They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That’s why we bring you “Popology,” the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, check out my thoughts on Britney Spears’ landmark debut and the final album from *NSYNC.
In this week’s installment, Christina Aguilera fights back.
Were we really kicking around Christina Aguilera all that much at the beginning of the millennium? Her 2002 album Stripped must be one of the most defensive and paranoid mainstream pop albums in the history of the genre. It’s chock full of anger and paranoia, which makes it truly fascinating both sonically and thematically.
Three years elapsed between the release of her self-titled debut and Stripped, which in pop music terms might as well be an entire generation. After all, the kid who was into you at age 14 has probably evolved into something else entirely at 17. Perhaps sensing this, Aguilera recruited an eclectic batch of collaborators (including Scott Storch, Linda Perry, Rockwilder and Glen Ballard, the latter of whom produced Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, a clear touchstone for Stripped) to infuse her songs with bigger beats, louder guitars, catchier choruses and more space for her elastic voice to bend, stretch and dance across the music. It was a shrewd move, as Aguilera was embraced as more of a rebellious, thinking girl’s pop star, and it earned her respect from both rock fans and the hip-hop community.
Hip-hop is an interesting jumping off point for Stripped. It is very much structured like a rap album (complete with a “This is who I am” intro and a couple of interludes) and there are a number of guest spots from rappers (including Lil’ Kim and Redman). The album kicks off with “Can’t Hold Us Down,” a real “sisters are doing it for themselves” sort of anthem that lets the world know that nobody will hold Christina — or the rest of womankind — down. It’s got a hip-hop beat that has a little bit of Dr. Dre funk embedded in it, and Aguilera surfs the beat pretty well. Aguilera was always associated with Britney Spears (if only because they were breaking at about the same time), and people always brought up what a superior voice Christina had. That appears to be true, as Aguilera’s vocals sound natural, free and dynamic. Sure, she does a lot of runs, but they sort of work.
“Walk Away” is a slow-burning torch song about trapping yourself in a relationship with somebody you know you shouldn’t be with, and it is juxtaposed with “Fighter,” a tremendous guitar-fueled single that could be sung from the perspective of the “Walk Away” narrator six months later. “Fighter” is Aguilera laying out the “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” philosophy, and she has enough swagger to pull it off. It also represents the first “Popology” song that will find a permanent home on my iPod.
The swagger continues with “Infatuation” (an island-kissed bit of R&B), the Prince-esque “Loving Me 4 Me” and the slightly-too-busy Alicia Keys duet “Impossible,” all strong tracks. But then the album gets a little problematic, as too many of the songs on the back half of Stripped fall into predictable mid-temp grooves and hit on the themes that Aguilera is oppressed, ignored or underestimated. The proceedings are only really broken up by a pair of ridiculously great singles: “Beautiful” (a stunning “pretty on the inside” ballad) and “Dirrty,” the album’s first single that introduced the world to Christina 2.0. (a more in-your-face, raunchy version of the “Genie in a Bottle” singer).
A lot was made about Aguilera’s aggressive sexuality in this song (and those chaps she wore in the video), but it seems like she was the victim of a double standard. There’s nothing on Stripped that is any more suggestive or sexually aggressive than a lot of the stuff on …Baby One More Time. In fact, she’s way more honest and real. The brief interlude “Stripped, Pt. 2” contains the lyric “Sorry I’m not a virgin/ Sorry I’m not a slut,” and there’s a lot in that couplet. You can’t easily place Aguilera in a category, and she refuses to live at either end of the “Madonna/Whore” spectrum. Like most women, Aguilera is complicated, and if that makes her a villain, she is willing to embrace that.
Stripped ends on something of a sour note, as closer “Keep on Singin’ My Song” is sort of formless and way, way too long. In the end, it’s uneven and heavily flawed, but Stripped stands tall as a strong record because it has flaws. This is as real as mainstream tentpole pop gets, and it’s a shame Aguilera hasn’t been more prolific in her career. Maybe she just wants to keep everybody hungry — and if that is the goal, then mission accomplished.
What’s your favorite Christina Aguielra song? Let us know in the comments!