‘Stripped’: Christina Aguilera’s forward-thinking career changer (Xploring Xtina Part 2)

The album title was everything Christina Aguilera wanted at that point in her career. In the literal sense, the then-21 year old woman wanted to strip off her clothes and explore the spectrum of sex. Figuratively, the oppressed artist wanted to strip off the “hype” and “gloss” that had constructed this cookie-cutter teen idol image obscuring her true identity.

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Christina had already dabbled with overt sexuality in the music video for her 2001 collaborative cover of “Lady Marmalade” for the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, but she would unleash her sex drive in full force only a year later with Stripped, starting with the culturally divisive “Dirrty”.

The lead single from her then-upcoming sophomore album (excluding the Spanish studio album Mi Reflejo and her holiday record, My Kind of Christmas) threw everything about bubblegum Christina out the window. The recreation of Redman‘s “Lets Get Dirty (I Can’t Get in da Club)” was as an amalgamation of filthy fantasies to the casual listener (sweat dripping over my body,”) but was really Christina unleashing her repression from the moment she whispered “let me loose.”

The singer was determined to reinvent herself as a sex symbol with her new song and its controversial music video. Donning a bra, leather chaps and a nose piercing, Christina boxed an opponent in a post-apocalyptic underground ring, slut-dropped on a platform during the second verse, and by the song’s final chorus, was dancing on all fours in a flooded bathroom.

The music video shocked the world, the reactions as provocative as Britney Spears’s “I’m A Slave 4 U” video a year earlier. While the Brits loved it (the song hit #1 in the UK and Ireland), the Americans weren’t impressed. “Dirrty” stalled at a miserable #48, a baffling position considering she’d just scored her fourth chart-topper a year ago with “Lady Marmalade.” Up till that point, none of Christina’s English pop songs charted below the Top 3, and it remains the singer’s lowest-charting lead single to date. #48 sounded like a career ender.

But while that cherry was missing atop this re-inventive single release, Christina had achieved what she set out to do with this filthy first single: shed the image she loathed that had inaccurately followed her since her career started in summer 1999. “Dirrty” and its parent album would change Christina Aguilera’s career forever, unveiling the artistry and sexuality of the young adult pop superstar enthused to experiment.

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The sudden sexualization of a former teen idol remains stirring to this day. Miley Cyrus‘s nasty “We Can’t Stop” in 2013 is a prime example, but it was Christina (and Britney) that paved the way for these younger artists when they jumped the gun a decade prior. And while a commercial dud in the US, “Dirrty” did cement a modest spot in pop culture: In 2016, Kylie Jenner opted to dress up as Dirrty Christina for Halloween. Christina was so thrilled she invited her for her birthday two months later.

In October 2002, Christina dropped her second album complete for the world to devour. Stripped, which has the singer half-naked on its cover, is a 20-track record of the artist truly basking in the freedom of expressing herself. Across the track list, she covered a multitude of themes, including love, sex, family and inner strength.

My personal favorite non-single, “Get Mine, Get Yours”, is a self-assured ode to casual sex (“Dirrty” wasn’t the only thing dirty on Stripped.) Alicia Keys-penned “Impossible” is a piano ballad of a relationship strained by lack of communication, produced full-on Keys style. The Latin-flavored “Infatuation” was inspired by Christina’s first love, backup dancer Jorge Santos (it became the subject of talking earlier this year when Christina revealed their relationship ended when Santos came out as gay.) These were life anecdotes Christina was barred from sharing until Stripped, a diary of her first twenty years of life.

In “I’m OK,” her most “stripped” diary entry, Christina opened up about the domestic abuse in her family, singing, “bruises fade, father, but the pain remains the same. I still remember how you left me so afraid.” The track was so personal, the singer had to nestle on the floor of the studio booth in order to record it.

Stripped also displayed Christina’s versatility as a singer. The album juxtaposed delicate, soft vocals (“I’m OK,” “Loving Me 4 Me”) with powerhouse anthems like Scott Storch-produced rock jam “Fighter”, which shows a resilient Christina aggressively declaring her inner strength (“Made me run a little bit faster. Made my skin a little thicker.) Introspective ballad “The Voice Within” unveils more vulnerability in her voice while staying equally uplifting, going from first-verse falsetto to full-on belt in the bridge.

Albums across all genres are commonly laden with personal stories of pain and struggle. Stripped was definitely not the first album to get personal, but it was the singer’s first chance to do it.

But if it’s one thing Stripped did that indeed no major pop album in the 2000s accomplished, it was to exemplify the progressiveness of Christina the activist. A collaboration with Lil’ Kim, “Can’t Hold Us Down”, is a hip hop track about the double standards between genders, recorded at a time when feminism wasn’t a movement mainstream artists cared about or capitalized on for public relations. The song was even issued as the album’s fourth single, and while it wasn’t a big hit, couldn’t be any more relevant today.

“Beautiful,” her now-classic signature song written by Linda Perry, was awarded a special recognition award by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) owing to its music video, which depicted two men kissing and another man in drag. Again, this was at a time when gay rights wasn’t at the forefront of liberal media and RuPaul’s Drag Race didn’t exist.

Christina pushed for feminism long before Beyoncé could jack it with “Flawless” in 2013. Christina represented the LGBT community way before Lady Gaga could craft an entire album around it in 2011. If anyone deserves any credit for speaking up for the marginalized way ahead of time, it is Christina Aguilera.

Stripped is not my favorite Christina album, only because at 20 tracks, over a quarter comprise unnecessary intros and bland filler tracks. I can’t make the 77-minute runtime without skipping every now and then.

But Stripped is undoubtedly Christina’s most important work as an artist. It changed her career, it changed her life, and with the many movements that emerged this decade, Stripped is a testament to Christina Aguilera’s forward-thinking humanity. The cathartic themes in the album even inspired pop stars more than a decade later: Selena Gomez credits Stripped for inspiring 2015’s Revival, as did Demi Lovato with 2017’s Tell Me You Love Me.

Evidently, Christina informed the present day, both music and mindset, more than she ever got acknowledged for. Now give her an award.

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, 2018.

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