By Terry Young, Jr.
In the late 1990s, a new class of female pop artists appeared on the music scene. There was a noticeable trend among them. You had Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson proudly proclaiming their virginity, you had Mandy Moore giving you 7th Heaven realness, and you had Destiny’s Child taking every opportunity that they could to let you know what devout Christians they were (It is important to note, however, that all of these acts still wore somewhat revealing clothing). It was as if the brazen celebration of female sexuality by acts like Madonna, Janet Jackson and TLC earlier in the decade had never occurred. Not that there was anything wrong with this image. It just appeared that, if you wanted a spot on Total Request Live and the top of the billboard charts as a young woman, it was the only lane open. Powerhouse vocalist and former Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera was no exception to this rule. Her label made sure that she gave off ‘girl next door’ while recording songs that were ABC Family Channel and Disney-friendly. Though her first album was a massive success-selling over 20 million copies and making her an international icon-Aguilera felt creatively and musically stifled. She was later quoted as saying that first album was like looking back at your high school year book and laughing at all of your horrible outfits. In 2001, we saw a more provocative side of the song bird when she joined rapper Lil Kim and fellow singers Pink and Mya on a remake of Labelle’s classic “Lady Marmalade,” appearing in Lingerie in the video. This was a sign of a revolution to come.
In September 2002, the mouths of music fans worldwide dropped when Christina released the video for “Dirrty”, the first single from her Sophomore album entitled “Stripped.” The singer, now interchanging Xtina with Christina, appeared in chaps and the video displayed a number of BDSM fantasies in an underground boxing club. Gone were the days of bubble gum for Aguilera. “Dirrty” was unapologetically raunchy. One month later, the album was released and it was obvious that the cookie cutter girl was gone. Not only was the album overtly sexual with tracks like “Get Mine, Get Yours” (the tale of an NSA affair) but it was a true blue feminist manifesto. On the track “Can’t Hold Us Down”, Lil Kim rejoins Xtina and the two take on sexism in the music industry, double standards as far as sexuality goes, and the desire to silence outspoken women. During an interlude, Aguilera boldly rejects one industry standard by singing defiantly “Sorry I’m not a virgin. Sorry I’m not a slut.” On “Beautiful,” the albums most commercially successful single, she rejects standards of beauty imposed upon women, lets youth know that it is ok to be different and, in the video, depicts two young men kissing-something that I appreciated greatly as a gay teen. On “Underappreciated,” Christina speaks candidly about the amount of work that women put into relationships that often goes unreciprocated. Not since “What Have You Done for Me Lately” by Janet Jackson had this been done. On “The Voice Within,” Xtina told young people that we did not have to do what everyone else was doing and that following our hearts was most important. She had truly become the voice of a generation. Now she had the substance that was worthy of her vocals, and the freedom to express who she really was.
Aside from the actual content of the album, Christina unleashed a new look and a new demeanor. She was curvier and rocking black tresses. She also appeared more confident and bold. In interviews, she spoke candidly about the ways the music industry mistreated and pigeonholed female artists. She discussed how rappers were allowed to have virtually naked women in their videos but a female artist was lambasted about being sexual in her OWN video. This brave new Christina was not, however, without her detractors. Many people believed that the ‘new her’ was just another gimmick and/or slut shamed her mercilessly. Whether or not the new image was contrived, we will never know. One thing, however, is for sure. With the “Stripped” album, Christina redefined the 21 st century female pop performer. This album put to DEATH the idea of compulsory “chastity” of female singers that had taken hold in years prior. I mean, can you name a single big name who has felt the need to inform the world that she was a virgin in the music game since? Following “Stripped,” artists like Britney Spears and Beyonce became more comfortable expressing sexuality and no longer felt the need to sell the notion of innocence. The cook cutter lane had been closed.
On a personal level, “Stripped” came out at just the right time for me. As an adolescent, I felt trapped in several ways. I was not allowed to express my romantic attractions, and I was dealing with forces both internally and externally telling me that it was not ok to be who I was. Though I can’t say I was always unhappy, I cannot say that I felt at ease either. When I listened to “Stripped,” I was able to draw strength from Christina’s willingness to go against the grain of the music industry and society in general. The music let me know that individuality was ok. She inspired me to be a fighter, to listen to my instincts, to rise above detractors and never give up on my goals. She opened my mind to a lot of what sexism is and allowed me to be sensitive to what female friends of mine were going through. “Stripped” showed me how valuable and powerful one’s story could be. It was enlightening. It was exhilarating. It was life-changing to say the very least. Not to mention the fact that it provided a pretty cool way to drown out my mother’s nagging. When Christina released “Stripped,” not only did she declare her personal freedom, but she helped me and countless other young people declare ours.