Because all we can find is Xtina, with her explosive beats, body piercings and broken glass.
IT WAS LATE ONE NIGHT in Miami, toward the end of last year, that Christina Aguilera discovered the therapeutic joy of smashing things. She had recently split up with her boyfriend, Jorge Santos — one of the dancers in her live show, and her first true love — and she wasn’t happy. She had taken her rage and sorrow out to a nightclub and, now that she was there, she didn’t quite know what to do with them. “I was in a weird head space,” she recalls. “I was not myself, for sure. I was kind of running around, crazy, experiencing things for the first time.” A friend of hers, diagnosing her dilemma, led her away, into one of the club’s back rooms, where he handed her a champagne glass.
“Break this,” he told her.
“What?” she responded.
“Throw it,” he instructed, taking a glass and hurling it against the wall, by way of demonstration.
So she did the same. And, as it shattered, something within her was quelled.
“That was the first time I had really broken things.” she says, “and it felt so good.”
That night, they smashed about two boxes of champagne glasses. Afterward, she felt “fucking great”. Aguilera has hardly been cleansed of anger since that day. nor is she such an unconflicted soul that she is unable to conjure up plenty of other feelings (bitterness, paranoia, insecurity, a desperate need for approval) without which life is simpler and cleaner, but maybe she’s learning how to deal with it all.
The recording of her new album, Stripped, was not a simple, steady or speedy process, and there were difficult times along the way. On one particular day, she found herself feeling increasingly irritated, and her irritation wouldn’t subside. She had learned various ways of relieving stress in the studio: chucking tea bags against the studio walls, for instance, or pretending that she was a horror-movie actress going crazy. The songwriter Linda Perry, who collaborated on four of Stripped‘s songs, suggested Aguilera simply scream at the top of her lungs. But sometimes none of these was enough.
Now she knew another way. She asked a runner to go shopping for her and to bring back lots of glasses and lots of dishes. She’d do the rest.
TODAY, THERE IS A MEETING TO BE held in the Los Angeles haze, in the twentieth-floor offices of Aguilera’s manager, Irving Azoff, to choose pictures for her CD sleeve. She is late, but then, as far as I can work out, she is always late. (Eventually I will ask her about this, and she will look surprised at the question, then laugh, then say, “Oh, boy, that’s probably my worst quality,” though she will then temper this by explaining that it’s just that she often wakes up late and that she’s always relying on other people for transport because, though she has a driver’s license, she doesn’t like to drive in Los Angeles, and she’s scared of “lawsuits and things” if she does, and….)
After an hour and a half, she arrives. The photos under consideration for Stripped‘s front cover show her topless, her hair extensions flailing in front of her breasts just enough for decency. She studies some shots. She puts one hand on one picture, covering the face; with the other hand, she covers the picture from the waist down. “My stomach looks good in that one,” she says. “It’s just so curvy.” The designer, Jeri, argues against a close-up Aguilera likes. “It makes your head look too small,” she says.
“I like the expression on that,” counters Aguilera. “It makes me look a little tormented, like I’m thinking about something.” Aguilera rejects a shot Jeri favors. “I don’t think it looks like me,” she says. “It looks like I’m an opera singer or something.” “It is very pretty,” comments Jeri evenly. “Yeah,” says Aguilera. “I don’t like pretty. Fuck the pretty.”
AS MOST PEOPLE HAVE ALREADY noticed, the Christina Aguilera who appeared in 1999 singing ‘Genie in a Bottle’ — the one presented as the latest shiny-eyed, blond-haired, innocently flirty, nicely behaved, demurely and deniably coquettish teen-pop songstress — no longer exists.
On the day we first talk — when, she says, she is “dressing down” — her hair is partly covered by a do-rag, with a Pony baseball cap perched on it, and she is wearing a pink pajama top with the word gotcha on it, and a pair of combat pants hanging open several inches at the front to reveal much of her underwear, which says skimpies on it. (“It’s not, like, a thong,” she comments. “This is boys’ underwear — it’s comfortable shit”) On her left arm, just above the elbow, she is wearing an armband that says 69. (“I think it’s just funny,” she says.) “I don’t wear long floral skirts down to my ankles,” she says. “This is just me, I guess.”
Recently, her clothing choices have been much remarked upon. Columnist Liz Smith has averred that both she and Britney Spears had come to August’s MTV Video Music Awards in “hooker get-ups.”
“Yeah. I heard something about that,” Aguilera says. ‘”Who cares what we wore to a damn awards show? It’s the VMAs. I was happy with my outfit, and I’d wear it again.”
Reading about it afterward, I say, was the first time I’d seen the term “under-cleavage.”
“Oh, yeah, I was giving reverse cleavage,” she says. “Shoot. I was up there and doing my thing, and it felt comfortable. It’s just a bit of clothing. If I was in a back alley at midnight and wearing a get-up like that, I could see, yes, that’s a little bit hookerish. But I’m at a damn awards show! I’m an entertainer! I’m playing a part. I don’t go out to clubs like that at all. That’s the only time I dress up like that Hookerish. Whatever.”
When you get shit for that, I say, what do you think?
“I like being different. I have never followed the pack, and I’m not going to change now because in some magazine I made the list as — what was it? — one of the skunk-haired celebrities.”
She roars with laughter.
“Oh,” she adds. “But I was the ‘funkiest skunk of all.’ “
AGUILERA IS BEING DRIVEN, IN AN SUV, to the recording studio by Allison Azoff, her manager’s daughter and the day-to-day guardian of her business. Aguilera wants to play a new mix of one of her songs, but she can’t get the CD player to work. Her frustration is mounting. “I hate this fucking car,” she says. She sits in silence for a moment, then begins browsing through the radio dial, rarely staying on one station for more than a few seconds.
At Enterprise studios, she meets Scott Storch, who co-wrote and produced much of Stripped and who, though he mutters, “No one knows who I am,” is one of the key collaborators on some of Dr. Dre’s best records. She has come to hear what she hopes will be the final mix of ‘Keep On Singin’ My Song’, the ballad scheduled to close her album. He puts on his new mix.
“Been feeling like nothing’s going my way lately” sings Aguilera, sadly, from the stu
dio speakers. Halfway through, when the drums come in, Aguilera shakes her head. “Before, it had that energy that was kind of off,” she says. “It was more Stevie Wonder. This is so on the beat.” She picks apart details, one by one, explaining what she wants or what she’s thinks is missing: “I want that big note to be crazy washed-out … Do that sparkle-magic reverb … It doesn’t sound soulful, it sounds plastic-y … It’s lost some of its stripped-down magic.” Storch makes his case quietly. Often he tries to argue that what she thinks has changed has not changed at all. He defends one alteration by saying that part of the original was a mistake, but she jumps right in.
“Well, it was a good mistake,” she says. “Scott, I think you did a great job, I really do. This song means a lot to me.”
“It sounds a lot better,” he says.
“Yeah, but you weren’t in love with this song like I’ve been in love with this song,” she says. She begins to get annoyed. “Fuck, I hate people who are like that — you’re just pissed because I don’t like what you did. I just want to make sure that this song isn’t overproduced. Before, it sounded like you and I did it in a room — now it sounds like you gave me the track to sing over.”
Storch looks increasingly uncomfortable and eventually leaves the room.
“I feel really bad,” she says to Allison, “and I don’t want to upset him, but it had a kind of imperfection that really worked for me. It was almost like he turned it into Diane Warren-y perfect, rather than emote shit …”
After a while she says, “Shall we go and talk to Scott?” She finds him in the corridor, walks up to him and gives him a hug. They go back into the studio, open bottles of Corona and clink them together.
“Do you want to do a toast?” he asks.
“To what?” she says, smiling. “To no pouty producers?”
Later, she goes to the dance auditions for her latest video, for the single ‘Dirrty’ (she is late). In a large, featureless room at the Millennium Dance Complex, a hundred or so dancers await their chance. She keeps complaining that they’re not dancing dirty and hard enough and that the girls are being too feminine. “It’s all about stank,” she says. “This is the stank video.” While the fourth group of men is lining up, Aguilera leans over and gestures discreetly at one of the dancers, who at the same time is glancing over at her.
“That’s my ex-boyfriend,” she says.
You make him audition? I sputter.
She grins. “Hell, yeah.”
After two rounds of auditions, he is still on the final shortlist. (Eventually, he will make the video.) In the car, Aguilera and Allison discuss what they have seen. “Some of those guys are really cute,” Aguilera says.
“I thought that white girl was a good freestyler,” says Allison.
“Yeah,” says Aguilera. “I guess we have to have one white person, right?”
JORGE SANTOS AND AGUILERA STARTED out as friends, and he’d been dancing with her for months before they got together. Was he literally your first love?
“Yes. Before that, I always loved to hear love stories, of it working, but for me, I was so focused on my career, and I looked at it like … gushy girls: ‘She’s weak, she’s vulnerable.’ But in the end, when I let myself go a little bit, it was the most beautiful thing to want to do things for someone else. He was my first real experience, sexually. I mean, you can fool around. There’s bases and all that. But that was the first time. He was my first… everything.”
It must have been weird that your first love was someone whom you employed?
“Yeah. That was more weird for him than for me, because he was a very independent, Puerto Rican, headstrong, do-for-myself kind of guy. So it was hard for him that his girlfriend is paying his way. And it’s my house, my cook, things like that.”
When she finished touring, they moved into her Los Angeles house. She loved having someone to come home to. But it didn’t last too much longer. She tells me about one of several songs on her album that relate to him, ‘Underappreciated’: “It’s about a girl who has been in a relationship a number of years, and the newness has definitely worn off, and he can’t turn his head away from the TV and you don’t lay awake anymore talking about dreams and things. I think I felt a little underappreciated sometimes, because I gave a lot. especially trying to make him feel good.”
She has had one other extended relationship, of about eight months, since then. “That was just a bomb from the get-go,” she says, sighing. “His name is Asshole. No, I’m kidding.” But she doesn’t sound like she is. “It was real casual at first, but it turned out being something that I really tried to , give my heart to. Even though, in the back of my mind, that was the first time I smelled bullshit. But I liked him so much I wanted to make it work. I think I’ve got a lot of anger at myself for putting up with the shit so long. I felt unloving, abusive … not physically, not like my mom went through but abusive in other ways, and I’m mad at myself for having put myself in that position. It was my first dealing with a quote-unquote ‘playa’. I found out later on he was with other girls, and never really giving as much as I did. It showed me the real sleazy, dogside of how guys can be.”
Not long after this bad relationship, further unsettled by a falling-out with two confidants, Aguilera had what she describes as a breakdown. Her family flew to Los Angeles to nurse her through her recovery. “It was a really hard time,” she says. “Anything just set me off … I almost wanted to, you know, hurt myself. And it was the first time I’d ever had thoughts like that. I have a lot of pain and anger.”
THREE MORE INSIGHTS INTO THE passions of Christina Aguilera. First: There is a track on Stripped, one of the last she wrote, called ‘Get Mine, Get Yours’. She’s not sure whether she should have included it, because it’s the only song she feels is without “depth of meaning.” It is about “casual sex… just what the title is: I’m in it to get mine, and you get yours. We can do this and just have fun. ‘I want your body, not your heart’ kind of thing.”
Second: There are alternate, joke lyrics to many of the songs on Stripped. Aguilera has actually recorded them for her own amusement. She sings me the rogue opening verse to a song called ‘Cruz’: “Slowly drifting in a mellow high/Smoke some marijuana, he kisses up my thigh.” She giggles and says, “But I’m not a smoker. I’m way more of a drinker than I am a smoker. I’m talking about, you know” — she puts on a silly voice — “cannabis. Being high, it’s not the best feeling for me.” Then she adds, unbidden, “But all my boyfriends happen to be. So I can take it around me, I just don’t participate, for the most part.”
Third: One day I find her reading about Jennifer Love Hewitt’s slumber party in Rolling Stone. “I would scare the shit out of her if she came to one of my sleep-overs,” says Aguilera. “Fuck the dessert — where’s the tequila?” She laughs. “She wants a bunch of white boys I don’t want. I want the boys with the flava.”
You never date white boys?
“He’s got to have some flava and edge to him.” She laughs. “I don’t discriminate because of color. I actually dated my first one recently. I put some cream in my coffee.”
ANOTHER DAY, AGUILERA IS AGAIN ON the way to the studio. She is running late, but she declares that she has a headache coming on and needs to eat. Allison calls ahead to one of Aguilera’s preferred restaurants, Houston’s, in the Valley. In the car, Aguilera puts on Redman’s hit from last year, ‘Let’s Get Dirty’. It was after loving ‘Let’s Get Dirty’ that she approached its producer, Rockwilder, and requested a backing track “with the same kind of intensity and explosive beat and feeling.” What he gave her turned into ‘Dirrty’. (She says the spelling is “just making it different and whatnot” and not inspired by Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’. They also considered ‘Dirtee’, ‘Dirrdy’ and ‘Dirdy’.) This evening she takes off ‘Let’s Get Dirty’ after a couple of minutes — “It’s funny to hear that now,” she says — and replaces it with the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Then she scans the radio dial. “Hey!” she shouts.
It’s ‘Dirrty’; she turns it up, and though we soon arrive at the restaurant, she stays in the car until every note has been heard. Once installed in her corner, Aguilera asks the waitress if the air conditioning can be turned down. The waitress looks a little dubious — it is a huge restaurant — and suggests that this is probably not possible.
“They’ve done it before,” retorts Aguilera firmly.
She orders a soft drink and a Corona. The soft drink arrives immediately; when the waitress returns for our food order, Aguilera says, coldly, “I’m still waiting for a Corona.” When the waitress next returns, she says, “It’s such a coincidence, because Brandy is a couple of tables down.”
“Uh-huh,” says Aguilera.
“Have you guys ever dined together?” the waitress asks.
Aguilera just looks at her, pointedly withdrawing from conversation, then mutters under her breath, once the waitress has left, “Because we’re both celebrities?”
Once the artichoke dip has arrived, Aguilera perks up. “I’ve got really bad cuts and bruises on my legs,” she announces, and pulls up her pants high above her left knee to show me a quite gigantic irregularly shaped bruise that she says she got on the video. She says she had to box eight rounds.
After she’s eaten, on the way to the studio, she listens to Peaches'”Fuck the Pain Away.” “Crazy-ass!” she shouts, walking into the control room. “Did you miss me?”
“I sure did,” says Linda Perry.
She asks Perry why she didn’t make it down to her video shoot, and Perry says that she was busy.
“Yeah, whatever — you don’t like me,” says Aguilera. Then she asks for a massage. “Linda, please, please, please,” she beseeches.
“No, I ain’t doing that,” says Perry.
“You’re so good at it,” pleads Aguilera. She shows Perry her bruise.
“Oh, my God,” says Perry. “What happened? What could you have been doing?”
“You should have seen the shower scene,” says Allison.
“What were you doing?” Perry asks.
“Humping a girl,” Aguilera replies.
“Humping a girl?” says Perry.
“Five girls,” corrects Aguilera.
“I didn’t get that invite,” says Perry.
Suddenly, the pleasantries are over; they listen to a new mix of a song called ‘I’m OK’. Aguilera says nothing. In fact, she barely moves.
CHRISTINA AGUILERA LIKES TO EXPLAIN that her new album is called Stripped because “it’s me stripped of all the hype, the gloss, the controversy, the rumors.” Possibly — because she’s half-naked on the cover and has a single called “Dirrty” that includes the couplet “I need that uhhh to get me off/Sweat until my clothes come off” — many people will take this with a pinch of salt. But if there is a song that justifies this explanation, it is ‘I’m OK’.
The events of Aguilera’s early life are no secret. Her mother, Shelly Kearns, married an Ecuadorean, Fausto Aguilera, who was in the U.S. Army. The relationship was a violent one, and Shelly left with Christina when she was six. Christina was raised by her mother (and, later, her stepfather). Though she has talked of having a friendly relationship with her father, she has also alluded to how those early days affected her.
None of which really prepares one for the naked hurt of ‘I’m OK’: “Hurt me to see the pain across my mother’s face/Every time my father’s fist would put her in her place/Hearing all the yelling, I would cry up in my room/Hoping it would be over soon/Bruises fade, Father/But the pain remains the same/And I still remember how you kept me so afraid. …”
And that’s before the first chorus ends. “That’s why I think music was so important for me,” she says. “I would go upstairs and I would line up all my stuffed animals and pretend they were my audience and sing to them. Close my door and escape it.” (She used to tell this story in her teen-pop interviews. What she wouldn’t mention in those days is why she was upstairs, or what she was trying to drown out.)
“Everything’s really real,” she says of the song. “The marks along her neck: My mom had glove marks all over her neck from a fight.” She was being strangled with an army jacket, says Christina. That was the night her mother told her they were leaving, though she went back a few more times.
I ask her about the line “When I was thrown against those stairs.” She says it was when her father was posted at a base in Japan. “I think I crossed the street when I wasn’t supposed to or something. My dad took me and threw me against the stairs, up the stairs.”
And then I ask her about the unhappiest couplet of all: “Shadows stir at night through a crack in the door/The echo of a broken child screaming, ‘Please, no more.’ ” “It was a sad time,” she says. “It still sticks with me. I think I have a lot of anger because of it, a lot of anger where I get so aggressive and heated about certain things.” Though each chorus ends with the song’s title — ‘I’m OK’ it is not a claim that the song fully supports. “I often wonder why I’ve carried all this guilt/When it’s you that helped me put up all these walls I’ve built,” she sings.
“Yeah,” she considers. “Sometimes I’ll feel bad that I can’t be more open to people, that I can’t just have a smile on my face all the time, that there’s something wrong with me. When really it’s my past and what certain people have put me through. I promised myself that nothing would ever make me feel helpless ever again. That no guy would ever have that power or position over me.”
Her father lives in New York. “At this point we’re not too close,” she says. She hasn’t sent him the song. “I’m sure he’s not going to love it, but hopefully he will listen to it, since it is pretty much directed toward him, and, if anything, he will feel bad about what happened. I’m not trying to punish him. Nothing like that. If anything, I’m speaking out for my own benefit and for the benefit of others that might be going through it. Hopefully, he will understand where I’m coming from and what he put us through and be a better man for it. I mean, I can’t help what he did — I just hope he respects the fact that this is part of the healing process for me.”
IN THE STUDIO, ENGINEER Dave Pensado adjusts the reverb on a vocal phrase from ‘I’m OK’.
“The pain remains the same … same … same …” sings Aguilera.
In the corridor, Aguilera says to Perry that she told MTV about their pingpong matches earlier today.
“That I won?” Perry asks.
“That I won,” Aguilera says.
“Well, I guess you are the star,” says Perry, “so they’re going to believe you. I’m a nobody.” (Incidentally, this is not Aguilera’s first pingpong rivalry. In her Mickey Mouse Club days, whenever the older kids weren’t hogging the table, she would face off against Britney. “We used to play all the time,” says Aguilera. “I think we did get a bit competitive where that one was concerned. That’s the only time I’ll admit to any competitiveness. It’d be funny to see each other play now. Shoot. I’d take her on any day. That’d be fun.”)
Redman and Rockwilder are working at Enterprise studios this evening, and each comes by. Redman has a pit bull with him. “How you doing, girl?” he asks. They discuss the ‘Dirrty’ video, which he appears in.
“You hitting the plushie — that was the greatest thing,” says Aguilera.
“That shit was hot,” he says.
Rockwilder turns up.
“You missed the shower scene at the video,” says Aguilera. “I can’t believe you left right before. You suck, Rock.” She smiles. “It’s too hot for MTV”
“You looked great onscreen,” he says.
“What do you mean?” says Aguilera. “I didn’t look good in person?”
WHEN AGUILERA WAS GROWING up, her grandmother told her mother that they would be kicked out of the house if Christina got her ears pierced. Everyone else at school had their ears pierced, and it didn’t seem fair. Eventually, she had her ears pierced anyway, but it might be true that her grandmother’s early refusals planted the idea somewhere in Christina’s head that piercing could be your own personal rebellion and private celebration.
When Aguilera was on tour after her first album, she fell into a routine. “If I was having a bad day,” she says, “or if something was really getting me down — boy troubles, whatever — I wanted to get a new piercing. It was definitely a release for me. Something that made me feel a little more strong or empowered. Because it was something that had to do with me and no one else.”
The first of these piercings was a nipple. (Most days, you can’t help but notice the outline of a nipple ring on her right breast.) She also has a piercing in her bottom lip and one in her left nostril, as well as a piercing between her legs. “It just seemed erotic in a place that most people wouldn’t have the guts to do it,” she says. “You hear things like, ‘Oh, it will help you reach sexual heights’ — whatever — but I just think it’s pretty. I think it accents things quite well.”
The ornament in question is festooned with diamonds. “I don’t even know how many,” she says. “Because it’s going in a special place. It’s really beautiful and expensive, and I like it a lot. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on it.”
I raise my eyebrows, just a little.
“From my gynecologist!” she screeches. “Oh, no! Don’t take it that way! I mean my gynecologist and my waxer.”
She also says this: “I really like my jewelry. My extra puncture wounds.”
WHENEVER AGUILERA WEARS HER hair up, you can see the name Xtina tattooed across the back of her neck. It’s a nickname of sorts. “People talked about how it was almost like a split personality,” she says. “I’ve heard some people go, ‘Hmm, your sweet, childlike kind of more innocent side is the Christina, and your more dark, mysterious kind of edgier side is the Xtina.”
When you spend time with Aguilera, both of them are very much in evidence. The diaper jokes in the studio, the pages she and her younger sister exchange (“What are you doing, Queen of Fatz?” writes her sister. “Interview for Rolling Stone — what about you. Hog Face?”) … these are clearly Christina, and there’s a lot of Christina left in her. But, for the moment, I think it is Xtina we will be seeing the most of. “Xtina has come out,” says Aguilera. “She’s showing her colors now.”
© Chris Heath, Rolling Stone, 14 November 2002