Words: Tim Heap
First things first: Christina Aguilera looks good perched on a golden throne – so much so that her current tour features two, all within the first half hour.
And after the hour-and-a-bit long spectacle ends, you can’t help but feel like she’s deserving of both, such is the depth of her 20-year discography and the depth and versatility of her famed powerhouse vocals.
I’ve been an Xtina fan since I used to steal my sister’s 'Stripped' CD to listen to while writing lyrics like “Call me a bitch cos I speak what’s on my mind” in my school notebooks, but she’s not the easiest diva to love.
The X Tour is her return to the UK in 13 years, during which her star has somewhat faded, with commercially unsuccessful albums and a too-long stint as a coach on The Voice.
Last year’s Liberation album, six years after the power-pop of 'Lotus', marked the 38-year-old’s return to music and a creative change of direction – resulting in a Metacritic score of 71, her highest-rated album to date.
Unbelievably, 'Stripped' – an album which defines the pop-princess-grows-up genre – is her lowest. Playing to a packed Wembley Arena for the second night, the setlist is a dizzying hit parade, spanning all her eras (there’s even a nod to Burlesque) and showcasing the diva’s four-octave range.
Some of the production choices are a bit puzzling – is Bionic, a veritable flop of a song, the best track to enter to?
Does the forgettable Pitbull-led 'Feel This Moment' need to almost close the show? – but Xtina has the performance chops to sell it all nonetheless.
The show is a bit stop-start, split into half a dozen ‘acts’, often spanning between two and four songs each, though not all of them entire numbers.
The breaks between segments – in which the audience is entertained by video montages and, at one point, a fierce vogue routine by a male backing dancer – allow the star to get through at least half a dozen costume changes.
The outfits are as varied as the hits, from spangled bodysuits and bondage-inspired gear to pink cotton-candy coats and a kimono for a stripped-back version of outsider anthem 'Beautiful'.
While Christina is undoubtedly the star (her stage presence is phenomenal), she is helped out by eight dancers, three backing singers and a full band – put to use especially well during the Janis Joplin-inspired 'Sick of Sittin’, where electric guitar solos abound.
Introduced by Christina saying “this is a song for everybody with a voice to be heard” (a rare moment of patter beyond the typical platitudes), 'Sick of Sittin’ follows on from 'Can’t Hold Us Down', together creating one of the most rabble-rousing moments of the show.
For every high-energy banger, from a reworked 'Genie in a Bottle' to a 'Candyman'/'I Want Candy' mash-up, there’s a ballad that really lets the vocals soar.
My now-30, new-mum friend welled up with tears during 'The Voice Within', remembering being 14 and listening to it in her room.
Christina enlists former The Voice US contestant Avery Wilson to duet with her on 'Say Something', as beautifully staged as the song itself, before reappearing dressed as the Virgin Mary to lead a gospel session of 'Makes Me Wanna Pray', 'What A Girl Wants' and 'Come On Over'.
In Christina’s world, all this makes perfect sense – and that’s enough for the crowd to lap it all up.
Clad in a futuristic S&M-style outfit, she brings the house down with a powerhouse performance of 'Fighter', a song perhaps even more anthemic and empowering now, in a post-#MeToo age, than it was 15 years ago.
But it’s Lotus’s dance banger 'Let There Be Love' that closes the show – and boy was there plenty of love for the star at the centre of the show.
It’s not always easy to be a fan of Xtina, but when live performances are this good, it’s worth it.
The X Tour continues in Manchester (12 November) and Birmingham (14 November). For tickets, visit livenation.co.uk.
Images: Sam Hussein