One of the notable things about “Beautiful” is that having written it, Linda Perry wanted to keep it for a proposed solo career – it was one of her “personal” songs. So the question is – would the song make more sense sung by a woman staring down forty, her big hit a decade gone, in a business that’s notoriously unforgiving to women who age? Is its scenario – panic’s sudden grab at the throat – one that transfers?

It’s a rhetorical question – very clearly it has transferred. “Beautiful” is a song about self-acceptance and self-belief, but it’s also a song that’s plain-spoken about the barriers to that happy state: anxiety, doubt, the baffled condescension of friends. Those are, surely, as universal as anything else pop can talk about.

The strength of the song, in fact, lies in its layers of ironies and overlapping meanings. “Words can’t bring me down” could be a statement of empowered strength; it could also be a rosary clutched in desperation against oncoming despair. The performance is a showcase of Aguilera’s melisma and lungpower, but she wanted to re-record it, hearing the imperfections most listeners would never register. A miniature of the song’s main point – that anxiety doesn’t align to actual abilities or circumstances – it can lurk unspoken under the most perfect or bombastic exterior.

As communication of that idea, “Beautiful” succeeds – indeed it performed beyond any expectation, forging a subgenre of self-belief pop which we’ll be returning to again and again. As a performance, it steamrolls you. Aguilera moans, she whinnies, she trills, she sighs, she bellows, she unlocks all the show-pony tendencies she held in check on “Dirrty” but still comes from a place of conviction.

As an actual listening experience, though… I like it, on balance, but I somehow don’t quite trust it. I like the corny but unashamed way it builds momentum, but I don’t like how it shifts to “we”, making a claim for something universal. I like the way it captures the suddenness of insecurity, but I don’t like how beauty is the solution. In the end it’s a dilemma the credo of self-love always runs into – is the aim to transform your flaws into virtues, or just to acknowledge and live with them? Where does defiance become narcissism? It’s unfair to ask a power ballad to answer those questions, but the more “Beautiful” asserts itself as an anthem, the more pressing they become.

Score: 6

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