Get a little naughty: how Christina Aguilera turned pop Dirrty

Telegraph Entertainment 1 month ago

It was 2003, and Christina Aguilera was absolutely, categorically having sex. “Look at people like Beyoncé or Britney,” she told Blender Magazine. “They’re desperate to come across as sweet, good little girls, but then you see them in photo shoots that are extremely sexual – tight little booty shorts, and not much else. So why do they try to be virginal in interviews?”

“Come on, girls, stop contradicting yourselves!” the then-21-year-old continued. “If you want to do those magazine covers and those videos, then fine, more power to you. But don’t revert to innocence afterwards. I will not hide behind anything, ever. I’m a sexually strong female, and I’m proud to be one. If anyone has a problem with that, tough.”

Blender, a sort-of music magazine noteworthy for its pictorials of famous women covered in fake tattoos, grime and messy eyeshadow, was an appropriate venue for Aguilera’s statements. Because if the Aguilera of 2003 was herself a magazine, she would have looked something like Blender — sensational headlines, a little bit dirty. Or, more accurately, dirrty.

Released in September 2002 as the first single from her second album Stripped, Dirrty came to embody Aguilera’s apparently overnight transformation from virginal Britney clone to debauched bad girl with a nipple piercing, who enjoyed sex and, as she boasted to Rolling Stone, smashed dishes to let off steam.

“I need that ‘ugh’ to get me off / Sweat until my clothes come off,” she moans in the track’s pre-chorus, alongside pulsating beats, a bridge by rapper Redman and the sounds of dogs barking. Its video was even more outrageous — a spectacularly lurid orgy of mud-wrestling, furries and underwear as outerwear. But while Dirrty is often marked as a turning point for the star, in terms of her image and her music, there was always a restless quality to the Aguilera that came before it, as if she were being forced to wear someone else’s skin.

Aguilera emerged amid a wave of shiny teen-pop exemplified by the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and Britney Spears. There was a sexual undercurrent to much of their music and image, but it was often coy, or strictly subtext. Aguilera’s debut single, 1999’s Genie in a Bottle, was one of the more overtly naughty of the era (“You gotta rub me the right way,” she purred in its chorus), but it was still relatively chaste.

As her first era wore on, it was exclusively Aguilera’s Whitney-esque pipes that set her apart from the likes of fellow Britney-replicas Jessica Simpson or Mandy Moore. Otherwise, like her peers, Aguilera was promoted as sunny and blonde and an expert at arm-ography. She was the star of videos that could have easily doubled as Pepsi adverts – full of dancers pretending to be her best friends and model love interests imported from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. She loathed it.

“Whenever you’re new to your label and 17, as I was at the time, you’re kind of told what to do,” she told MTV News in 2002. “I just get really bored sticking to the norm and having the proper conservative image. That’s just so not me.”

As pop entered the new millennium, Aguilera certainly wasn’t alone in her dissatisfaction with her sound and her image. *NSYNC would shift out of the pop-funk of Swedish production impresario Max Martin and into R&B sex jams. Spears’s lyrics would oscillate for several years between blunt sexual hunger and coy naivety, eventually abandoning the latter all-together, while Simpson and Moore would try out a number of different artistic guises before departing music entirely. Aguilera, meanwhile, quickly torpedoed any sense of gradual transformation.

In 2000, she would fire her long-time manager Steve Kurtz, the man who shaped her early career, citing “improper, undue and inappropriate influence” over her creative and business affairs. Within days of dismissing him, she would sign with Irving Azoff, one of the most powerful and influential figures in music.

By night, she would party with the Pussycat Dolls, then a burlesque troupe, and flirt with Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst at awards shows. In an early precursor to the kinds of slut-shaming she would experience via Dirrty, she would be ridiculed in an Eminem single, the rapper alleging she had flings with both Durst and MTV host Carson Daly. That experience, and the mocking treatment she received in the press as a result, would inform a number of tracks on Stripped.

The artwork for Stripped
The artwork for Stripped

Stripped is Aguilera’s second album (or fourth, if you count a Spanish-language record and a Christmas EP, both released in 2000), but a tangible declaration of identity all the same. “Allow me to introduce myself,” she says on the album’s opener, “No hype, no gloss, no pretense, just me – stripped.”

The 75 minutes that follow remains a creative triumph, gliding between inspirational R&B balladry and self-empowerment funk, with a dash of Courtney Love wailing and Deep South hip-hop thrown in for good measure. Her collaborations with Linda Perry, former 4 Non Blondes frontwoman and the early-Noughties Sia when it came to “big pop girl” co-writes, aren’t cloying but instead intimate and confessional, speaking of domestic violence, absent fathers and self-loathing. Beautiful, arguably her signature song, remains a simple but crushingly effective powerhouse of a track.

Dirrty, buried at the bottom of the track listing, is as much a sonic outlier to everything that surrounds it as it is the most important track on the record. A crunchy, liquor-fuelled and absurdly grimy banger about getting unruly enough in public that the police are called, it best embodied Aguilera’s styling, persona and artistic mission statement throughout the Stripped era.

Its video, directed by David LaChapelle (who, just three years earlier, photographed an underwear-clad Spears for that infamous cover of Rolling Stone), swam in sadomasochistic imagery and controversy-baiting. It featured boxing rings, urinals, cockfights and girls in cages.

In the middle of it all was Aguilera, her flesh the colour of terracotta, her hair styled into greasy black-and-white braids, and an X marked on the underpants that were visible beneath her red leather chaps. Written on her right trouser leg was the word “XTINA” – a tattoo reading the same also decorated the back of her neck, indicating her new alter ego.

'She needs to go to church': Xtina's new image
'She needs to go to church': Xtina's new image

Unveiled on MTV in October 2002, the Dirrty video caused immediate criticism. Time Magazine remarked that Aguilera looked as if she had “arrived on the set direct from an intergalactic hooker convention”. Other outlets dubbed her “repulsive”. “She needs to go to church,” a former fan remarked in a vox pop for MTV days after its release. In a Saturday Night Live sketch that month, guest host Sarah Michelle Gellar, in character as Aguilera, remarked: “When people see this video, they’re gonna stop thinking of me as some blonde-haired, bubblegum, music-industry ho — and start thinking of me as an actual ho.”

Even Perry seemed baffled, Dirrty having been recorded long after her sessions with Aguilera. “Christina’s so talented, I don’t know why she’s hiding it behind all this sex stuff,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “But that’s just who she is. She dresses like that in the studio. That girl just doesn’t like clothes.”

Aguilera’s embracing of an overtly sexual image in the wake of adolescent stardom was a tried and tested route to adult success, having been demonstrated by the likes of Drew Barrymore, Janet Jackson and Spears a year earlier with I’m a Slave 4 U. And in her wake, figures like Miley Cyrus and Kylie Jenner have done it, too. But Dirrty remains oddly singular in its provocation, specifically as it felt entirely of Aguilera’s own making.

Christina Aguilera in 2001
Christina Aguilera in 2001

Because of the ubiquity of the “demonstrating adulthood by taking your clothes off” trope within pop culture, questions about power dynamics and potential exploitation have always folded into the narrative, prompting further debate about who is truly holding the strings when it comes to provocative imagery, sexualised magazine covers or scandalous lyrics.

Even the similarly nudity-filled emancipation of Cyrus, Aguilera’s most obvious cultural predecessor, today exists with an uncomfortable underbelly courtesy of the man often found behind the camera. Despite Cyrus’s repeated claims of full artistic control over her transition into adult stardom, much of her famous post-Hannah Montana imagery, from her Wrecking Ball video to some of her more extreme photoshoots, were collaborations with photographer Terry Richardson, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault and sexual coercion.

Dirrty felt different – specifically because it’s such a garish and ugly music video that it could only have been crafted by two genuine artists, as opposed to vaguely detestable men in a record label boardroom somewhere. Dirrty isn’t lads-mad sexy, or male-gaze sexy. It is ripe and unshowered, with the faint stench of a club bathroom floor. That Aguilera selected LaChapelle to direct it, that foremost pop culture satirist, only adds to the feeling that it was all very deliberate. Dirrty in many respects plays like the comedic nail in the coffin for the trope Aguilera was embodying at the time – the Mickey Mouse Club kid gone bad, who fled Disney and is now wiping imaginary fluids from her mouth and wearing a mini-skirt with “NASTY” written on it. It is horrifying and crude and entirely cringeworthy, regularly emulated but never bettered, and above all absolutely brilliant.

On the cover of Blender, 2002
On the cover of Blender, 2002

Aguilera very much knew what she was doing. “I love Dirrty,” she told Blender. “It’s a great song, even more so because it came from the girl who did Genie in a Bottle. I like to shock. I think it’s inspiring. I love to play and experiment, to be as tame or as outlandish as I happen to feel on any given day… OK, I may have been the naked-ass girl in the video, but if you look at it carefully, I’m also at the forefront. I’m not just some lame chick in a rap video; I’m in the power position, in complete command of everything around me. To be totally balls-out like that is, for me, the measure of a true artist.”

Despite everyone fighting to see the video, making it the most-requested clip on MTV’s Total Request Live countdown for several weeks in October 2002, Dirrty stalled on the US charts, panicking Aguilera’s label. There were rumours that she had been forced to hire PMK, a publicity firm best known for being experts at crisis management, to fix her “tarnished” brand, and that Beautiful was quickly released to radio as a course correction for an album campaign gone awry. Aguilera, once again to Blender, denied the speculation.

“Beautiful was always scheduled as the second single because I thought it was a perfect contrast to Dirrty,” she insisted. “It’s a very vulnerable song and I wanted to show that side of me. To suggest that it was rush-released to rescue my career… well, that’s bullshit.”

Considering Aguilera’s career in the wake of Stripped, you’d be smart to believe her. Along with Beyoncé, Aguilera is one of the few 21st century pop icons to rival Madonna when it comes to repeatedly transforming her image, sound and artistic inspiration with each new record. Her Stripped follow-up, 2006’s Back to Basics, was a glorious throwback record with its roots in jazz and blues. Bionic, released in 2010, was an electro-pop Frankenstein’s Monster inspired by the likes of Goldfrapp, Le Tigre and MIA.

Aguilera's most recent album, last year’s Liberation, launched with a hazy, slurring hip-hop single that featured verses by 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla Sign. The danger and experimentation of Dirrty may not be as aggressively visible in Aguilera’s newer material, but it’s still there beneath the surface, folded into her very DNA as an artist. Nicely, she has absolutely no regrets, either.

“It’s my favourite video that I’ve ever done, to be honest,” she told Billboard last year. “It was very controversial at the time, and there were a lot of more straight-laced people who were opposed to me coming out like that, after they had come to know me for something else in a different image.

"But I needed to be myself and express myself, and sexuality has always been something that I am comfortable with expressing… To me, Dirrty was all about being empowered and owning my sexuality for the first time, and not feeling that bearing my midriff was something for the label’s packaging or for commercialism. It was something that I was doing for myself, and being a little brash and having fun with it… It was so freeing. I will never forget that moment: just being able to be a young girl, and in charge of my own world at that point.”

More than a year after the Dirrty video created a media firestorm, Aguilera flew to Scotland to host the MTV Europe Music Awards. She opened the show dressed as a nun, striding across the stage flanked by an angelic choir singing the verses of Dirrty as if it were the Lord’s Prayer.

With a naughty smirk, and just as the chorus hits, Aguilera proceeded to dramatically tear off her habit, loosen her hair and twerk to the floor in a beige swimsuit and leather chaps. As the crowd goes wild and the backing track fades out, Aguilera doesn’t pout or attempt to look “sexy” for the cameras. Instead she visibly erupts into laughter, overjoyed at being cheeky, in bad taste and deliberately outrageous.

It remains the quintessential performance of a modern dancefloor classic, and proof as to why Aguilera has always been a fantastic pop star.


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