Let’s flashback to the 2012 American Music Awards for a moment and focus on everyone’s favorite perennially-peroxided diva, Christina Aguilera.
The belty pop star was attending the show after a very bad week. Her supposed comeback album Lotus had just delivered wilting first-week sales of only 73,000 copies. (The poorly-reviewed set would go on to become her worst-selling album ever.) And to make matters worse, she’d given up her highly-coveted chair on NBC’s reality smash The Voice for its upcoming fourth season to focus on her career, though it was already apparent there would be no sold-out tour the following spring.
Aguilera had already had a rather unsavory few months. In January, she’d delivered an indulgent, overbaked version of Etta James’ “At Last” at the diva’s own funeral. Many found the spectacle in poor taste — and not just because she was clad in a boob-bearing blazer and had spray tan streaming down her legs:
In September, she’d released an absurd (in a bad way) music video for her shouty single “Your Body,” which floundered on the Billboard charts after peaking at number 34. The clip was a mess of rainbow hair extensions and fruity pebbles, with a bedazzled “Rich Bitch” necklace on top. Aguilera couldn’t convincingly play the wacky-diva character that had launched Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha to the top of the charts (remember, this is pre-Miley 2.0), and the video left her looking desperate for attention — especially as she sang asinine lyrics about playing with herself in leopard stretch pants:
And then came her AMA performance, a medley of three songs nobody knew, which showcased all the worst sides of the talented singer. Was it indulgent? You bet. It began with a badly lip-synced spoken-word intro about flowers and regeneration. Was she dressed unflatteringly? Of course. Aguilera stomped onto the stage in a leather leotard and fishnet stockings, caked in fifteen layers of Fischer Price makeup. Did she give in to her bad singing habits? All of them. She inserted unnecessary “Hah!” noises between phrases, delivered ceaseless runs, skipped long lines of her choruses, and then yelled all the others.
The “more is more” philosophy applied to the staging, too. Aguilera strutted in front of a bubblegum pink trailer and festooned herself with drag queens, bearded bodybuilders, and a Speedo’d man wearing a star over his crotch. Like the video for “Your Body,” the AMA performance was an embarrassing mess that left Aguilera looking more desperate than anything, and it did nothing to move the needle on Lotus. The album was still a bomb:
But oh what a difference a year can make.
At Sunday night’s AMA presentation, a svelte Aguilera took the stage with pop duo A Great Big World to sing the ballad “Say Something,” which they debuted on The Voice a few weeks earlier. Fresh-faced and wearing a demure black dress, Aguilera forsook over-the-top belting and opted instead for vocal (if not emotional) restraint. Perhaps she was just being respectful to the band, who originated the track, but she put away her big guns for the tender performance — and it revealed a side of Aguilera that’s been hidden for far too long.
In a quiet sigh that ever-so-slightly swelled into a longing moan, Aguilera delivered her lyrics simply and beautifully, and she never overpowered her duet partner, Ian Axel. She held out her notes just long enough. She modulated her volume. She left out her distracting vocal tics. She reminded the world that underneath the acrylic nails and heavy bronzer, there is a remarkably talented singer waiting to return to prominence.
The following day, “Say Something” rose again to number one on the iTunes chart (where it is still sitting today), which speaks to the true power of a stripped-back performance. On a night rife with junky Geisha parades and crying space kittens, Aguilera and A Great Big World went small, decorating the stage with nothing more than a pair of pianos and a spotlight. Their performance most certainly cost a fraction Aguilera’s 2012 AMAs debacle, and the payoff has been swift and robust.
Let us hope that this marks a turning point for the diva, whose own taste has gotten in the way of her success too often. Because for Aguilera, it turns out, less is much, much more.