Pain is rewarding, in every capacity," Christina Aguilera tells me after we've spent two days together. She's talking about a tattoo needle – she acquired some fresh ink commemorating her marriage last November – but Christina's interest in pain, and pleasure, is well documented. It takes me a little longer to get up the nerve to ask her about her genital piercing.
It's fascinating that Christina Aguilera subjected herself to this. It's an act of reckless courage that speaks volumes about her – this chick is fearless, sensual, unique and tough. When I bring it up, at a Hollywood restaurant as we knock back some sparkling water, Christina's eyes roll back in her head and she gently clenches the tip of her tongue between her teeth. "I have a high tolerance for pain," she says. "But that one brought me joy." Christina hasn't lost those defining qualities, but the diamond dazzler between her legs has since been removed – it sits in storage, "cataloged" alongside the assless chaps and risqué stage lingerie of her dark, introverted "Dirrty" phase. These days they are no longer necessary. Inspired by her lifelong love of vintage soul, blues and jazz, as well as her marriage, Christina, 25, has spent the past couple of years reveling in the mutual joys of the personal and professional satisfaction that has eluded her for so many years.
Christina is soft-spoken and open. Just the same, she rarely makes eye contact. When she speaks – in low tones that convey the contentment she's worked so hard to achieve in the last few years – her eyes dart around the room. It's clear she trusts what she's saying; it's less clear she trusts in who she's saying it to. Two words figure large in her everyday conversation: "whatnot" (an allpurpose space filler, as in, "I would sing and do my little dance and whatnot") and "love" (a constant refrain, applied to the following: colorful people, checking out other people's CD collections, Danny Elfman's scores for Tim Burton movies, organized messes, her labelmaker, watching Roseanne reruns on Nick at Nite and – most frequently – her new husband, Jordan Bratman).
When Christina first struck it big at age nineteen in 1999 with "Genie in a Bottle," she felt confined by the wholesome strictures of teen pop. She rebelled on her second album, Stripped, co-writing fourteen of her songs, involving herself in the production, pushing sexual boundaries and transforming herself into her scantily clad alter ego Xtina. Along the way, she was widely derided for dressing like a streetwalker and – in the memorable elocution of one Saturday Night Live skit – constantly shaking "her manhungry poon trap." But while the personal attacks flew, her music performed. Stripped sold 9 million copies worldwide, and the hip-hop-driven single "Dirrty" was followed up by "Beautiful," the "words can't bring me down" ballad with a video that took on body issues and sexual identity. The world began to notice that Christina was no one-trick pony.
Her new release, Back to Basics, is a double CD of new tricks on which she adds a unique, modern twist to the black music she grew up singing, and recasts herself as a modern pinup girl with a penchant for old-Hollywood glamour. It was during her world tour supporting Stripped that Christina formulated the game plan for her new look and sound, which she says "began as an attempt to realize what makes me wanna dance, to sing, to love, to appreciate, to enjoy life and to want to make music."
She found the common thread in the music that she had sung as a child, at block parties and at the local pool. Christina grew up in Pennsylvania, Texas and Japan – wherever her army-sergeant father, Fausto, was stationed. Fausto and her mother, Shelly, divorced when she was seven. She chronicled her father's domestic abuse on a song from Stripped, "I'm Okay." Music was always her way of coping with the pain in her life – from the age of two, she would line up her stuffed animals and sing to them. Sometimes she was drowning out the sound of her parents fighting.
After their divorce, Christina, her younger sister Rachel and her mother moved in with her grandmother, Delcie Fidler, in Rochester, Pennsylvania, a small Pittsburgh suburb. "My grandma was the first to realize that singing was something I did all the time," says Christina, "something I loved. For me, my voice and music was always an outlet. Growing up in an unstable environment and whatnot, music was my only real escape."
When Christina began singing in public, Grandma Delcie got a major kick out of watching the crowd's shocked response as wee Christina belted tunes far beyond her years – songs from the repertoires of Billie Holiday, Otis Redding, Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey. "There's a lot of meat in that music," Christina says. "I really connected with that pain. At a young age I just gravitated toward that." Christina and Delcie would travel to Pittsburgh to scour record shops for those "nitty-gritty" soul and blues numbers. Christina would learn these songs immediately and sing them through a dinky Radio Shack karaoke machine for her grandma, who'd shower her with constructive criticism. "She always taught me to go deeper within myself," she happily remembers. "If I was belting too close to the mike, she'd say, 'Pretend Daddy is over there asleep on the couch and you don't want to wake him.' She always gave me something to think about." To this day, she still refers to those records as her "fun music."
Once the Stripped tour ended, Christina escaped from the public eye. Not seeing her on TV or in the news, her grandma even called to ask what was up. Christina was laying low, methodically plotting her return to the spotlight. She was also spending quality time with a new man, Jordan Bratman. Soon, though, she had compiled a two-CD mix of songs from her past that would help define her vision to prospective producers, everything from the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and vampy numbers from Eartha Kitt to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" (along with Nina Simone's take on the same song), as well as Otis Redding's "Tramp" and more modern classics like Gang Starr's "Ex-Girl to Next Girl" and Xzibit's "Get Fucked Up With Me."
She sent the two CDs out with a mission statement: "It is time for me to make a soul record.... I want the feel of 'old' with the edge and heavy-bottom end of today's club beats and hip-hop-influenced tracks." She knew she didn't want to "go the obvious route" of using A-list hip-hop producers like Kanye West and Timbaland, because she felt they were beatmakers not necessarily interested in showcasing a singer's vocal range. ("Rappers don't need a lot of chord changes to make their shit sound right," she says.) She was looking for someone who responded to her two CDs of inspirations. DJ Premier of Gang Starr was definitely on her wavelength.
"I figured out he used tiny snippets of 'I Put a Spell on You' to make Biggie's 'Kick in the Door.' A lot of people wouldn't get that. It's genius." She began working with him and her old teammate Linda Perry, who wrote and produced on Stripped. Pretty soon, Christina saw the project diverging into two paths: Premier's up-tempo tracks, created with drum machines, unusual samples and synths; and Perry's dynamic live instrumentation incorporating strings, horns, even a Gregorian choir. As the solid tracks piled up, Christina decided on a double album.
"Her label told her a double album was a big mistake," says Perry. "And she said, 'I don't care.' So if the album fails or succeeds, she'll have to face up to that. But all I know is that the record sounds like nothing else out there–she definitely didn't go the safe route. To me, the record has already succeeded."
Christina downplays the confrontation with her label, RCA, as she downplays most confrontations at this point in her search for inner peace. But it's clear there was one and that she stood her ground with her label boss Clive Davis.
"There was definitely some hesitation at first," Christina says. "As a business decision, I'm really shooting myself in the foot to make a double record. It was a huge conversation, but Clive felt I deserved this. So I got my way."
Christina is the executive producer of Back to Basics, and she co-wrote each of the twenty-two songs. "Nobody is telling her what to do," says Perry. "She's making all of these decisions." Songs like "Makes Me Wanna Pray," "Slow Down Baby" and the first single, "Ain't No Other Man," are inspired by her courtship with Bratman. "Oh Mother" is a testament to her mom for packing up with her girls and leaving an abusive relationship. "Back in the Day" gives props to Etta James, Lady Day, Coltrane and Aretha the way that Stevie Wonder's ode to our musical forebears, "Sir Duke," shouted out Ellington, Ella, Basie and Satchmo. Then, out of nowhere, there's a dis track called "F.U.S.S.," a thinly veiled f-u to her hip-hop heavyweight Scott Storch, who produced seven songs on Stripped but did not work on her new album.
After calling out most of the hits they collaborated on, Christina rubs Back to Basics in his face, closing out the track with the verse "Looks like I didn't need you/Still got the album out." When I ask her about it, she's surprised that I've even figured out who the song is about, let alone that it doesn't quite jibe with her stated goal of alleviating all the drama in her life. "I write personal things because it's therapeutic for me," she demurs. "By no means am I trying to start anything. I am at a true place of peace and happiness. It wasn't written for anyone. I wouldn't give anyone that much credit. I just needed to get things off my chest."
I counter by pointing out that Storch recently bitched in Rolling Stone that Christina wouldn't send a private plane to fly his crew and equipment to L.A. to work on Back to Basics. "An airplane?" she says quietly. "I thought he was supposed to be a big baller." For all her evident changes, a little drama is never far from hand.
But enough with the drama and whatnot. Back to the matter at hand: Back to Basics. Christina likes to drink, and she used alcohol as her secret weapon during her sessions with Perry. On "Save Me From Myself," another cut about her husband, Christina wanted a vulnerable and raspy timbre. "We used Makers Mark on that one," she says. Other cuts called for sake and hot toddies to loosen up her pipes. Sometimes she'd just hang out with Perry and talk into the wee hours over a bottle of wine. (Christina is a night owl and hates mornings, preferring to sleep through them if her schedule abides.) But when it came time to buckle down, Christina never dawdled. "When it was time to have fun, we had fun – there were plenty of nights of drinking wine or whatever," says Perry. "But she was also so calm and focused."
Throughout the sessions, Christina shocked the veteran Perry with her musical acumen. "She's not a player, but she can really explain herself musically," Perry says, adding that Christina's ambition was constantly pushing her. "I don't even know where some of this shit came from. When we were recording 'Candyman,' I was laughing – it's swing music with a hip-hop beat! When that song comes out as the second single, people are going to go, 'What the fuck is this shit?' It's awesome!" Perry also says that Christina's musicmaking aspirations extend decades beyond Back to Basics. "Christina's got a really big plan here, and only she knows what it is. But I know that twenty years from now, she wants people to refer to her as she refers to Aretha, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. She knows that in order to do that, she has to go out on a limb." Say what you will about Back to Basics, but it's impressive for Christina to see such an ambitious undertaking all the way through. Overhauling her image, conceptualizing her album, overseeing every facet of production down to the CD booklet – it's control-freak perfectionism worthy of Madonna.
The day before I first meet Christina, she received her first finished copy of B.T.B. "with the cellophane and the little sticker and everything," and it made her swell with pride. What are her expectations? "I don't like to compare records from project to project," says Christina. "I just hope for the best. I hope people listen to it with an open mind. I hope it takes people to another place. Even if it's for only three minutes in one song."
Christina can't overstress the "peace" that has enveloped her in the past few years. Last time she was on the cover of Rolling Stone, in 2002, Christina was singing the praises of casual sex – literally, in a song called "Get Mine, Get Yours" – and she laughs out loud when I remind her that she said her ideal dates were "boys with flava." If she was looking for a mensch with flava, she was in luck. "I got myself a nice Jewish guy!" she says about Bratman, with teeth beaming like the fat rock on her finger. Christina and Bratman met in Atlanta when she was in the studio working on Stripped; he worked for her management company. "I was ready to give up on men," she says. "At that point I'd never had a positive male in my life, ever. I had a lot of walls up. But Jordan kept proving to me that he was there for me." She remembered the time before Stripped as "a rough patch, with the piercings and all that." Along with the turbulence of her childhood pain and her feelings about the men in her life, she was also coping with professional difficulties, having recently severed ties with her managerial team, who she feels overworked her and also greedily encouraged her to keep riding the lucrative pop wave. "At that point I'd just had it, in every sense of the word," she says. "I was going through a lot of personal stuff. Even my hair color going dark. I was in a dark place."
As music had been before, Bratman was a way out of that place. She wrote a song for Back to Basics about finally letting down her guard, titled "Understand": "There were many walls you had to climb/If you really wanted to be mine." He never hounded her; he became a trustworthy friend, her only shoulder to cry on. Soon enough the pair were inseparable. A tattoo on her left forearm says, in Spanish and Hebrew, i love j.b., always. "This one I got right in the beginning of the Stripped tour, right in the beginning of Jordan and my relationship," she says before swiveling around and hiking down her pants to show me her latest design, on her lower back. "This one's my wedding tattoo. In Hebrew it says, 'I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine.'"
The couple married in Napa Valley, California, in an emotional ceremony. She considers herself more spiritual than religious – "I believe in God, and I'm connected to my spirit, my inner light," she says – and therefore was totally down with a Jewish wedding service. For probably the first time in her life, she couldn't hold her own on the dance floor. "We danced the hora, and I didn't know what I was doing at all. But being bounced on the chairs was one of the funnest things in the world!" Christina feels like the luckier half of the match. "I wouldn't date myself," she says.
I ask her what he's like. "He's got a supercomforting, supermellow warm sincerity about him," she says. "I'm so up and down emotionally sometimes, but he's able to reach in there and pull me out." She's in a better place, but even with her husband sleeping next to her she still has rough nightmares. "It comes out in violence sometimes," says Christina. "The other day I dreamt I was held at gunpoint. And I had a really bizarre one recently with animals ripping each other's flesh off. It was really graphic and insane." So she consulted a dream-interpretation book. "I don't know why, but the book said because of that dream I am destined to something great. With the record coming out, that made me really happy." (I asked her where I could buy this bizarrely optimistic dream book.) However you interpret the dreams, it's clear that Bratman has rescued Christina from the deep, dark place that she's ever capable of coiling herself into.
She's protective of him as well. The first time I meet her – at Le Deux, a nightclub in Hollywood – I ask if Jordan will be joining us on our ensuing adventure, miniature golf. "If you're nice to him," she says cautiously.
Tonight, Christina is playing the role of a sexy calendar girl, in blue jeans rolled up to her calves, red heels, a baby-blue sleeveless cashmere hoodie, hair pulled back and red-hot lips. Still, miniature golf is right up her alley (she and Bratman actually rented out the Putting Edge a couple of nights after we went there, for a friend's birthday party). Christina loves nerdy fun and instigates many a latenight board game with family or her dancer friends. "I break out the Taboo and the Scattergories," she says.
As her driver goes out to the limo to retrieve the bottle of champagne that we picked up on the way to the Putting Edge, Jordan strolls into the blacklit arcade, and Christina cracks a smile. Bratman fits his advance billing – not too much was revealed to me, but he's obviously chivalrous, confident, kind and, like a good partner, tries once or twice to help her cheat on her score. It's after midnight, and the newlyweds run around like little kids, facing off in a race-car-driving game and going head-to-head in air hockey. On the twelfth hole of mini golf, where a player must putt around a large pillar to reach the cup, they go on ahead. And as I'm lining up my putt, they whisper to each other, and she plants a sweet kiss on his lips. For that one brief moment, behind the pillar, they have the whole world to themselves.