along just fine, thank you.

Yet Aguilera is still on the defensive. In her attempt to convince the world she’s no one’s teen-pop puppet, the ex-genie doth protest a little much. She performed "Genie in a Bottle" as if under protest: the song was almost unrecognizable beneath a heavy-metal guitar riff, and she sang it while strapped to an enormous letter X made up to look like an electric chair. A singer crucified by her own hits? Someone’s been checking out Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar.

Still, the worst you can say for Aguilera is that her sales pitch is a bit overcooked, and that she’s got a cartoonish libido. She began her set with a short film that showed flashes of a stage light, a camera, and a string of words like "scandal" and "lies"; the film then cut to images of Christina, in black lingerie and dyed-black hair, blindfolded, handcuffed, and tied to a chair (reminiscent of the bondage/snuff flick 8MM), and it ended with Stripped’s opening monologue, in which she says, "Sorry if I speak my mind, sorry if I don’t do what I’m told," while taking off her clothes. If ever there was a case of a young woman enslaved by her sexual emancipation, it’s Christina on "Dirrty," the lapdance-funk single from Stripped with which she opened her set. When the short skinflick ended, she appeared in a black catsuit emblazoned with red slashes of fabric radiating away from her crotch, at the head of a dozen dancers dangling from towers of stainless-steel scaffolding and industrial fans. It looked like Cats without the fur.

"I want you to experience a journey," Christina explained. "This show is trying to tell a story, just like my album." The show did tell a story, though it’s difficult to say whether it was the one she had in mind. Her album deals with abusive relationships, with her needling low self-esteem, and with how her wounds have been magnified by the glare of stardom. In concert, though her singing was fine, her guises were numerous and occasionally cloying. She looked the devil in a red dress for Etta James’s sophisticated supper-club blues "At Last"; she slummed West Side Story ghetto chic for a mini-set of her Latin-pop songs; she spun tassels and bloomers on a brothel’s fainting sofa for "Lady Marmalade."

Her rock songs sounded the best but looked the silliest. Her dancers donned bare-knuckle-era boxing gear for "Fighter," a pop-metal tune worthy of Def Leppard or Celine Dion. "Can’t Hold Us Down," a jab at her arch-enemy Eminem in the form of a female-empowerment anthem, involved the gratuitous, Judas Priest–style arrival of a motorcycle. And "Make Over," with a serpentine metal riff that’s better than anything Godsmack have done recently, found her writhing in front of a fence small enough to have come from Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge production unit.

The song that brought the arena down was "Walk Away," a house-wrecking soul ballad about an obsessive but unfullfillable desire — the kind of song that almost always stands in for the relationship between a star and her audience. Christina’s performance was an ingenious twist: in a box in the middle of the stage, a male stripper humped a chair as a curtain slowly fell and rose, obscuring and revealing the object of her longing. As she crept toward him, in time with the song’s gloomy piano figure, it became, with the sex-crazed teens in the audience screaming along, a gradual and tortuous dance of lust and futility. That particular story had no happy ending, but the concert ended on an abruptly wholesome note when Aguilera, having already made her curtain call, returned to sing "Beautiful," a melancholy and uplifting piano ballad written by Pink’s collaborator, Linda Perry. It’s about learning how to be comfortable in your own skin, and given the hour or so we’d just witnessed, the odds of seeing Aguilera in such a state seemed slim, but there she was in bare feet, jeans, and a T-shirt, performing the first verse a cappella before her band joined in. It was far more moving than it had any right to be. Surely the moment was as choreographed as any of the ones that came before it, but for once the costume fit.

TIMBERLAKE’S SET, like his album, emphasized subtlety. Opening with video screens broadcasting a close-up of a snare drum, it bloomed into a meditation on building a groove instrument by instrument, with his players filling in the spaces around a rhythm and constructing cosmopolitan traffic jams from scratch. By the time he hit the stage, the band had worked their way into the extraterrestrial neon funk of "Rock Your Body," and Timberlake danced the accents, meeting rim shots and bass notes with a stutter step or an adjustment of his lapel. He looked as weightless as a moonwalk, and the effect was mirrored in a falsetto that recalled, by design, Michael Jackson’s circa Off the Wall and Prince’s from 1999. On "Right for Me," he mimicked Missy Elliott’s withering cadences while the band turned Timbaland’s minimalist hambone-clapping beat into an Afro-Cuban block party; even ’N Sync’s "Girlfriend" came out knotty, tense, and oblique. Timberlake’s current hit, "Señorita," took on the feel of layered, geometric abstraction, with bisecting patterns and fractured piano chords countering the melody at odd angles, a DJ dropping in Beasties breaks, and his dancers, dressed in gray-and-white jumpsuits, shadowing him with fluid, stylized breakdance moves. At the end, the trumpeter — one of three middle-aged Italian horn players perched in the wings — took a long solo.

A certain anticlimax was inevitable: by the time Timberlake played "Cry Me a River," at mid set, he’d exhausted all but one of his hits, and he ate up clock time by climbing on a crane and conducting a lengthy three-way jam — drums, turntables, and his own beatboxing — from the air. Even then, there was a sense that you’d been teleported to a mythical street corner triangulated by Harlem, Havana, and Lando Calrissian’s city in the clouds — a fantasy of idealized community where the dancers dance, the players play, and the band hit the fissures where hip-hop, rock, and R&B meet.

Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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