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‘Stripped’ at 20: Christina Aguilera Shares How Heartbreak, Vulnerability, ‘Stupid Tabloids,’ and a Teen Crush on Dave Navarro Shaped Her Most Daring Album

In 2002, Christina Aguilera shed her teen pop princess image to reveal something dirtier, rougher, rawer and realer through Stripped, her fourth studio album known for singles like “Dirrty” and “Fighter.” The LP, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, saw the then-21-year-old maturing her sound and public image fast, darkening her previously platinum blonde hair, and taking control of her sexuality.

“The music I was making on my first album, I was still very much under the thumb of a lot of older men and women,” Aguilera says of her early carer experience. After getting her break on the Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and more young stars, she was thrown into the pop machine to create coy bubblegum in the late Nineties. Both behind the scenes and in the public eye, however, Aguilera dealt with a few formative, disheartening experiences, including heartbreak, media scrutiny, and real and imagined feuds with her musical peers.

“I started writing scattered lyrics after the whirlwind of the first record and having a lot of males say opinions about me and rumors all that,” she recalls. She famously dealt with comments from the likes of Fred Durst and Eminem around this time. “It was a lot to experience young and I wanted to put all that to paper and make a solid, heartfelt album.”

To make it, Aguilera found challenging, welcoming creative partnership in the likes of Linda Perry, Scott Storch, Glen Ballard, Alicia Keys, Redman, Lil’ Kim and more. The album is soulful mix of hip-hop, hard rock, neo-soul, and, of course, pure pop. The lyrics focus on personal empowerment and knowing your worth, concepts a young Aguilera was beginning to really grasp for the first time in her life. 

“Once it was released to the public, I started understanding ‘Oh wow, people have real issues with this,” she recalls of early reaction to her new, provocative image for the song “Dirrty.” 

“It made me sad how conservative and judgmental a lot of people were, and I was never coming on the scene to impose anything upon anyone. I just wanted to live my life and not conform.”

Even so, Aguilera appreciates what Stripped means to her fans and her career path now more than ever. The album’s incredible success and huge risk paid off: It remains one of her highest charting albums and made her one of the best-selling artists of all time. The project’s coming-of-age bent had a huge influence and impact on numerous younger artists, like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus and more. Aguilera continued to take huge sonic and image risks in the wake of Stripped.

To celebrate the album’s anniversary, Aguilera spoke to Rolling Stone and discussed key tracks from the LP, detailing how they came to life and all the moments that inspired them.

“Stripped Intro”/“Can’t Hold Us Down” (featuring Lil’ Kim)

This was definitely a song I wrote while everything exploded. You can hear some of those sound bites that were used in “Stripped Intro.” Scott Storch created that intro and I wanted to feel dramatic and expressive of all the chaos and noise that was happening with all the stupid tabloids and other artists trying to talk rumors and shit. It was just it was a lot. It was a lot to take on that young, but I’m so happy I took the approach of, “Now we’re going to take it to the women’s court and I’m not going to back down and not speak my truth about certain issues that I believe in. I’m not going to back down and cower and shut up just because you want me to or you think women should be put in their place.”

[For the video] I remember there was such an issue with me putting a hose between my legs because it was going to be too graphic to air. So they had to literally pixelate it to make sure it was blurred out which now it’s like, so dumb when you look back and see what was censored because it’s so not even a thing anymore.

“Walk Away”

Scott Storch just had that piano and it felt a little melancholy. I think the words in [the song] are super poetic and dark. It was just really fun to do. I love how it starts so low and then builds and gets this angst: “It hurts my soul/Can’t let go” before I get to belt. It runs the gamut of drama. Actually for the Stripped Tour, I really was able to get on my hands and knees. It was a very dramatic song but I love that dark melancholy.

“Fighter”

So happy that Dave Navarro wanted to be part of it because when I was a teenager I had all the Red Hot Chili Peppers stuff up and was Dave Navarro-obsessed. I thought I was literally going to marry him. 

Scott Storch did that particular record. I just wanted to have those guitar riffs in there and everything to illustrate the hardness and thick skin, even though it sucks to look back at things that pain you and people that have wronged you. It was definitely stemming from a few things that had happened to me, like getting burned early on and having to learn the hard way you can’t fully trust people. It’s a hard lesson to learn that young. It makes you paranoid and second-guess people. I wrote it to embody how I was feeling and wanted to have those little rock influencers, even though it was ultimately a pop record.

“Primer Amor Interlude”/“Infatuation”

I had explored doing my Latin record [Mi Reflejo] and am very proud of my Latin Grammy. But it’s a part of who I am. I’ve talked about how my last name was something that was kind of pushed for me to change to something “easier” to pronounce. But I always stood my ground on that. It was very important that I was grounded in who I was and represent the many people who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household but then for whatever reason — divorce, parents moving away, et cetera — you kind of lose it. But it has always been a part of me and the best way I know how to express myself. “Infatuation” was another element of me that I wanted to have a piece of on this record, so a little bit of Spanglish on that one. And it was about my first little heartbreak.

“Impossible”

Alicia Keys was so fun and chill and cool. I remember it was in New York… all the record was basically done in LA but was a little piece of the New York pie for me. She was such a vibe and just let me let loose. I loved our little pre-conversation piece before the song starts. I had a really good time with her as an artist. When she came out with “Fallin,’” I was so inspired by that song and the fact that it didn’t sound like your typical pop song. But it was able to just be embraced and loved.

“Beautiful”

Linda Perry and I have always had such a special relationship. She was able to get me on a level that no one had really taken the time to do yet. At that point in my life, she was able to get me a little out of my head about perfecting my singing. She was able to shift my perspective to just let go. If you listen to this record, I would have not kept a lot of the vocal on that because it’s not perfect. It’s not super polished. Like there are a lot of little cracks and a few notes that didn’t sit well because they weren’t perfect pitch. Linda was like ‘That’s part of the beauty of the song’ and got me to sing a full pass of it. The “don’t look at me” in the beginning wasn’t meant to be in the song. I literally had some in the booth with me and I got shy. I was feeling vulnerable. 

It was a little bit of a struggle at first [to let go]. That is the good thing about me and Linda’s relationship; we definitely have a little pushback here and there. Ultimately, we let the creativity and the honesty speak for itself. Imperfection is the whole basis of what “Beautiful” is about.

“Make Over”

Linda broke out some tequila and wanted me to get completely out of my head and not have a singer-vibe in my head whatsoever. You can even hear her voice at the very, very top of that record go “Just do something crazy.” I love those little moments of honesty that are kept in the record. 

I love how free that song was. The lyrics say it all itself: “I don’t need nobody trying to make me over/I just want to live simple and free.” That’s how I felt for so much of it. I grew up listening to all these older men and older women too. I was in those dinner conversations that were just gross. It was an accumulation of the media pressure and opinions and everything that’s thrown at you. That’s really hard. I guess social media is the new version of that, thought it’s gotten kinder in a lot of ways. But there’s a whole other gamut of issues that are being presented with that we didn’t have to deal with before on a different level.

“Dirrty” (featuring Redman)

This was the essence of roughing things up. I wanted to come back on the scene and really shake it up for myself and do something different and a little rebellious because I wanted to get away from the box that I felt was so stereotypically boring. 

I always had been a fan of Redman’s “Let’s Get Dirty (I Can’t Get in Da Club)” so I was like ‘Let’s put our own spin on this song.” Having him on the record was the icing on the cake, cherry on top. He was amazing. I love that he came through and did the video, hangin around all the plushies in the world of David LaChappelle. 

Redman’s opening “Too dirty to clean my act up” is still something I love as part of my live show. I’m embracing the badass and being unapologetic for it.

“The Voice Within”

I remember going to Glen Ballard’s house for the first time and I was blown away. He had the most zen, peaceful, beautiful, gorgeous house. I started reading him some of the lyrics and poems that I’ve written to comfort myself, like “Young girl, don’t cry/I’ll be right here when your world starts to fall. It was like a personal prayer. 

I read him a bunch of things, but that was the one that he really gravitated towards. He started on the piano, writing that piano melody at the beginning, and it just became this beautiful, beautiful song that he helped me create from just like an organic honest place.

I was able to tap in a little bit more of a darkness with Linda and Glen was definitely more tapping into light. But everybody was needed for the puzzle pieces of it all. I remember that he was just such a genuine, evolved, peaceful, spiritual guy. I hadn’t really been around a whole lot of people like that at that point. I was very isolated in  dark studios, but everything about him exuded a nice light.

“I’m OK”

This was the scariest one for sure. I worked off a lot of diary entries and accumulated poetry, little things that I would write while I was on tour with the first record. By the time I came to the place of sharing things with producers, I had a baseline for it. 

This was something I had started and Linda really pushed me to drop in and not shy away from that. That was so special about Linda, she didn’t shy away from the darkness and she shed light on it and made it acceptable and turned the vulnerability into a super empowering place for me.

There’s cracks and I’m crying on that record. It’s a very subtle vocal, there’s quivers in it. It’s a heavy record to listen to, if you’ve experienced any level of abuse, isolation, or loneliness. I think it’s okay to say you’re proud of yourself. I think everybody deserves that. I always felt like once you’re over it, you can look back on it, have another couple of cries about it, and then just feel satisfied in the fact aha you were able to go there and explore something so hard. It’s super therapeutic and important. 

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