A life well lived should have what Christina Aguilera describes as a “f**k it moment” – that glorious decision of silencing the head and giving in to the heart, regardless of the consequences.
Her own f**k-it moment is unlikely to have passed us by. It was that time around 2002, when, aged 21, she broke free of her management, strapped on the chaps, and unleashed Dirrty: the tune that showed us in no uncertain terms that her vanilla days were over.
You’d remember the video. Directed by the revered David LaChapelle and taking place in a low-lit boxing club with risqué clothing and choreography, the deviant vibe came out of the blue, especially as it was the follow up to – if we’re amongst friends here – a cringey Christmas album.
Dirrty was me stepping up and saying I was a woman that’s proud of my sexuality. I was proud of my vulnerability. I was proud of the fact that I’ve fought my way through this industry
“It was that pop-star time of N’Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and me. When we came out, there was an essence of innocence that you had to sort of portray blindly,” Aguilera says, speaking from her home in LA. “And I wasn’t about to play that game, I wasn’t that girl. I really wanted to be honest and truthful. So I came out with Dirrty, and that was my f**k-it moment. That was me stepping up and saying I was a woman that’s proud of my sexuality. I was proud of my vulnerability. I was proud of the fact that I’ve fought my way through this industry.”
We’re speaking exactly 20 years since her first solo album, and ahead of the second leg of her European tour, which suggests the move didn’t go too badly. At the very least, it differentiated her from Spears, her rival since their days as Disney Mouseketeers. It also defined her transition from teen queen to adult celebrity – a manoeuvre that rarely goes smoothly in the spotlight.
Looking back on her two decades as a singer famed for the power of her four-octave range, (most of which can be heard in the one verse of Lady Marmalade) she talks of lessons and learnings, moments of pride, and a whole lot of fun: the tours, the image changes, the videos, acting with Cher in Burlesque, and her five years as a judge on The Voice. Her most recent album, Liberation, feels less like a blinkered attempt to garner radio play and more like a meandering stroll from rock to R’n’B, meeting collaborators like Kanye West, Demi Lovato and Anderson Paak along the way.
“There’s a sense of freedom that comes with being in this business for such a long time,” Aguilera says. “You have control over yourself, and how you see yourself – and that’s a growth period within itself. Not everybody has a perception of where they want to go artistically. But I’ve always just stuck to my truth.”
This control is why Dirrty was the pivotal moment in her career. Before, she recalls, creative and practical decisions were made by her manager, the late Steve Kurtz, against her better judgement. When she came out with her self-titled debut album, it propelled her into the spotlight as a pop starlet and earned her a number-one debut and the Grammy for Best New Artist. “I should have been on top of the world,” she says. “It was an amazing time and I’m so thankful for getting my foot in the door. But I didn’t have good management, a lot of unwise choices were made. I was overworked, and there was no one to speak up for me.
“It’s a sadness when you feel like [your team] don’t have your back. It makes you second-guess everything. I don’t miss those days of coming up in the business and having to fight so hard to get an opinion across in a world of older men who tried to mould me into something I’m not. I’m still triggered if I feel put in a box or if I’m not given the right information.”
Now, thanks also to outspoken examples in the entertainment industry (Kesha, Rose McGowan, Alyssa Milano) the idea of the older svengali exerting influence over younger women is immediately a red flag “but when I was coming up there was no access to hearing other people’s stories, or sharing experiences, or shedding light on something. It might have helped me.
“Now people know to say, ‘that’s not okay to touch by body’ or ‘that’s not okay to tell me what’s good for me’. I definitely think that people are raising their voices more. Younger people are more self-aware, which I think is amazing.”
Her transition helped inch the conversation forward. Dirrty was released years before society began to accept that women can portray their bodies however they choose (a notion reinforced in Beautiful, from the same album, Stripped) but even then, the response felt uncalled for. “She appeared to have arrived on the set of the video for her song Dirrty direct from an intergalactic hooker convention,” Time Magazine noted. In a Saturday Night Live skit, Sarah Michelle Geller mimicked Aguilera: “When people see this video, they gonna stop thinking of me as some blonde-haired, bubblegum, music-industry ho – and start thinking of me as an actual ho.” If it occurred today, you suspect the reactions might be more controversial than the imagery itself, and that hasn’t passed Aguilera by.
I am a contradiction of so many things. I’m in the public eye but I’m also extremely private. I’m a mother, but I love being able to wear outfits on stage that express myself
“I was always proud of the video,” Aguilera says. “I realised they might not get it at the time, but what I was creating was a body of work that spoke for itself after I’m done with this life. Some of the best things in history aren’t appreciated until after the fact.
“Being so bold was great too, when you look at the next wave of pop stars that came out after me. We’re living in a time where they feel more empowered to say ‘go f**k off’ if they want to. Miley is famous for wearing chaps at some point in her stage shows, which is amazing. Lady Gaga, when she first came out, had a lot of looks – for a new artist, that was a big deal. I’m excited to be a part of building that.”
You could add that the wider third wave of feminism – the influence of the Riot Grrls, Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman and the discussions it prompted, and Madonna’s continuing defiance of societal expectation – forged the path for Aguilera as much Cyrus and Lady Gaga. But certainly, taking control of her image was no bad example to set.
Even today, Aguilera has reconciled her status as mother of two and a sexually liberated pop star, explaining that “I’m not one dimensional. I don’t know anyone who is,” she says. “I am a contradiction of so many things, but I own all those things. I am a performer and I’m in the public eye but I’m also extremely private. I’m a mother, but I love being able to wear outfits on stage that express myself. It’s important for me to bring that to the stage, so I can empower other people. And it’s important for me to have a strong sense of myself and remember who I am amongst all the noise, because everything comes and goes.”
So as well as some daring outfits, you might well see Aguilera’s children onstage with her at her upcoming 3Arena concert, as with her performance at the same venue last year for a private event. That visit to Dublin, she says, went “too quick”.
“I wanted to take a week, at least three solid days to go around Dublin and experience more,” she says. “We normally stay in the heart of the city where you maybe get to do a little shopping or see a few coffee shops, but I want to see the beauty of Dublin. But even this time, it’s a case that you fly, you get in, you get rested for work, and then you’re off to the next place.”
The show will be Aguilera’s first public concert in Dublin for 13 years, as she paused large-scale European touring while her children were young.
“I didn’t want to uproot their lives and touring is hard, so that’s why I opted to do TV,” she explains. “But I put music a little too much on the back burner. After some time I knew I had to return to the road and let my kids see what my ultimate passion is. When they see me accomplish my goals and see that I have more than one role in my life, it teaches them.”
Christina Aguilera plays 3Arena, Dublin, on Tuesday, November 5th. Liberation is on RCA