Christina Aguilera’s Stripped was a watershed moment in 21st century pop
Original release date: October 22, 2002
Label: RCA Records
The words “dirty”, “filthy” and “nasty” snarl like warnings from a guard dog over the image of a woman’s arse, barely covered by chaps and underwear emblazoned with an ‘X’. She straddles a motorbike and rips through an industrial building before being lowered, via a cage, into a wrestling ring. There are flashes of glossed lips, thick black eyeliner, a Medusa piercing, ratty black and blonde hair and an outfit the Fast & Furious franchise should probably be paying royalties to.
This was our re-introduction to Christina Aguilera on her own terms. After releasing four albums fresh out of The Mickey Mouse Club class of 94, this was an assertion of her own artistry. A statement of intent having switched management and wrestled creative control off RCA. Even though the reinvention had more in common with Britney Spears’ jump between Oops!… I Did It Again and Britney, this was essentially her “It’s Britney, bitch” moment. America’s pop sweetheart couldn’t come to the phone in 2002, so instead we got her alter ego: Xtina.
Dirrty is one of the most aggressive songs ever written about acting slutty in the club. From the lyrics to the choreography to the way she walks in the video as if she’s trying to pop a balloon with each step, everything about it exudes more bossery than the combined membership of The Wing.
As a result, it was instantly venerated by women and gays, and completely terrifying to straight men. It copped a lot of flack at the time for its sexualised imagery, but if you actually tried to shag to it, you’d probably kill the person. Dirrty isn’t representative of the sound of Stripped as a whole, but it is the perfect choice of lead single for an album whose theme, above all else, is defiance.
Listed as an executive producer, Stripped was the first project Aguilera had autonomy over. Previously fobbed off as another cookie-cutter pop star whose vocal style was overdone and lyrical content weightless, Aguilera pushed back with a broad album of full-bodied pop bangers, personal guitar ballads and soul songs centred on themes of feminism, self-respect and LGBTQ+ rights – going sextuple Platinum in the UK and being honoured at the GLAAD Media Awards in the process.
This newfound freedom led her to some unexpected places in terms of sound. While the singles – Dirrty, Can’t Hold Us Down, Beautiful, Fighter and The Voice Within – are the most modern sounding and ideologically blatant, the majority of Stripped strikes out in various other directions. There’s an affinity with the sprawling, auteur approach that’s become increasingly common in today’s market. Think: Kesha’s Rainbow, Taylor Swift’s Reputation or Ariana Grande’s Sweetener – albums whose material may be scattershot but is always held together by the artist. Incidentally, a fighting spirit runs through all those albums as well. Stripped saw a virtuoso emerge from the confines of pop stardom; a move that has no doubt been influential on the artists who followed.
Is it approximately six songs too long? Yes. Does it lack cohesion? Absolutely. Does that matter? Only in the sense that it makes for a fairly manic listen front to back, ricocheting between rock guitar shredding, salsa and Mariah Carey-esque belters like a deranged family karaoke night. Otherwise, no. While the lack of cohesion does hold it back as a listening experience, it only further strengthened its point – which was Christina Aguilera positioning herself not just as one of the strongest vocalists of the 00s, but one of the best pop artists.
Stripped was met with mixed reviews, but that’s hardly surprising. After all, 2002 was a long way off legacy publications even entertaining the idea that mainstream pop music could have real value, and most critics chose to focus on her raunchy rebrand above anything else. Still, Stripped is best measured by its cultural impact on those it was always intended for – a mass audience of young people who, in the US and the UK at least, had spent much of the late 90s and early 00s being patronised by an industry that served them dynamic but spiritually void bubblegum pop washed down with empowerment slogans from the Spice Girls. Xtina coming through with an ambitious album that had no clear sound, a look that can best be described as “Boomtown: day four” and a thesis of sisterly empowerment akin to a drunk but supportive stranger in the women’s toilets, was, in hindsight, far more subversive than we gave it credit for.