|Christina Aguilera has a right to sing the blues. Just ask her. Sure, the 21-year-old found pop stardom seemingly overnight back in 1999, when her self-titled debut album launched the chart-topping hits Genie in a Bottle and What a Girl Wants. The subsequent smash success of her remake of Lady Marmalade— a single that also featured Pink, Mya and Lil' Kim — confirmed Aguilera's status as the hottest teen diva since her fellow Mickey Mouse Club alumna Britney Spears.
But the petite blonde with the booming voice insists that the past three years haven't seen everything coming up roses, career-wise or otherwise. Aguilera says her new CD, Stripped, which is due in stores Tuesday, reflects hard-won personal and creative growth.
"I went in to record maybe two years ago, but it took longer than I thought, because a lot of things came up. Some of it was the kind of stuff everyone goes through. I went through my first big breakup, with a boyfriend who I had been with for more than two years. He had been one of my dancers, and it was my first love and his."
The couple broke up, she adds, on "kind of a tragic day. It was Sept. 11 of last year."
Other troubles stemmed more directly from Aguilera's profession and profile. "It can be hard in this business, especially when you're very young, to figure out who you can and can't trust," she says. "When success comes, people can try to trick you or take advantage of you. I was being overworked, and my head was so caught up in the whirlwind of my schedule. You find out that someone you thought was a friend is stealing money behind your back, and it's heartbreaking. I put faith in the people around me, and unfortunately, it bit me in the butt."
Aguilera won't be more specific in her allegations. But she did change management in late 2000, and she is now represented by music-biz veteran Irving Azoff. "I don't want to dwell on negativity, because the results are positive," she says. "I learned you have to watch out for yourself and be true to yourself." (Christina photo gallery.
Those lessons informed the songs on Stripped, which aim for a grittier, more self-possessed feel than the tunes on her first effort. Aguilera co-wrote most of the new material, collaborating with such noted women-in-charge as former 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry, who also worked on Pink's second hit album, and Alicia Keys, who wrote a torchy new ballad, Impossible, for Aguilera.
"When you're part of a pop phenomenon, you have so many opinions shoved down your throat," Aguilera says. "People try to tell you what you should do, how you should act, what you should wear, who you should be with. At the time things started happening for me, it was popular to be the squeaky-clean, cookie-cutter pop singer. But that role didn't speak to me, because it's so boring and superficial.
"I think it had to do with social standards, too. People want to see a white blond girl stick to a safe, good-girl image. Not that I'm trying to be the bad girl; I just want to be real, to be myself. People don't really know who I am yet. That's where the title of my new album came from — it's about being emotionally stripped down for the first time."
Aguilera believes her vocals on Stripped represent a rawer, more bare-bones approach as well, with less of the ostentatious riffing that has miffed critics in the past.
"I did the vocal gymnastics thing because it was fun. That's why I like blues, too, because you can experiment more with that side of your voice," she says. "But I thought the lyrics on this record are so personal, deep and good that I wanted to make them stand out more than what I could do with my voice technically."
The tracks on Stripped also reveal more of an urban influence. In addition to Keys, rappers Redman and Lil' Kim make guest appearances.
"I've always been a hip-hop fan, so that's going to come out more in my music," Aguilera says. She cites Dirrty, featuring Redman, as "the hardest, most beat-driven song. It's about being 21 and, you know, getting down and getting a little gritty and street with my friends. And not worrying about looking pretty, or caring who's around."
But more of Aguilera's new songs deal with "getting through hard times" — a subject she hopes to have less cause to dwell on in the future. At the moment, she finds comfort in a supportive family and in two canine companions, Stinky and Chewy, who live with her in Los Angeles.
"They're my boys," she coos. "I can't wait to take them with me when I tour, because it can get kind of lonely on the road."
Asked whether there are any other special men keeping her company, Aguilera says: "I'll date here and there, but nothing too heavy. I'm trying to find me a really sweet guy, but I'm also focused on my career right now. I'm so excited about the album and touring. I feel like I've been locked up, and it's great to be out there again, doing my thing."
By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
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