When Christina Aguilera debuted, she was the natural rival for Britney Spears in the running for the pop princess crown.
Both girls came from the same Mickey Mouse Club beginnings, ran in similar pop-star circles, and sold a similar brand of coy teen pop that was more innocently suggestive than overtly sexual. The bubblegum pop cred Aguilera earned with her self-titled debut might have launched her to international fame, but it wasn’t quite what she was looking for long-term.
For her next major American release, Aguilera wanted to ditch her fake image in favor of something more telling of who she really was–something raw and sexy. Thus Stripped was born, the album that reinvented Aguilera as “Xtina” just three years after her entrance onto the scene.
Rather than introduce her new persona with “Beautiful” like the studio requested, Christina shocked everyone with her first single “Dirrty,” a rock/hip hop hybrid featuring rapper Redman.
Inspired by Redman’s “Let’s Get Dirty (I Can’t Get in da Club),” “Dirrty” is an aggressive club track about dancing and sex. “DJ spinning, show your hands/Let’s get dirty, that’s my jam/I need that, uh to get me off/Sweatin’ til my clothes come off,” Aguilera sings in the prechorus, demonstrating that the coy lyrics of yesterday have no place on Stripped.
“Dirrty” is followed by the interlude “Stripped Pt. 2,” which really drives the point of this album home. “Sorry if I ain’t perfect/Sorry I don’t give a (what)/Sorry I ain’t a diva/Sorry just know what I want/Sorry I’m not a virgin/Sorry I’m not a slut/I won’t let you break me/Think what you want,” Christina sings. She’s not living by anyone else’s expectations anymore, especially when it comes to her image–and she’s not going to feel bad about it.
In addition to breaking Aguilera away from her former clean-cut pop princess role, Stripped was intended to be her feminist stake in the ground with its strong theme of self respect. In the hip hop track “Can’t Hold Us Down,” Aguilera teams up with Lil’ Kim in order to take on double-standards between men and woman. “Call me a bitch cause I speak what’s on my mind/Guess it’s easier for you to swallow if I sat and smile…The guy gets all the glory the more he can score/While the girl can do the same and yet you call her a whore,” Aguilera says, pulling no punches to address the issues. R&B ballads like “Loving Me 4 Me” and “Underappreciated” take a stance on the importance of mutual respect of the whole person in a relationship and not sticking around in its absence.
Considering the strong showing for rock and hip hop on Stripped, there are a surprising number of piano ballads, none more famous than “Beautiful.” This second and arguably most famous single from the album is an assurance of inner beauty in the face of a world that preys on insecurities. The song earned praise for its production and vocals, and the video was praised for its portrayal of anorexia, LGBTQ issues, and bullying. “Beautiful” won the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance as well as a GLAAD Media Award. It might have the biggest legacy of any of Aguilera’s songs, as it’s still used as an anthem for the LGBTQ community. Other ballads to note are the Alicia Keys-penned “Impossible,” final single “The Voice Within,” and album closer “Keep On Singin’ My Song,” all of which are about trusting and standing up for yourself.
If nothing else, Stripped is a more personal album, giving fans way more of a view into Christina’s identity than that of her self-titled debut. Many of the songs are rather confessional, delving into her unhappy childhood with her abusive father and her breakup with her first love, Jorge Santos. The album’s third single “Fighter” is an arena rock song inspired by Aguilera’s unhappy childhood that she wrote with the intention of empowering women. While the lyrics of “Fighter” are a bit more general, she doesn’t hide who she’s singing about on the ballad “I’m OK”: “Bruises fade father, but the pain remains the same/And I still remember how you kept me so afraid.”
Reviews of Stripped were generally mixed; some critics were happy with the production value of the album’s creators and Aguilera’s vocal prowess, but this was certainly not the case for everyone. Many critics claimed that it was all over the place, swinging from soft piano ballads, to hard rock, and then over to hip hop in a seemingly random order. They aren’t wrong in this respect; the album does jump around a lot, and while some songs are transitioned by short interstitial tracks, not all of them are.
There are a lot of topics and themes being handled in the course of establishing what Xtina is all about. It’s also worth noting that at the time music critics (so many of them male) claimed that Christina’s harnessing of her sexuality directly challenged the feminist message she was sending with songs like “Fighter,” “Can’t Hold Us Down,” and “Underappreciated.” Thankfully, this distasteful showing of slut shaming didn’t color the lasting impact of the album; it’s mainly remembered for its feminist and LGBTQ anthems, strong themes of self respect, and Aguilera’s transition from cleaner bubblegum pop to a more mature sound.