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Christina, We Barely Knew Ye

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 OPINIONS

I know what you’re thinking: the girl’s a skank. And it’s true that over the last year and a half, Christina Aguilera has offered up a truly spectacular example of what is, for a celebrity, the equivalent of a nervous breakdown — the image change gone horribly, horribly wrong. But God help me, I love her for it.
   Once upon a time, she was was little more than Britney’s alternate, the Barbie with skin a micron thicker, eyes a flash harder, voice a shade stronger. Her hit single “Genie in a Bottle” made the neatly multilayered demand that her lover “rub her the right way.” She could dance. She hit the high notes. It was nice that she didn’t claim to be a virgin. But she was oddly invisible: the latest dance-pop doppleganger, Booty Call Britney.
   Well, at least she’s not invisible anymore.
   First came that “Lady Marmalade” video, in which Christina sported a look that might be described as Twisted Sister meets clown whore: fishnets, rotini corkscrews, Joker lipstick. A year later, her confessional album Stripped was released — or rather opened, Pandora’s-box style, unleashing a thousand bits of misbegotten PR. Suddenly “Xtina,” as she redubbed herself, was on the cover of every magazine, nakeder than any star of her caliber. On Rolling Stone, she clenched a guitar between Photoshopped thighs. In Maxim, she appears to have been dipped like chicken in a dark, oily coating, her hair dangling down in dingy quasi-cornrows. In pic after pic, she’s been flaunting cleavage where most people didn’t realize there was a crease. Mustard drips off her chin; her breasts are shrink-wrapped in terrifying macramé; her pelvis is thrust forward in a perpetual grind.

promotion

   It was clear that the new image she had chosen was, well, porn. She was a kind of reverse Traci Lords, sloughing off layers of Mouseketeer with a photographic loofah. And just like that, she became a walking punchline. On Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey said that Xtina’s video for “Drrrty” gave her TV set venereal warts. Everyone laughed, me included.
   But someone’s got to stand up for the girl! Yes, it’s true that Christina’s “Boy Toy” belt buckle lacks irony. Sure, she makes unfortunate, bragging remarks about rough sex to reporters. Yes, at times she comes off less like a “wild girl” than a girl-we-are-all-very-worried-about — the lost member of The Real World: Las Vegas. But in my eyes, at least, she’s a more vulnerable version of that primordial skank, Madonna. There’s a strange honesty to what she’s doing.
    Christina’s message has always been less “Little me, a sexy singer?” and more “I don’t care how many beauty pageant judges I have to blow, I’m getting out of this town.” Her new image may seem like pandering, but it looks to me like the outburst of a girl who’s been called a slut so many times that she’s gone all third-wave feminist: Okay, then, I’m a slut! Hell, I’m SuperSlut! If you can love Peaches and Ani DiFranco, why not the new Christina Aguilera?
    For one thing, she’s all about grabbing her own sexual pleasure. This actually began with “Genie in a Bottle,” which stated “Get me off first, then maybe we’ll fuck” — perfectly decent advice for your horny teenage girl. Her new album is full of paeans to female orgasm. Like Madonna before her, she’s begging to to be pushed over the borderline: “Put your hands on my waistline/want your skin up against mine/move my hips to the baseline/let me get mine you get yours.” On “Dirrty,” she moans, “Wanna get drrrty/It’s about time for my arrival,” and I don’t think she’s talking about train schedules.
   In a world full of “Oops, I did it again,” there’s something to be said for an unmixed message. Christina’s “Dirrty” world might be gritty and gross, but its portrayal of sexual gamesmanship rings true to the world she’s hanging out in: nightclubs, twentysomething hookups, sketchy quasi-business relationships. The first song on Stripped is about dirty gossip, and it seems to be directed at Eminem, who famously turned Christina into a blowjob-dispensing blowup doll in a video: “If you look back in history it’s a common double-standard of society/the guy gets all the glory the more he can score/while the girl can do the same and you call her a whore.” In “Fighter,” she thanks a betrayer who inspired her to “Make me that much stronger/Make me work a little bit harder.” Most of the tracks are classic ’70s-soaked R&B, but they’re about wanting sex, not love, delivered with a slew of mock apologies: “Sorry I’m not a virgin!/Sorry I’m not a slut!/I won’t let you break me/think what you want.” After all, isn’t this really what being an ambitious teen product is about, deep down? Not doe-eyed yearning, but hard need. Not sorrow — rage.
   And that rage doesn’t come from nowhere. Christina has always been open in interviews about her screwed-up family and the general sheen of stripper-damage she radiates (it’s what her soul sister Jen from Dawson’s Creek once earnestly called “being sexualized way too early.”) There’s a dreadful number on Stripped about Christina’s physically abusive dad: it’s her version of Madonna’s own awful “bad dad” song. But the rest of the album is solid. And although it may seem absurd that Christina’s claiming her new music and videos are authentic self-expression (how can the real anyone look so fake?), Stripped actually seems like a genuine rebellion — at least, to the extent that a female pop star embedded in corporate culture can rebel. From all appearances, it was Christina herself who chose those clothes. This is what her idea of freedom is. Her record company fought her insistence that “Drrrty” be the first single from Stripped, and honestly, they had a point: no one likes a proud slut. Do they?  



©2003 Emily Nussbaum and Nerve.com, Inc.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
    Emily Nussbaum writes the Summary Judgment column for Slate. She also writes for The New York Times and The Boston Globe.