Take your pick from all the regal imagery Christina Aguilera brought on stage: The flowing robes, the elaborate crowns, the giant thrones high at center stage.
Or just read the words that splashed across the video screen behind her: QUEEN. IS. BACK.
Whether that throne is there for her taking in a realm reigned by Taylor, Adele and Beyonce, that's another matter. But the sense you get from Christina's Liberation Tour, the first leg of which wrapped Tuesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, is that she wants a share of it. And she's willing to lay a lot out there to get it.
The tour — Aguilera's first major national outing in a dozen years — is an ambitious, arena-sized production crammed into ornate theaters like the Mahaffey, with a band, six dancers, a staircase, multiple curtains, a ginormous video backdrop, countless costumes and at least a couple of drag performers filling up most of the stage.
Of course, holding back has never really been Aguilera's thing. The former Mouseketeer and teen-pop idol, now a 37-year-old self-proclaimed "mama bear," still has that arena-level range, a voice that at times, when deployed at max capacity, left her breathless.
There were hints of the melismatic oversinging that came to define her style, especially on the fiercely rap-rocky Fighter and Sick of Sittin'; her black-leather Xtina revival Dirrty; and her signature flaming cover of James Brown's It's a Man's Man's Man's World. It often worked out great, like on the frenetically jazzy Ain't No Other Man and Lady Marmalade, which thrilled despite consisting largely of vocal ad-libs and interjections. (Not to the Grammys: A full-blown reunion of this song needs to happen ASAP.)
But despite having one of her generation's most bluntly powerful voices, Aguilera was engulfed by so much pageantry that it at times overpowered even her. Sometimes it was the huge blasts of CO2 hissing louder than the music; sometimes it was the typhoon of dancers all around her; sometimes it was the constant set and costume changes that kept disrupting the flow.
It's not that it wasn't sumptuous to look at. Aguilera's interplay with her dancers was quite remarkable on Maria, when they encircled and then disappeared beneath her grand red gown to make it come alive. For Can't Hold Us Down, a couple of them ventured into the stans to propel fans to their feet. The Madonna-inspired Express became a satiny striptease; the modernized Genie In a Bottle a borderline appropriative Asian homage, with everyone twirling paper parasols in satin robes.
And the encore — during which Aguilera was joined briefly by her 4-year-old daughter Summer — turned into a full and glorious Pridefest, with a woman proposing to her girlfriend via Facetime (technologically awkward, but sweet) and rainbow lights and drag artists flooding the stage on the EDMmy Let There Be Love.
But it's also hard not to argue Aguilera should just sing, sans all the distractions. Deserve, for example, was one of the night's most opulent setpieces, with dancers in masks waving golden goblets and candelabras. Yet here, on this vampy electropop number, she delivered some of her most interesting and downplayed vocals of the night. And she also signaled she can be vulnerable when she wants it, like on the surprise last-night-of-tour setlist addition The Voice Within; or A Great Big World's Say Something, during which she mostly sang tender harmony for one of her backup singers.
As she tests the waters for a full-blown comeback to pop's A-list, Aguilera's still working some things out. But a production like this one shows she knows it's going somewhere.
"It has been a long journey," she said before the affirming, crowd-rousting Beautiful. "So to make it to the end here, it's a good place to come home to say goodbye. For now."
Yes, there will be another leg, and another tour beyond this. Small steps; this is just the beginning. But Aguilera clearly has her eye on bigger things.
— Jay Cridlin