Originally published in 2017, we remember Christina Aguilera’s Stripped, which turns 20 this week.
“You’ll be hearing those songs at strip clubs for years to come,” Chris Rock cracked. Christina Aguilera had just pulled off a somewhat questionable medley of “Dirrty” and “Fighter” at the 2003 VMAs, wearing a black and white corset and an intense spray tan. Her hair was wild and onyx, her eyes lined with thick charcoal. She shared the stage with Dave Navarro (I don’t know why, either) and a pack of sultry dancers, who mirrored her every booty-drop and strut. A trio of backup singers attempted to tame Aguilera’s storm of ad-libs and vocal runs. Earlier in the night, Aguilera and Britney Spears had kissed Madonna.
I never heard “Dirrty” or “Fighter” in a strip club, but I did hear it in my living room. Many times. My sister and I would choreograph the songs with the neighborhood kids, while rapping along to Redman’s parts and giggling when Aguilera said “ass.” In the summer of 2003, we wore my parents’ camo-green carpet thin from dancing. Sometimes we’d break out the liner notes from Stripped, the 2002 album that housed these breakout tunes, and we’d read the risqué lyrics to “Dirrty” in the voice of an old, uptight schoolteacher. I can still hear my sister’s hysterical laughter. I never fully knew what a lot of those lyrics meant until I was older, but I’m certain those living room sessions with an angsty Aguilera and my best friends were my first introduction into feminism.
While Rock presumably used his VMA strip club joke backhandedly, there’s irony in how empowering those songs actually were to women—whether those women were exotic dancers using their sexuality as their strength in a club or 13-year-old girls learning how to combat the word “slut” for the first time at school. Aguilera sang about female pleasure, unfulfilling relationships, self-love and all the things I was just figuring out. On “Fighter,” she gained power from dirtbags. On “Underappreciated,” she quit a relationship when a guy didn’t realize her worth. On “The Voice Within,” she preached about finding validation within yourself. She stripped taboo from her sexuality, unearthed double standards and shielded herself from harsh insults from the media. Meanwhile, she had the whole world telling her to put on more clothes.
Aguilera first won us over on Star Search and The Mickey Mouse Club as a blonde, wunderkind teen singer with pipes rivaling Aretha’s. At 18, she released her extremely New Millennium self-titled pop debut, which went eight times platinum thanks to the subtly sensual “Genie In A Bottle.” In two more months, she’d have another two albums drop—a Latin version of her debut and a Christmas LP. She was packaged along with the other teen idols—Britney Spears, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson, etc.—with a cute Rachel cut, low-rise jeans and trendy bare midriff. There was sex appeal, sure, but it was just peeping through, waiting to burst. Society’s unspoken rule was that women could be sexy, but not sexual. Turns out, Aguilera was never about rules.
On Stripped, which turns 15 on October 22, Aguilera exploded. Desperate to shed her bubblegum pop sound, she turned to dozens of producers, songwriters and instrumentalists, among them Scott Storch, Linda Perry and Alicia Keys. She ditched her crop tops for, well, no top, appearing on the cover of Stripped wearing nothing but a bandana and a pair of tattered jeans, her piecey platinum and black locks streaming over her breasts. (I can’t tell you how many hours I had spent staring at her laced-up crotch hole, wondering if I’d see anything.)
"Coming off of the height of being a part of such a big pop-craze phenomenon, that imagery of that cookie-cutter sweetheart, without it being me, I just had to take it all down and get it away from me,” Aguilera told MTV about her fourth album in 2002. “And that is why I actually named the album Stripped, because it is about being emotionally stripped down and pretty bare to open my soul and heart."
With her pop star status came unwarranted feuds. There was Xtina vs. Britney (a manufactured beef, really), Xtina vs. Fred Durst (he said he performed with her at the 2000 VMAs for “the nookie,” which she had to deny), Xtina vs. Eminem (who slut-shamed her on “The Real Slim Shady”), and, of course, Xtina vs. the public (who policed her outfits and videos). Stripped’s intro track tackled all of that head on, and before she even sang a note, she weaved in a chaotic sound collage of headlines that laced together a narrative that just wasn’t her’s. When Aguilera finally busted in, she went on an unapologetic diatribe: “Sorry you can't define me / Sorry I break the mold / Sorry that I speak my mind / Sorry don't do what I'm told.” From that moment on, she turned the tables, and we were in for her side of the story.
Of course, even after Stripped’s release, she was still getting name-called—choosing the raunchy “Dirrty” as the first single, without context from the rest of the album, scandalized the mainstream audience, not to mention the sweaty video that came with it. MTV called her a “pop tart” and “the naughty girl that she is.” Family Guy called her “truly disgusting.” On Urban Dictionary, her name is still synonymous with “slut.”
The bullying all started with Eminem in 2000, actually. That year, Aguilera spoke out about Eminem’s song “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde,” which depicted the fantasized brutal murder of his ex-wife. Eminem responded by calling her a “bitch” in “The Real Slim Shady”:
“Shit, Christina Aguilera better switch me chairs /
So I can sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst /
And hear 'em argue over who she gave head to first /
Little bitch put me on blast on MTV /
‘Yeah, he's cute, but I think he's married to Kim, hee-hee.’”
Sadly enough, that’s when words like that started to get tossed around my middle school. I remember one dude shouting “cunt” in my direction… the same guy that would loudly boast his sexual exploits in the hallway. It made me feel gross and angry, yet I cowered from him. Those words were power for people like him, I quickly learned. They could manipulate other people’s emotions and provide a temporary high. Soon enough, I adopted the words, too. I called my friends “bitches.” “Ho bag,” actually, was my insult of choice. I helped another friend write “whore” on an enemy’s locker. “Whore.” As if we were actually capable of being whores. I barely had my period.
For handling that guy who called me those nasty names, Aguilera came through with an important lesson on Stripped’s second track, perhaps the most influential song of my formative years, “Can’t Hold Us Down,” featuring Lil’ Kim. If I had my way, this entire piece would just be a reprint of the song’s lyrics, but let me pull out a few take-homes from her sermon. Here’s the line that was pointed directly at Eminem:
“Call me a bitch because I speak what's on my mind /
Guess it's easier for you to swallow if I sat and smiled /
When a female fires back /
Suddenly Big Talker don't know how to act”
There were a bunch of little Eminems scurrying around my school, bleaching their hair like the rapper just like I tried to recreate Avril Lavigne’s skater girl look. They emulated his insults too—mostly hurling them toward girls. But Aguilera taught me on “Can’t Hold Us Down” that those insults were just diversions from insecurities. They were used to pin girls down while guys puffed up their own egos. She preached that if they slandered you, you should call out their shit. And don’t relent, no matter the size of the rock thrown at you.
The same song introduced me to the notion of sexist double standards, too. While we called other girls “bitches” and “sluts,” we never called boys that. Why were women always on the receiving end of words like “whore,” when the boy who was calling me names waved his sexual experiences like a victory? Sex was always shameful for women, I was taught to believe, while it was a “score” for dudes. Here’s how Aguilera addressed that:
“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 yet you call her a whore /
I don't understand why it's okay /
The guy can get away with it, the girl gets named /
All my ladies come together and make a change /
And start a new beginning for us, everybody sing.”
Those lyrics gave me a B.S. filter. I heard the sexism in radio DJs’ asides, the braggadocio in rap, the snide jokes made among my aunts and uncles and parents’ friends. “She’s dressed a little slutty, isn’t she?” A decade and a half later, my radar is sharper for that stuff. I watch Friends episodes from 2002 that sling around the word “bitch” and “whore” as punchlines. I’d like to think that Aguilera started a cultural shift when she reclaimed her image right around that time—that “new beginning” she sang about.
Stripped was important in getting through high school, as well, years after its release. We all desperately wanted to fit in, and would almost abandon ourselves in order to conform to a friend group. Most of the time, those friend groups let me down. (I’ll never forget the time my best friend pummeled me to the pavement behind town hall. The ultimate betrayal!) You know the story, because you probably lived it too: one second you were in, and one second you were out. Throughout all that, there were songs like “Fighter,” “Soar” and “The Voice Within.”
On “Fighter,” with its gnarly, overdriven guitars and melodramatic strings, she thanked her haters, instead of letting their disses worm their way into her subconscious. “Made me learn a little bit faster / Made my skin a little bit thicker / Makes me that much smarter / So thanks for making me a fighter.” This, by the way, is the same song Chris Rock felt was only suitable for strip clubs.
And then, there’s the album’s breakout, “Beautiful,” the song that earned Aguilera her third Grammy (she had previously won Best New Artist in 2000, and nabbed another trophy for “Lady Marmalade” in 2002). Linda Perry’s ballad serenaded the broken, “You are beautiful, no matter what they say.”
While Aguilera has since moved on to different projects and eras, Stripped still feels like the catalyst for it all. By laying everything out and shedding other people’s opinions of her, it gave her the freedom to discover other areas of herself. It taught me to do the same.
It took dozens more listens to Stripped over the years to fully get Aguilera’s message. Collecting experiences also helped me relate to hers, and I’m still finding nuggets of wisdom in the album. In a world where women are still struggling for equal pay, proper maternity leave and easy access to reproductive health care, Stripped feels more relevant than ever. While birth control remains a national debate, Viagra is covered by insurance without question, and I’m reminded of the double standards Aguilera opened my eyes to in “Can’t Hold Us Down.” And as the President of the United States encourages grabbing women by the pussy, she would demand that we grab back at that Big Talker.
As Aguilera would say, “What do we do, girls? Shout louder.”