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Christina Aguilera, Wembley SSE Arena, review: spectacular vocal display was all climax and no build-up

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Christina Aguilera is touring the UK until November 14
Christina Aguilera is touring the UK until November 14 Credit: WireImage

Christina Aguilera is an outstanding singer, who can do things most other pop stars can only dream about. She can growl and roar with a soul-stomping snap and she can fire off melismatic bursts of notes with florid virtuosity. She can get down low and bluesy and she can climb right up into the gospel heavens. She has the talent to take a song, shake it all about and pummel it top to bottom. What she all too rarely does is actually sing it.

This was the American pop star’s first British tour in over 10 years, and so perhaps it is understandable that she wanted to come out all confetti canons blazing. Beginning with her debut single Genie In A Bottle, Aguilera has scored a lot of hits over 20 years and apparently decided to try and sing them all – or at least bits of them – in a frenetically over-agitated show featuring a quick-fire parade of costume changes, salacious dance routines and choppily edited videos. 

All this was squeezed into just over an hour onstage. I don’t know how her team of eight acrobatically exuberant dancers felt but it was exhausting just to watch.

Along with a dance troupe, Aguilera brought a live band, which is increasingly a rarity in modern pop shows that tend to rely on backing tracks. That alone should have been enough to elevate this performance but the four-piece blasted away without nuance or finesse. The drummer wildly overplayed, a heavy rock guitarist pealed out wailing notes whilst keyboards filled up every space with sampled sounds. 

A trio of backing vocalists effectively carried melody lines all night, with Aguilera freestyling over the top, roaring out lung-bursting power notes and stringing together surprising riffs. She sang like a showy lead guitarist, decorating songs with bursts of skill rather than carrying lyrical messages or digging into the emotional core. It was all climax and no build up.

In a rambling interlude about “the journey” she has been on, Aguilera described herself as “a truth seeker” who wants to use her voice “for good.” This is one way of looking at a career that started out as a Disney mousketeer and has included starring roles in Burlesque and voice-overs for the Emoji movie. To be fair, Aguilera has certainly made music containing strong messages of self-empowerment. But, as a performer, she seems trapped by old ideas of herself.

At 38, she still dresses onstage like a teenager trying to shock her parents, all thigh-high boots and body-hugging bodices. The buttock-exposing chaps were back for a pulverising romp through sexually provocative anthem Dirrty. Now, you can do this kind of thing at any age and carry it off with camp conviction, as Cher’s recent tour demonstrated. But when you have a voice like Aguilera’s, maybe there comes a time when you should stop worrying about the bottom line and just really sing the song.

Because the rare moments in which she actually did that silenced the crowd. In a good way. When Aguilera sat on the stairs with one of her backing vocalists to duet on piano ballad Say Something, you could have heard a pin drop. Aguilera chuckled with delight as a fantastic version of soul anthem Maria extended into an exuberant gospel jam of Makes Me Wanna Pray. 

But her greatest power ballad, Beautiful, struggled to lift off in the same way. The 12,000 strong Wembley Arena crowd were doing their best to sing along whilst Aguilera fired off impossible melodic modulations, so the effect was a push and pull between audience and performer, rather than coming together. As a bombastic arena pop revue, Aguilera delivered the goods spectacularly. But in terms of musical magic, the genie stayed in the bottle.

Christina Aguilera plays Manchester Arena on Tues, and Resorts World Arena, Birmingham, on Thurs