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AUTHOR: James Montgomery, MTV.com

Photo: RCA

Christina Aguilera’s Lotus album was supposed to signify her return to prominence, a high-powered collection of songs penned by the biggest hitmakers in the business (Max Martin, Shellback, Alex Da Kid), preceded by a supercharged first single and paced by duets with not one, but two of her fellow judges on “The Voice” (she already ticked Adam Levine off the list last year with “Moves Like Jagger”).

Of course, when the folks at SoundScan released sales figures Wednesday morning (November 21), we learned that things didn’t quite pan out the way Aguilera had intended: Lotus sold slightly less than 73,000 copies, a number not quite disastrous but not exactly inspiring either. It debuted at #7 on the top 200, behind new albums like the “Breaking Dawn” soundtrack, the Weeknd’s Trilogy (the overwhelming majority of which was available for free online last year) and Soundgarden’s King Animal. And, somewhat tellingly, it came nowhere close to matching the sales of Taylor Swift’s Red — currently in its fourth week of release — or One Direction’s Take Me Home, which outsold Lotus by nearly 500,000 copies.

So while it’s not entirely accurate to call Aguilera’s latest a bomb, one can’t escape the fact that it wasn’t a triumphant comeback album either. Then again, maybe it was never supposed to be in the first place.

Because, while Aguilera certainly commands a massive — and maniacal — online fanbase (just write anything less-than-complimentary about her to see proof of this), perhaps it was unfair of us to heap such lofty expectations on Lotus, especially given Aguilera’s recent history. We all know how her last album, Bionic, fared (you can debate whether it was“ahead of its time” all you want), but album sales being what they are nowadays, that only tells half the story. It’s more telling to look at how she’s fared on the singles charts — the true test of any pop star — because, really, we probably should have seen all this coming and tempered our expectations accordingly.

Aguilera has had only three solo #1′s on the Billboard Hot 100, and two of them came during the Clinton administration. Her fourth was “Lady Marmalade,” a song also featuring Pink, Mya and Lil’ Kim, and her fifth was “Moves Like Jagger,” a Maroon 5 song on which she received a featured credit. Since 2002, she’s only had three singles land in the top 10 (2002′s “Beautiful,” 2006′s “Ain’t No Other Man” and 2008′s “Keeps Gettin’ Better”), and her best showing in recent years was “Not Myself Tonight,” which made it to #23. Lotus‘ first single, “Your Body,” peaked at #34, and eight weeks after it was released, it’s currently at #84. None of this is meant to pile on, mind you, it’s simply repeating the facts.

So why has Aguilera failed to replicate the dominance of fellow pop stars like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna or Beyoncé? There are plenty of theories — the prevailing thoughts (whether real or imagined) that she’s not as likable as Perry or Bey, does not work overtime to channel the same outsider spirit as Gaga (and therefore isn’t as relatable) or simply hasn’t been as smart with her choices as someone like Rih Rih — though I tend to believe that each of them are half-baked at best. Perhaps the truth of the matter lies in her lack of singles success, because it suggests that Aguilera is no longer a pop star; she’s a niche artist.

And that’s not a slight. In her best moments (and I wish there were more of them on Lotus), she can out-sing just about anybody, and as the recent crop of pop stars has proved time and time again, well, singing isn’t their primary concern. She still releases interesting stuff — I’m in the camp of folks who loved “Your Body” and think there are plenty of equally worthy follow-ups on the new album, like “Make the World Move” or “Sing for Me” — and, shoot, her backstory is as compelling as they come. She has a loyal fanbase, one that has thinned in recent years, but remains nonetheless. She can still work with anyone she pleases and make the kinds of albums she wants. As far as niche artists go, Aguilera’s got it pretty good. But I really think that it’s time for her to stop trying to compete with her contemporaries and embrace the uniqueness of her situation.

And that goes for us in the media too. Was it unfair to expect big things — the kinds of things she was capable of 10 years ago — from Lotus? Probably. Was it also inevitable? Most definitely. But why did Aguilera need a comeback anyway? From where I’m sitting, she’s fine exactly where she is.

Do you agree with our columnist’s take on Lotus? Let us know in the comments below!

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