Why Christina Aguilera’s debut album is her magnum opus (Xploring Xtina Part 1)

It’s not a popular opinion. Most fans regard Christina Aguilera‘s second effort Stripped as her best album, but while Stripped indeed encapsulated the Staten Island-born singer’s true artistry, it’s not as cohesive or as successful as her debut: the self-titled Christina Aguilera.

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Released in 1999, the debut album was RCA’s best bet in a teen pop climate dominated by the likes of  ‘N Sync and Britney Spears, and it sure defeated Justin and Britney as far as chart-toppers and Grammys are concerned.

All four singles from Christina’s first album made it to the Top 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, three of them hit number-one: “Genie in a Bottle,” “What A Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You).” The exception was “I Turn To You,” a ballad cover originally recorded by R&B quartet All-4-One, which peaked at #3. Both ‘N Sync and Britney may have been more popular than Christina at the time, but even they could not amass multiple number-one hits that early in their career.

Christina’s first single, “Genie in a Bottle”, was an instant earworm when it dropped in June 1999 and became the Song of the Summer that year, dominating the summer airwaves and clocking five weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.

While unwilling rival Britney’s debut single “…Baby One More Time” may have proved more culturally prevalent owing to its iconic music video, “Genie in a Bottle” still shares a slice of the cultural pie. Today, the song is still subtly referenced in movies and news programs: “the genie is out of the bottle,” you might have heard someone say onscreen. Traditionally, genies are stored in lamps. Christina made the bottle relevant.

Meanwhile, the album sold brilliantly, propelled by Christina’s girl-next-door personality and a juggernaut of a campaign to promote the former Mickey Mouse Club star’s first collection of music. At one point, the endless promotion got her concerningly thin. It was show after show, song after song, that the girl lost so much weight in the arduous process.

The album eventually achieved a 8x Platinum certification, shipping over 8 million copies in the US, and has sold an estimated 14 million copies around the world. Her subsequent albums have gone nowhere near this amount, even Stripped, which only sold half as much as its predecessor in her native country.

Because of her debut album, Christina Aguilera won an award she could never have secured again in her career: Best New Artist at the 42nd Grammys in 2000, defeating Britney Spears and Macy Gray, who were the bookies’ favorites to win.

But why Christina’s first album has more or less been forgotten by the general public today is because it’s pitifully the singer’s least favorite of her own albums.

Then only 19 and “under the thumb of the label,” Christina never had the final say in the creative direction of the album, spawning the rebellious streak that began with Stripped later in 2002.

During a recent appearance on James Corden‘s Carpool Karaoke, Christina sang to only one track from her debut (expectedly “Genie”) instead placing most of her eggs in the Stripped basket. The unsurprising trinity that is “Dirrty,” “Beautiful” and “Fighter” are better remembered because she performs them all the damn time, bringing back the old-school “What A Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby” only occasionally.

And while her debut album might not have captured the singer’s artistry at all, the album is still a strong, cohesive piece of work. At 12 tracks, it’s Christina’s shortest album, less stuffy those other albums loaded with pesky fillers. Her debut was also conceived as fundamentally feel-good teen pop perfect for the preteen soul, and delivers on that promise.

“Genie in a Bottle” is a flirtatious tease with “hormones racing at the speed of light,” yet holding back from going physical until the listener “rub[s] me the right way.” Second single “What A Girl Wants” is an ode to a patient, altruistic lover: “you let a girl know how much you care about her.”

In contrast, “So Emotional” is an R&B-flavored mood swing about a turbulent affair: “it’s either black or white, that’s right. We’re making love or we’re in a fight.” But Christina sticks around faithfully with “Love For All Seasons,” where she sings about feeling “like a schoolgirl.” And Robin Thicke-written “When You Put Your Hands On Me” is inspired by the tale of the Midas touch (“my body turns to gold”).

Admittedly, the first incarnation of the album was less than stellar: the original versions of “What A Girl Wants” and “Come On Over (All I Want Is You)” were coarsely unpolished, but they were pristinely re-recorded and remixed and when they were selected as singles.

“Come On Over,” a once-virginal bob where Christina literally invites a boy to come over to have “fun,” had a lyrical facelift and bridge makeover in 2000. The reworked “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You)” transformed into a racier dance jam (“I can’t help myself when you put your hands on me”) with a rapid-fire bridge (“don’t you wanna be the one tonight? We can do exactly what you like.”)

Because of these instrumental updates, only “Love Will Find A Way” was left as the album’s least impressive production, yet even that track outdoes half the tracks on Britney’s ...Baby One More Time. Anyone remembers “Soda Pop”?

After all, Christina’s voice was already magnificent in the earlier half of her career, this first album included. There was a post-pubescent clarity in her vocals (note the high E above middle C in “Reflection,” which practically granted her a recording contract) that she’s since destroyed with the increasing growling in the 2010s. Her debut album was also the only time her attempts at oversinging were kept at bay by her strict producers.

The girl might have gotten what she wanted in the end (pun very intended), having unleashed her vocal prowess on her subsequent studio albums after leaving her debut album behind. But listeners and fans have to acknowledge that Christina Aguilera gave Christina Aguilera three of the five career chart-toppers, won her her first Grammy and put her on the global map of superstardom.

I don’t know about you but, I’ve never gotten sick of “Genie in a Bottle”, “What A Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby.” That’s my true trinity of Xtina singles.

Xploring Xtina is a weekly series of retrospective articles about Christina Aguilera’s albums, leading up to the release of her sixth studio album Liberation on June 15.

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