I have a strange memory of Christina Aguilera performing Genie in a Bottle on Top of the Pops and my dad asking if I liked her songs. Strange, because it’s so unremarkable to be kept inside my head. At this stage I her career, she had made her big break, and soon enough I was listening to her album, with hits such as What a Girls Wants and Come On Over (All I Want Is You). Yet, it was three years later, when she released what I will always think of as her best album: Stripped.
I was having a hard time at school, and listening to this album was the very definition of empowering. I had been pushed out of a friendship group during a time where looking back, I honestly believe I was depressed, and this escalated to the extent where I felt I was a target for lots of different groups at school. I did make some new friends, and remember connecting with one of them through a shared love of this album. This was before we had learnt to talk about why it is that Beautiful holds so much resonance with us, but fourteen years later and we are still friends, now sharing a love of bell hooks.
It was at a recent low-point that I turned to this album, and it reminded me of the power it holds. Everything is unstable at the moment: I’ve quit my job, I’m not sure what my future holds and – like my friend – I’m going half-way across the world to work and travel. I don’t know what quite made me want to put the album on initially, but it wasn’t long before I was singing along and dancing. Both these activities are a sure-fire way to feel good, releasing endorphins and allowing you to express yourself through your vocal chords and body.
The “intro” track and Stripped, Pt. 2 later in the album, strive to dismantle binary oppositions with lyrics such as “sorry, I ain’t a Diva, sorry just know what I want, sorry I’m not a virgin, sorry I’m not a slut.” This directly addresses the negative labels given to women, as we are forced to fit in either box. Though some may argue that there is an intention to reinforce such binaries, with the quip about “making up for smaller things” in Can’t Hold Us Down. Yet, I’m willing to overlook this somewhat, as you could even argue that this is “smaller” as in “not as important” as sexual double standards and stereotypes that are explored in this track. Aguilera embraced her sexuality in a bold way, through other songs such as Dirrty, and she invites you to join her.
It was at a recent low-point that I turned to this album, and it reminded me of the power it holds.
Aguilera is a Feminist, and through this album she shows that women are multidimensional beings, allowing us to see her vulnerability. She oscillates from tracks such as Walk Away, feeling unable to let go, and Fighter, reflecting on how past pain can make your stronger from having gone through it. In this, we see her narrating between falling in love (Infatuation and Loving me 4 Me) and the complications of a love that seems Impossible, the times where during long-term relationships you are Underappreciated: “What happened to those good old days where you used to be compassionate?” By the time we get to Beautiful, we have been on that emotional journey.
Make Over was the perfect song for those teenage years where your love for pop songs merged with that for more alternative music (something I unashamedly continue to do). I remember the rush of hearing her scream instead of sing, almost like I was on the back of her bike, wind sweeping through my hair. It seems I’m not the only one who likes to reflect on the impact of such albums; on The Hampton Institute, Terry Young Jr. stated that at the time of the album’s release “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.”
By the time we get to the end of the album, we are brought to a place where we are able to move on from past and the optimistic and encouraging lyrics build with each track, including songs such as Cruz and Keep on Singin’ My Song. We learn through listening to find happiness and fulfilment inside ourselves. Sometimes we may forget this, we take what is seen by others and a detour, but on replaying these songs, we remember The Voice Within. In I’m OK, Aguilera addresses her father’s abuse, knowing that the songs she sings, her mother has sung before her, that reaching a stage of contentment shows a lineage of strong women.
Featured image © RCA Records