Wipe Off The Dust: Christina Aguilera's 'Stripped', Stripped Again

Monday, November 26, 2012

As I was putting feet to the pavement of life, I actually forgot Christina Aguliera was releasing an brand new album this year.

That's not very nice of me.

I had heard small talk of the unleashing of Lotus --- little bubbles that sort of floated up and popped within seconds. Okay, I lie, I heard the first single, "Your Body" and while trashy catchy, it was just a piece of toast that could have popped out of any pop starlet's toaster. Never the mind how much she slips and slides and tacks herself onto songs that undermine her talents, I always keep Aguilera at the corner of my eye.

Hence why I'm reminded of Stripped, which brought on awe in 2002, as Aguilera had graduated to the big leagues of Pop-dom upon its release. Ironically, Stripped was released ten years ago and a month shy of Lotus (which is out now) and according to talking heads, Lotus is touted as "Stripped 2.0" -- a glaring hangnail of an error if ever there was one. After giving a few spins of Lotus, I have to say that Aguilera's return has her vocally as powerful (and at times screechy), but is nothing more than an attempt to recover from the Bionic disaster, and flex new (messy) ideas. Still the final verdict pangs me as Aguilera seems to still be kind of wandering around. A shame, since back when when she was 'stripped of all conformity' she seemed more secure, more individualistic, and yes, even braver.


In 2002, Aguilera did something smart, and that was well, evolve. 

It's what a lot of artists don't do these days when it comes to that dreaded second act or third charmer, as it takes some artists now five or six albums to finally "get it", and by then, we're disinterested and have moved on to the next. That's what's so deviating about Aguilera in the now. In 2002, she had fiercely put the Mickey Mouse-dom years behind her, and came into her own. Glimmers of it shone in her 1999 self-titled debut, but with Stripped, she took on full creative control, and let producers Scott Storch, Glen Ballard, and Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes fame add to that control and organize her visions. Musically, she sowed in her Latin roots, embellished on the soulful structures she adored, threw in some smut, some introspective inspiration, added water, sass, stirred...and bam! Stripped was born. The hits just poured out of this sprawling 20-song set, all five of them held in place by killer filler, and the result was a top notch Pop production that pitted Aguilera above her usual Pop counterparts --- and she did all of this while wearing assless chaps. Yeehaw.

Listening a decade later warrants this album as quite the new classic. It is a product of its 2002-isms, but really, sagged in quality it hasn't. It was and still is an album that pretty much everyone can lend an ear to, whether you call or deny yourself as a pop music fan, and that's because Aguilera spreads herself out, never constricting herself and being confined into a Pop pandora. She keeps things real and honest, and it shows she put a lot of herself in this.

It's strange to even utter, but the weakest song is its lead-off single, "Dirrty" which features an out-of-place Redman, but it was a necessary evil as it introduced Aguilera's 'take no prisoners' attitude as she writhed and wiggled around in a pool of water, grime, and sweat for its video. Even with all the slander against her from who she was rolling around in the sheets with (oh those poor tools called Fred Durst and Carson Daly) to who she was in wig snatching fights with (are we still doing the Britney Spears vs. Aguilera thing?), Aguilera's fearlessness was and still is catching, as she did the femme fatale her way, sucking in the cigarette smoke and blowing it out on everyone's face.


Stripped boldly steps off with the Lil' Kim assisted, "Can't Hold Us Down". The two "Lady Marmalade" besties clasp hands in sisterhood and nipped against the heels of the male brigade, and doing so amid a plucky hip-hop inspired backdrop --- and the results were feminist and funky.


"Fighter" is where Aguilera shoots out her word daggers over a guitar-driven rawk out. Hearing it ten years ago was everything to a newly minted high schooler like myself, and to this day, it gets me going whenever I need a push-and-shove down that path called life. Especially resonating with me is the biting refrain of "thought I would forget, but I remember". Easily, this has always been Aguilera's best song to me just by how much of a vein she opened to concoct it, and its "Frozen"-lite video, showed Aguilera as the caterpillar who transforms into the pinned down butterfly with special effectiveness.


Aguilera continues her riot grrl trek as she dives head first into great sleazy numbers like the bratty "Make Over" and "Get Mine, Get Yours", and in the latter she totally slinks it up, feeling oh so wrong but so right. Well alright, "Make Over" sounds exactly like Sugababes 2000 hit, "Overload" (thanks to Paul Simms co-producing and co-writing both songs), yet its such a shock to the system as Aguilera comes correct in a guise that takes her out of her comfort zone, that consider it just a slight faux pas.

Vocally, Aguilera was in the top form, not committing a high quota of 'over-souling' crimes, and lounging in every new layout presented to her. Impressive are the ballads, which refrain from being total bores. "Cruz" has always been one of my favorites, and same said for "Soar" which bests single, "The Voice Within" with its intriguing twists and dives in its structure making this not the typical Gospel tinged number as it takes on atmospheric balladry. Its reputation may have become of humor over the years (see Mean Girls) and it does lean into being preachy, but ten years ago, "Beautiful" was a proclamation of loving thy self, a song that no doubt effected those who needed to hear such up-lifting lyrical displays. As Stripped's main theme was about empowerment, this is the anchor track in that stance.


She weans out the Blues on "Walk Away", and channels herself as torch chanteuse no doubt giving nods to her muses like Etta James, and then turns the tables and flicks her hips on the Latin sizzle of "Infatuation". Ultimate favorite is "Loving Me 4 Me" as I just adore Aguilera when brings on the sweet seduction, caressing that voice of hers over a vintage soulful backdrop. If I had my way, she'd sound like this all the time. Her joining forces with Alicia Keys for "Impossible" is also another sparkling moment for her, and though Keys rides side saddle in this, the two excel in this thicket of Southern soul comfort.

Bathed in sisterhood fist pumps, sexual empowerment, and psycho-therapy comfort, Stripped channeled the message of the freedom of self, and it rattled in its cage and delivered in the finest of assemblage. "Perfect" is an overrated word to really describe anything, and labeling Stripped thus is a real irk on my part, but if there was a Pop album from the last 10 years that hit everything right from beginning to last note with such fine-line wrinkles in its mix, it's Stripped.

Aguilera never needed to be anyone else when it came to Stripped, but that idea is somewhat lost as there are times now where she (stupidly) bent to the pressures and created herself a right-out clone of her icons, peers, and future disciples when she pretty much had the upper-hand. That practice cramped her style to me,  made her look pretty damn desperate, and it is disappointing to see that all of what she laid out here on Stripped, all the empowerment, all the originality, is totally abandoned and rings false several years down the line.

Whatever you think about Christina Aguilera now --- whether you think she over-souls, a has-been, embarrassed herself with Bionic, or has no business judging a singing competition --- Aguilera's charisma to raise to cocktail ringed middle fingers has always been what has made me root for her, even when she did things that had me feel the flush of second-hand embarrassment. Still, the comforting fact is this, when she dropped two musical beasts she called albums --- Stripped and 2006's endearing experimental, Back To Basics --- it made her a contender for someone to carry the Pop torch into new territory for the brand new century.

That is the Christina Aguliera I grew up with, that was the Christina Aguilera on Stripped --- and, ten years later I'm wondering where she is now.

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