Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Artist Spotlight: Christina Aguilera

CHRISTINA AGUILERA; Past, Present, and Future

by Sabrina Beram

Christina Aguilera is one of the few, if not only, modern popular musical artists who understands the importance of visual aesthetic expressed through fashion as just as vital an element in imaging as musical output. She has remade herself nearly as many times as Madonna, twisting her look in every direction, and, not surprisingly, has cited the older American music icon as an artist whose career she emulates, gushing, “I love Madonna for her strength and discipline. Her ideas are amazing, and she tries to go above and beyond in challenging herself. I love people who stand up for what they passionately believe in and don’t back down.” (3).

Christina lives by these words, pushing the limit both in her personal life and career aspirations. She exhibits Madonna’s discipline, excelling at everything from video gaming, “I’m extremely good at video games…I have all the top scores…I love absorbing information,” to re-aquiring her pre-baby body in record time through a rigorous 90 minute a day workout regime, as well as Madonna’s drive for innovation (3, 1). “I constantly change my image. I’m a very visual artist and am constantly trying something new,” the petite bombshell announced with assertion in a Billboard article titled “Better with Time.” (Better with Time).

After nudging her way into public consciousness as a preppy Mousekateer at the age of twelve, Christina used the recognition garnered from the Disney Channel stint in combination with her powerful pipes (she was selected to record “Reflection” for Mulan based on her ability to sing a high “E” in full voice, which she documented with a cheap Radio Shack recorder in her bathroom circa 1998) to obtain a contract with RCA. Her self-titled solo album Christina Aguilera released August 4, 1999. To put it lightly, Christina was less than satisfied with the experience of working with a major label under the exclusive representation of Steve Kurtz, lamenting “The first album was an uphill battle for me, and I really feel like I paid my dues on that first record. Being part of a huge pop explosion, I was very pushed by the label to be, act, dress a certain way, and it was tough” (4).

Looking back, especially in the wake of her more empowered incarnation of femininity, one can conclude that Aguilera was blatantly exploited as a tool for maintaining male domination of the media during America’s cultural pop phase. The music video for “What a Girl Wants,” in which Christina performs for what is presumably her boyfriend, demonstrates this point. The entire video is framed from his perspective, or what is deemed the ‘male gaze’ in Fashion, Clothing, and Social Revolution. The function of the cinematography reflecting such a gaze is to reduce the female—here Christina is symbolic for all females—to “being [an object] to be viewed,” thereby rendering her passive and subordinate (148). During the song’s breakdown, Christina whispers “What I want is what you got. And what you got is what I want….You knew me better than I know myself,” which reinforces the notion that men, who produce most of the media consumed by young women, know best. This validates their superior stance while insisting that their influence over the construction of feminine inferiority complex is inescapable. The garter worn on Christina’s leg, a key signifier in the video, speaks to this ideological entrapment. Christina, adorned with a tiara and fluffy crinoline skirt to emphasize her childishness follies, pulls up her skirt and flashes her garter, a wedding leg band meant to suggest her ownership by a man, to the shock of geisha-like, faceless powdered girls dancing circles around her. This is to say that it is alarming that she would share her sexuality with others besides the man to whom she belongs.

Christina’s Sketchers advertisement campaign has similar implications. As deduced from the 1930’s vehicle, the ad is set in a 1930’s/ 1940’s time period, an “era before patriarchal dominance was threatened by racial, gender, and sexual liberation movements [in which] pulp fiction novels [which] capitalized on violent masculine fantasies of heroism and highly sexualized female victims” were popular (Lemley 7). In her insightful dissertation titled “Gendered Construction of the Female Identity,” Julie L. Lemley deconstructs this product of “consolidated media [which] proceeds from a narrow ideological range which is dominated by a white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal perspective” (3).

In this advertisement, Christina poses as both a submissive woman under arrest and a dominatrix police officer. Lemley argues that these two images of a single person, “while showing both sides of her character, actually limits her within a narrow and sexualized range” (3). As the arrestee, Christina appears “weak and childlike” wearing “a studded leather belt and chains [that] identify her as youthful” ala the youth punk aesthetic, while holding a pose in which she “stands on toes which lifts her rear end upward, exposing it while turning it sideways to reveal her chest” and expressing a “look of surprise/ fear…[which has an] association with sexual vulnerability and victimization” (Lemley 6). As the aggressor, Christina touts “leather boots, knee highs, high-heels, [a] too-tight, opened, shortened shirt, [and] tight pants” which, along with “glasses pulled aside to reveal eyes” and a pose (unlike that of a male cop) consisting of a “twisted, hard ‘S’ turn at the hips,” strip her of power by sexualizing her and defining her as a seductress (Lemley 6).

To add insult to injury, Kurtz took advantage of Christina financially by over-working her while embezzling funds. She terminated their contract early and embarked on a new ‘dirrty’ phase, through which she therapeutically processed what had happened through her music and imagery. On her next studio album, “Stripped,” Christina aligned with social rejects and presented herself as a victim of aggressors, not the least of which was her father, a Sergeant in the U.S. Army whose physical abuse prompted her mother to leave for Pennsylvania with a then-seven-year-old Christina and her sister. At this tender age, Christina began pursuing a career in entertainment, performing in local talent shows and on Star Search, which spurred jealous peers to slash the family’s car tires and attempt assaults on Christina in gym class.

The images presented on the album “Stripped” were “highly suggestive of battery and violence against the subject” characterized by “blackened eyes, [being] stripped of clothing, fetal positioning, avoiding eye contact with the viewer, and/or a timid frightened look” (Lemley 9). In an analysis on the effect this may have on Christina’s young female fan base, Lemley interprets the aforementioned imagery as sending the message “no matter how powerful you are, no matter how high you go, no matter how successful you become, you will always be a sexual object. Your ability to achieve is sustained entirely by your value as a sexual object” (9).

However, this narrow view does not take the entire “Stripped” image and concept into account. In a comment on the intention behind the album, for which Aguilera co-wrote 14 songs, the newly brandished ‘Xtina’ stated, “I feel a responsibility almost to share some of the things that aren’t kind of the brighter sides of my life. If I can give [people] something that they can relate to they might not feel so alone in the circumstance” (4). This materialized in the video for “Beautiful,” which took on issues of body image and sexual identity, featuring an anorexic girl smashing a mirror, a man cross-dressing in a bra, two boys locking tongues, a skinny nerd weight lifting, and an outcast girl having her nose broken by a gang of three classmates- after which each character smiles in acceptance of their circumstances and self. The message here seems to be less one of validating the perpetrators, than one of defiance against the status quo. This is supported by the track “Oh Mother,” in which Christina “praises her mother’s bravery and courage in the face of her father’s abuse” (4). Again, the vibe is one of ‘the underdog will prevail, will survive, and will emerge stronger.’

Alongside “Beautiful,” the song and video for “Dirrty” hit the media ciruit like a shock. This was the 21-year-old’s undeniable attempt to shake off the squeaky clean image with which she had been associated since the Mickey Mouse Club. A Newsweek article, “Red Hot Blue” described the music video look as “black-market adult film” in which Christina “dressed in leather chaps, red undies, and a bikini top...writhed around in a skeezy boxing ring surrounded by signs that read, in Thai, YOUNG UNDERAGE GIRLS” (8). Christina’s sexual rebellion was encapsulated in her break from the Western standards of beauty with tattoos, piercings (including one on her genitals), black streaks tainting her blonde hair and dreadlocks, a hairstyle which originated in an early 1930’s sect of Rastafari when “the marginalized poor of Jamaica ceased to copy the hairstyle of Haile Salassie I of Ethiopia” (Wikipedia: Dreadlocks). In a Bowie-esque move, Christina put her money where her mouth was with this risky career move and literally reinvented herself into an outcast; her “scantily clad alter ego ‘Xtina’… widely derided for dressing like a streetwalker” appeared multiple times on Worst Dressed lists (9). When questioned regarding her overt sexualized image promoting the objectification of women in a Glamour Magazine interview, Aguilera employed the feminist strategy of reversal as she ‘soapboxed’ about a woman’s right to choose to wear as little or as much clothing as she sees fit, asserting, “I think women are sensual, beautiful beings, and I feel empowered when I express myself sexually” (10).

Ever bolder with each ensuing album, Christina stood her ground against the cautionary words of her label boss Clive Davis and set to work on her next album, a concept piece in the form of a “2 cd, 22 song set executive-produced and co-written by Aguilera - with the aim of paying homage to her heros while inventing something completely new” (4). Christina was forced to find a new producer when, again, she was slighted by a significant male in her life, Scott Storch, the hip-hop heavyweight from Miami who produced seven tracks for “Stripped.” Storch made several egotistical cocaine-induced demands of Christina which inspired the track F.U.S.S., or Fuck You Scott Storch, which ended bitingly with “Looks like I didn’t need you. Still got the album out” (9). Realizing the importance of finding the right person to work with, Christina explained, “I put together a CD of music I’m inspired by. I called it the “producer’s package,” and I wrote a letter to [prospective producers] saying “These are songs that I’m inspired by. Please listen to them, reference them, use bits and pieces, experiment, and enter this world with me” (3). She settled on not one, but two producers. The first disc, primarily produced by DJ Premier, “combine[d] old-song sensibilities with hip-hop elements, samples and modern technology” such as drum machines and synths, while disc two, produced by Linda Perry feature[d] all live instrumentation,” including horns and a Georgian choir, “with no samples” (4).

“Back to Basics,” as the project came to be titled, demonstrated Christina’s creative potential, and she received praise in the Rolling Stone feature “Dirty Girl Cleans Up:” “It’s impressive for Christina to see such an ambitious take all the way through. Overhauling her image, conceptualizing her album, overseeing every facet of production down to the CD booklet- it’s control freak perfectionism worthy of Madonna” (9). Billboard Magazine saw the same maturity emerging in Christina, emphasizing how “She stressed continuity that would run through all facets of the project from the songs, imaging, videos, and touring that would combine the music with visuals that were a “throwback to old Hollywood glam, that kind of old, retro, pinup style of sexuality” (4).

Again, Christina aligned herself with a marginalized demographic, although this time around, it was based in race as opposed to gender. In an interview for the L.A. publication Advocate, she shared, “I’m reading Etta James’s autobiography right now. I love her ballsy attitude. In her day, with racism going on in extreme and having to face all that, that’s very powerful to me.” The influence for the album was the vintage soul, jazz, and blues singers of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s whom Christina had grown up listening to as an escape from the domestic violence characterizing her early home environment. “There’s a lot of pain and angst in those songs,” Christina reflected, “They spoke to my life before I moved in with my grandma- my father, all the abuse I endured” (8).

Although Christina cites retro African American singers, Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker astutely observes “she establishes her affinities, but saying doesn’t make it so… there are precious few audible connections to any music pre-dating the seventies soul of Stevie Wonder.” The early 1900’s influence is more evident in the look Christina adopted while promoting the album; “I would surround myself with old imagery of [Billy Holiday, Pearl Baileys, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis]. Actors call it ‘method acting,’ It was my way of method signing” (4). Christina lugged photos of the greats to board meetings and brought them along on tour. She emphasized the importance of image and clothing and the emotional response it evokes when prompted to speak about her signature vampy red lipstick, purring “Just to get into the song… to convey that emotion and high energy, especially to belt out some notes, the red lipstick helped me get to that mind frame…The red lips are- I don’t want to call them armor but they’re the clothes of my character, and I’m in the business of entertainment. Wearing red lipstick helps get me into that world… There are so many more sides to me than my voice. I love theatrics and have a huge imagination.” (4, 10).

Just as Christina looked to pinup artist Alberto Vargas was inspiration for her video, “Candyman,” she is purportedly looking to another graphic artist, Andy Warhol, to inform the look to accompany her forthcoming album Light and Darkness. Light and Darkness will undoubtedly bring about another radical image reincarnation, as suggested by the titillating sneak previews from the commemorative exclusive Target-release “Keeps Getting Better: A Decade of Hits” which includes “ new remixed versions of “Genie in a Bottle” and “Beautiful,” titled “Genie 2.0” and “You Are What You Are (Beautiful), respectively, plus the new songs “Keeps Getting Better” and “Dynamite” [alongside staples].” After taking listeners back in time, it seem only appropriate that the Mickey Mousekateer- turned sexpot shift gears and race towards the future. Christina’s audio team- including Sia, Le Tigre, and Ladytron- is poised to support her fresh vision: “I wanted to go in a completely opposite direction- a very futuristic, robot sounds and computer- sounding vocals. I’m experimenting with my voice in ways I’ve never done before, almost like a technical, computer-generated sound, which is different for me because I’m the type of vocalist that just belts” (2). Christina is already expressing her embrace of technology in her latest video “Keeps Getting Better,” in which the ipod touch makes an cameo, an animated robot jolts to the electronic beat, and Christina meshes with the digital world, appearing as a digital vixen laser projection- only one of the custom comic bookesque versions of herself that she conjures on pixelized flatscreens as a hoodied computer hacker-like mastermind dressed like you and me. Living the new image, Christina premiered the Peter-Berg directed video on October 27, 2008 on iLike, the music social networking site’s Facebook application, “making Aguilera the first major artist to use iLike for a video premiere” (2).

Christina Aguilera is an independent thinker and talented musician. She is a marker of our time, reflecting societal cultural and political trends. Her themes about feminine pride echo key moments in the Third Wave feminism movement of the 1990s such as the Anita Hill testimonial against sexual harasser Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the passing of the Violence Against Women Act, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rise to prominence in politics, and the popular phrase “You Go Girl.” She remains just as relevant in the 21st century contributing to and incorporating the mass acceptance of gay rights, multiculturalism and the election of America’s first black president, and the lightning speed growth of the Internet into her work. Christina is constantly trailblazing, walking herself down the marriage aisle, fearlessly confronting taboo subject matter, and always keeping an eye to the future. A true role model, the substance she brings to the music community is a refreshing necessity in light of most talentless, shallow, pretty, and vacant pop queens of today.

(1) Christina Without All the Drama

By: Laurie Sandell

July 1, 2008

Glamour Magazine

(2) Better with Time

By: Mariel Conception

November 25, 2008

Billboard 120 (no. 45)

Copyright 2001, VNU Business Publications, USA

(3) Christina Up Close

By: Dennis Hensley and Jill Greenberg

September 12, 2006

Advocate (Los Angeles, Calif)

Pages: 43-4, 46, 49

(4) Old School

By: Melina Newman, Ellen Von Unwerth, David Greenwald

July 29, 2006

Billboard 118 (no. 30)

Pages: 24-6

Copyright 2001, VNU Business Publications, USA

(5) Pop Rocks

By: Marion Fasel

December 2008

In Style 15 (no. 13)

Pages: 150-2, 154

(6) Sex Symbols: Pop Music

By: Sasha Frere-Jones

September 4, 2006

The New Yorker (Vol 82/ Iss 27)

Page: 137

Conde Nast Publications Inc.

(7) Better with Time

By: Mariel Conception

November 25, 2008

Billboard 120 (no. 45)

Copyright 2001, VNU Business Publications, USA

(8) Red Hot Blue

By: Lorraine Ali

July 31, 2006

Newsweek 148 (no. 5)

Pages: 50-2

(9) Dirty Girl Cleans Up

By: Austin Scaggs

August 24, 2006

Rolling Stone (Iss. 1007)

Pages: 49-52

(10) Christina: An Initmate Talk About a Past That Still Hurts

By: Laurie Sandell

December 1, 2006

Glamour Magazine

(11) Gendered Construction of the Female Identity

By: Julie L. Lemley


Journal of Undergraduate Research, MSU-Mankato (vol. 5)

Pages: 1-14

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