In the 20 years since Christina Aguilera’s arrival helped usher in a new era of pop, the performer has shown she is unafraid of transformation.
Aguilera famously torched the bubblegum teen-pop image crafted for her with a pair of leather chaps and edgier genre-blending music that announced a young woman in full control of her agency. It shocked America and the then 21-year-old singer was slut-shamed by critics, peers and even Tina Fey.
At one point she took her cues from the styles of the 1920s-1940s, committing wholly to a vintage pin-up look to match the modern take on vintage jazz, soul and blues she was exploring.
She’s assumed the role of a cyborg, channelled Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Manson – for the same project – and re-emerged as a blissed-out earth mother.
Shape-shifting has always been a part of Aguilera’s charm, but her real appeal lies in that voice.
With a fiery range that recalled early Whitney Houston, Aguilera was able to separate herself from the pack of pop ingénues reaching superstar status during the early 2000s.
For a generation who hit puberty during the great Y2K pop explosion, Aguilera was an essential voice with music that tackled self-empowerment, feminism, sex and domestic violence – subject matter her contemporaries were shying away from.
Just look at the lasting impact of 2002’s “Stripped,” her most ambitious work to date and an album that has since become a blueprint for the likes of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato – young singers who have all come of age in front of the public and sought to shed their manufactured image the way Aguilera once did.
Aguilera has sold over 50 million records worldwide, notched dozens of Billboard Hot 100 hits, won six Grammys, dipped into film and helped make NBC’s The Voice a TV phenomenon.
Yet the past decade has been shaky for Aguilera on the music front.
Her most recent work – 2010’s underrated “Bionic” and it’s mostly forgotten follow-up “Lotus” – wasn’t met with the same fanfare and a lengthy stint on The Voice left Aguilera’s fans wondering if she would ever return to music.
Now 37, Aguilera is undertaking her latest reinvention, one that was fuelled by the singer-songwriter feeling “disconnected” from her purpose.
“I had to get back to my own artist body and self,” she says.
Finding her way back to herself and her passion is the core of “Liberation”, her first album in six years.
Debuting at No 6 on the Billboard 200 on its release last month, “Liberation” showcases a creatively renewed Aguilera, but don’t call it a comeback: “I feel like a brand new artist,” she says.
Leaning mostly toward R&B and hip-hop, genres that have always informed her style, Aguilera’s new album isn’t about being progressive or chasing a trend – she is not interested in any of that, she says – but instead it’s about showcasing an artist reborn after losing her footing.
The collection is some of her most forward-thinking work in years. When she is not doing a mix of “The Sound of Music” with Michael Jackson, she is crafting downtempo R&B with D.C. rapper GoldLink, smashing the patriarchy and navigating collaborations with Ty Dolla Sign, Kanye West, Anderson .Paak and MNEK.
And yes, she is embraced a new look – this time, however, she is found inspiration in her own skin which is why these days her look is more stripped back (her album cover is just her bare face).
While tending to her 3-year-old daughter, Summer Rain, Aguilera discussed the four-year journey to “Liberation”, her first tour in a decade and why she gave up working on The Voice.
Q: For a while there it felt like an album was never going to materialise.
A: I do take my time with records, but Jesus, yeah, this one was a while in waiting – for many different factors and reasons. I love collaborating so much and taking the time to get to know the people that you’re working with and truly do something meaningful and not just commercialised and cliché. I’m not the artist that’s going to just get a bunch of songs from my label, record it and put it in a little bow and send it off.
Q: What kept you away from music for so long?
A: I felt disconnected for a while and I wasn’t in the right head space either, being in an environment that was just not good for me.
Q: That environment you’re referring to is The Voice. You said you felt suffocated as a judge. When did it stop being fun for you?
A: Nobody expected [The Voice] to be as big as [American Idol] or to take off the way it did. It just became a whole different kind of a machine. You’d have two teams at once because they were overlapping seasons. It just wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing with my life. I’m not a spokesperson. I’m an artist.
The blind audition thing was very intriguing to me because it provided an opportunity for anybody to get on stage and be discovered, regardless of their look. Being in this business for so long and knowing how labels work and how packaging is so very important, that idea of not being able to see them was genius to me. But year by year, I kept seeing things that were not lining up with that original vision. The show progressed in a direction I wasn’t into and that I didn’t think was a lot of times fair.
Q: Do you think there’s still any value to singing competition shows?
A: Look, everybody has their own experience, and I don’t want to devalue anyone’s own experience with any of those shows. As an artist, I believe in artists being able to express themselves how they feel they should. Just know there’s a lot of other people involved in those shows. Certain factors and things are dictated according to what ratings will be. It’s definitely a business. I also saw blatant things that I didn’t think were OK and that I’m sure no one would want to put up with in a work environment. It was important for me to step away.
Q: Your last projects weren’t critical or commercial successes. Did that add any pressure while working on “Liberation”?
A: Because I am a real vocalist, I have always heard, “Why don’t you just stand and do a bunch of ballads?” That’s just one element of what I do, but it’s not everything. I would be so bored if I sat on the stage and just sang ballad after ballad. I’m an artist. The label was great in giving me the freedom to take my time and do what I wanted. I’m no stranger to knowing how to play the game.
It is an amazing thing whenever things are commercially received and successful. I’ve had those successes with “Genie in a Bottle” and “What a Girl Wants”, and I was still miserable because I wasn’t connected to the music and wasn’t being able to change it. I’ve done my share of that and I see a lot of artists get into that trap of chasing the charts. After I’m dead and gone, I really want the music paid attention to and not because of where I charted or how commercially successful it was, but because the quality has stood the test of time.
Q: Although the album is heavily R&B and hip-hop, it was still surprising to hear that Kanye West and Anderson .Paak were key to informing its direction. How did that happen?
A: I sat with Kanye a few years ago, while I was still on The Voice actually. We met at Rick Rubin’s studio where he was recording at the time – he was finishing “The Life of Pablo” record – and we just connected. I loved the tracks he was playing to me. That’s where I heard Maria and [the album’s lead single] Accelerate for the first time. They had so much heart and depth. His music makes you feel something impactful, one way or another. He’s a controversial artist, and I’ve been that way myself. Working with him felt really good. I had done some recording before the Kanye meeting but doing Maria with him gave me the base for the album. The whole story unfolded before me when I listened to the song.
And then Anderson really helped the album take shape. I met him last year, and things rapidly unfolded. He is just such a great musician. He’s such a great lyricist with such a strong cadence. I explored different ways to use my voice on this record, and it wasn’t all about hitting high notes and being acrobatic and full of ad-libs. I wanted to scale back again and just really vibe.
Q: There’s always been a thread of empowerment in your music. How much of what was going on in the world influenced the music you were working on?
A: The climate right now is interesting because there are so many people that are feeling oppressed or suppressed. I’ve always been about putting out messages that I feel strongly about and about my truth. It’s why I did songs like Beautiful and Fighter so long ago and why I have songs like Fall in Line and Sick of Sittin’ on this album, records that are perfect for anyone that maybe need to find their own truth. We’re in a place where people need to feel liberated and I wanted to reflect that.
Q: You’re going on your first tour in a decade. What can fans expect?
A: Ever since I had my son [Max Liron, 10], the idea of the tour has actually scared me. I was like, “How does this work? How do people do this? Do I uproot my kids from their home life and everything?” With this more intimate tour, it’s kind of lessening the pressure. I’m dipping my toe back in the water and also giving my fans a real chance to see me after they haven’t in so long. I’m probably going to take my daughter with me because she is so little. I don’t want to be separated. It’ll be interesting.