Today is the release day of Liberation, Christina Aguilera’s sixth album, so fans will be fixated on that record, but it is also equally the 20-year anniversary of a very important song in the singer’s career.
The average person might know “Reflection” as just another Disney song, a pop ballad from Mulan sung in the style of Celine Dion’s “Beauty and the Beast”, or even the title of the completely unrelated Fifth Harmony album, but I and every other informed listener knows “Reflection” as the song that started Christina’s career twenty years ago.
First penned in 1995 by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, the song was created for the soundtrack of the Disney animated film Mulan, a retelling of the Chinese legend Hua Mulan, who disguised as a man to join the nation’s army in the place of her aged father.
The song is a desolate rumination of the main character’s struggle to accept her own identity: “somehow I cannot hide who I am, though I’ve tried. When will my reflection show who I am inside?”
The film version of the song was recorded by Filipino singer Lea Salonga, who voiced the titular Mulan in the film. When Salonga was invited to the East West Visionary Awards in 2009, she shared that the song was initially longer, but got halved as it got rewritten to suit the film, resulting in a 2 minute 27 second song that comprises only one chorus.
But as Mulan‘s release approached in 1998, Disney wanted a full-fledged pop version of the song in the vein of Celine Dion’s “Beauty and the Beast” to push the film. Disney Studios’ Chris Montan eventually contacted RCA Records’ A&R executive Ron Fair in search of a singer to record it.
Ron Fair had just got introduced to a then-unknown Christina Aguilera, an 18-year old budding singer from the kids television show The Mickey Mouse Club. Fair asked Christina if she could hit the “high E above middle C,” a challenging note to belt that the pop version of “Reflection” features at its penultimate line.
According to a video interview with E! (although literary sources contradict), Christina recorded a cover of a Mariah Carey song that included that evasive note, then sent it in to Fair, proving the singer’s ability to belt the song, . The cover landed her the deal to record “Reflection,” as well as an entire contract with RCA Records, the label she is still attached to today.
In Christina’s pop version of “Reflection,” the arrangement and lyrics were modified to be more powerful and radio-friendly, including a passionate bridge entirely absent from the movie’s (“there’s a heart that must be free to fly, that burns with the need to know the reason why.”)
Christina’s version also brought back lines omitted from the movie version’s: “must there be a secret me I’m forced to hide?” and “must I pretend that I’m someone else for all time?”, all part of the longer composition before it got cut from the film.
Disney released Christina’s ballad as a single to adult contemporary radio stations on June 15, 1998, opting to push another track, 98 Degrees and Stevie Wonder’s “True To Your Heart” to Top 40 radio instead.
As a result, “Reflection” was not a commercial success; Christina was relatively unknown, and while possible, 90’s Disney songs were not guaranteed chart smashes. Regardless, the song was Christina’s gateway to the eventual “Genie in a Bottle”, which ruled the summer of 1999 and a huge debut album.
“Reflection” itself was included in Christina’s debut, sitting in the middle of the track list, and when Christina released a Spanish album in 2000, it was titled Mi Reflejo, after her Spanish re-recording of the song.
Earlier this year, Jessie J took to the stage to perform “Reflection” as a contestant on the Chinese singing competition Singer (the British singer would eventually win the show.)
Throughout the competition, her song choices were most often classic powerhouse ballads, including Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Picking “Reflection” really illustrates the song’s status as a dazzling ballad.
And while it wasn’t a hit, the song is outstanding because it wasn’t a love theme. It was an empowering anthem.
Interestingly, Jessie J oversang the song with excessive vocal embellishments, effectively ruining the famous high E above middle C for me. No one can truly sing the song like Christina was destined to, as demonstrated when she replicated the note perfectly on a live performance in 1998; and she was only eighteen.
I first heard “Reflection” in 2004 when I was 10, on a Disney soundtrack compilation called Disney Magic. I fell in love with the track, but it took me some pop self-education several years later to learn about its significance.
Without “Reflection”, the world might not have had Christina Aguilera. She might have secured a recording deal elsewhere, but that might have taken longer, which also means riskily missing out on 1999, when Britney Spears had already debuted. The success of the singer’s first album was timely, all thanks to this one Disney song from 1998.