Queen Christina

When you’re at Prince’s party, all earth-based reality is negotiable. Everything at a Prince show gets suffused with an erotic glow. Women look hotter, genders get fluid, animals strike curious poses—it’s crazy. Look: There’s Salma Hayek in a black dress, bending forward on a sofa for some heart-stopping décolletage. There’s Marilyn Manson, escorting fedora-topped burlesque queen Dita Von Teese. There’s Paris Hilton canoodling with Stavros Niarchos. Heath Ledger canoodling with Michelle Williams. Cameron Diaz canoodling with Justin Timberlake. It’s like an A-list Eyes Wide Shut up here in the dark, VIP-only nightclub Teddy’s in L.A.’s lavish Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. And there, moving smoothly behind the crowd-parting prow of an all-business bodyguard, is a petite, platinum-blond synthesis of the whole retro-futurist, glam-louche, New-Old-Hollywood spectacle: Christina Aguilera.

In recent years, Aguilera’s look has been changeable to unrecognizability: from blond to raven-haired to redheaded, coquettish to slutty to whatever it is you are when you’re in a Madonna soul-kiss sandwich with Britney Spears. But however you described her, words like elegant and classic probably went unmolested. Not tonight. Though she’s club-casual in white V-neck cashmere hoodie, dark jeans, and leopard-skin high heels, Aguilera’s spit-curl coif, bright red Kewpie doll lips, and sparkling ruby barrette give her the look of an R&B Jean Harlow. She’s even accessorized down to a red RZR phone, although she doesn’t use it that much. “I’m a total two-way girl,” Aguilera explains.

This is Aguilera 3.0: a Jazz-Age Broadway-baby songbird. And from the looks of things—let’s see if I get this right—girlfriend is working it. “I really try to live out whatever I’m doing with the music in my life,” says the formidably self-assured 25-year-old. “Like now, even when I’m only going to be in the studio, I never go without bright red lipstick.”

Partially produced by jazz-archivist hip-hop DJ Premier, Aguilera’s new album, Back to Basics,due to drop in a couple of months, blends a vintage-soul sound with state-of-the-art beatsmanship to form a chic, retro-vintage hip-hop showcase for her outsize voice. Interweaving theatrics with a Weimar-cabaret theme, it is decidedly a concept album. “In the end, it’s really cool to just follow a set vision,” she says. “I think it makes for a better product.” And the vision is a bold one, if not in ways previously associated with the buttless-chaps-clad provocateur.
“This whole record to me is very feel-good,” she says. “It has a lot of good energy. I’m in the happiest place that I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’m very peaceful. I don’t feel kind of agitated or upset about everything.” To promote the album, Aguilera is planning a tour of jazz clubs, including the blue-chip Blue Note, a New York institution. Hearing this news, some may imagine the ghost of Ella Fitzgerald scatting foul oaths in the wind, but it’s also kind of awesome. Imagine for one second Aguilera’s former rival Britney Spears attempting something like this—the idea is insane, a joke. But with the audacious, nuclear-voiced Aguilera, who got nasty in public with much grimier originality than Spears’s Hefnerian pigtails-and-letter-sweater cliché, it’s nearly credible. After all, Aguilera has offended much stronger sensibilities than jazz snobbery in her career.

Whatever ruckus she’s raised, it certainly gets her respect here among the boldfaced names at Teddy’s, where a famous visage or an ultraviolet wrist stamp are all that prevents brisk ejection onto dusty Hollywood Boulevard. A cocktail-table nook is discreetly emptied of patrons as we coast up through the parting throng and alight there, Aguilera sitting down beside her new husband, Jason Bratman.

Although the two are clearly pop royalty, there’s a real knockabout vibe to the young couple, laughingly nudging each other and sipping Cristal, and this has a lot to do with Bratman. A nice little Jewish guy from New York, the 28-year-old music-marketing exec lacks Diddy-style juice and, therefore, doesn’t immediately strike one as the sort to land a sexpot alpha female. He ambles unassumedly through the modelizing throng, a serene smile on his roundish, stubbly face. In a room where many men wear a thousand bucks in hair products alone, he’s rocking a red Yankees base ball cap and camouflage pants. But he’s clearly a cuddle magnet for Aguilera, who prior to this has always seemed so alone out there, such a ferocious band of one. Now she’s on a conga line of two, following behind Bratman, hands on his shoulders, butt wiggling to the house music as they leave the nook for an even more privileged vantage point.

We’re escorted through a corridor and up to a small, cordoned-off section of a balcony crowning this already exclusive event with an unobstructed view. The two compact Bratmans, flanked by security hulks as champagne flutes periodically manifest from the ether, lean out against the rail overlooking the ballroom floor. We’re joined by a few close friends—Justin Timberlake, Nick Lachey, another guy Aguilera refers to as “an old Mouseketeer friend.” Before long, His Purple Badness takes the stage.
In a shimmering orange sport jacket and turquoise guitar, Prince shares vocals with a belting, Afro-ed soul sister and two preposterously hot backup singers in go-go skirts with Ikettes moves. Aguilera has met The Artist before, and at five-two could even look him in the eye (“He actually seemed smaller than me,” she says). As the funk juggernaut commands the room, Aguilera gazes demurely down at the scene.

At one point, when a deeply intoxicated white guy is pulled from the crowd and forced to…dance, sort of, Aguilera and Timberlake crack up, bending over the railing. “Man, that’s a cool step,” Prince says as the guy exits. “I’m stealin’ that.”

And when I look over at the petite singer beside me taking in the petite singer onstage, I realize something. Maybe it’s the music, maybe it’s the distorting proximity to stardom, maybe it’s the neuron-addling Cristal, but for a moment the idea seems perfectly plausible. A giant talent in a tiny body. A flair for the brash and theatrical. A flagrant lewdness that’s part of the art.

Is Christina Aguilera the female Prince?

Maybe. Although you’d have to say that Prince is the female Prince. Maybe Aguilera is the female Eminem, that other compact, bleach-blond powerhouse from humble origins, whom also suffered an abusive parent of the opposite sex and was subjected to the fangs of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. (Triumph’s dis for Eminem: “My mom was a bitch, too, but I don’t write songs about it.” Triumph’s dis for Aguilera: “It’s like watching porn but the music’s not as good.”) More crucially, they both excelled in a traditionally black musical idiom and were completely accepted into its power structure. This makes them practically siblings (no wonder they hate each other).

Aguilera’s singing bears only superficial similarities to the his- trionic melismas regularly oversung on American Idol and its predecessor Star Search (on which she appeared as a child). She has much greater control, force, shading, and coloration than most pop ululaters, and her voice has long been both huge and oddly mature. “She has an amazing, God-given tone,” says Geffen chairman Ron Fair, who signed Aguilera after a stunning a cappella performance in his office when he was in A&R at RCA. “But it’s also her ability to subdivide harmonies, what she hears when a chord is played, what springs into her mind, what her musical and stylistic impulses are, and even her way of viewing the universe—it all comes from a really highly evolved intellect. When you can go from Herbie Hancock to Nelly to Andrea Bocelli to your own stuff, you know you’re something pretty special.”

She performed Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” on a talent show, nailing every riff and hyperarticulated note, including the dog-whistle altissimos at only 10 years old. Legend also has it that Jessica Simpson was scared off from a vocal audition because it was coming after hers.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that story,” Aguilera told me at dinner before the Prince show, laying the groundwork for a night of Cristal with a flute of Veuve Cliquot. “She’s said that a few times.”

You don’t think it’s true?
“Oh no, I know it’s true.”
Aguilera was a small, glowing presence across the booth from me in a candlelit French-Mediterranean place in West Hollywood. White-blond hair pulled tightly back, gold chains dangling down the V-neck of her sweater in a suggestively directional manner. One chain’s pendant was a gold nautical anchor. Another’s was a charm-bracelet locket shaped like a tiny book, inscribed “My Album.”
After a quick cell-phone consultation with her husband—“Hey, Baby, what’s that salad you like here?”—she orders something leafy, plus the filet mignon. It’s refreshing to see a body-conscious L.A. performing artist drink alcohol and eat steak, but it also makes sense in this case: Large, robust mammals must die to feed that voice.
Though still so young, Aguilera has earned a certain world weariness having survived the epic Christina Aguilera saga thus far. She was part of the ’90s-teen-pop’s graduating class, and yet her vocal talents have always placed her well apart from her peers. A star at 7 (singing block parties and soon doing the national anthem for Penguins and Pirates home games), a TV performer at 12 (with Britney, JC, and Justin on The All New Mickey Mouse Club) and a breakout phenomenon at 18 (with the number one hit “Genie in a Bottle”). Not bad, considering the less-than-ideal conditions off stage.

In elementary school, she’d been harassed and threatened frequently enough by fame-resenting Pittsburgh bullies that her family had to move. More hurtfully, her father, Fausto, whom they left when Aguilera was 7, battered her mother. Even Aguilera’s earliest memories of music are shaded with the melancholy from the trauma. “It was my only way to escape the abuse,” she said. “I would run up to my room and listen to the soundtrack to The Sound of Music. I’d open my windows and sing along, “The hills are alive…”

Of course, none of this came through in her stage-managed debut, Christina Aguilera, with its flirty bubblegum hits “Genie in a Bottle” and “What a Girl Wants.” But the wave of fame that followed brought more trouble. An abusive father led to a manager whom she sued for, among other things, fraud (the case was dismissed after a settlement was reached) — along with betrayals by staff that included a trusted bodyguard, “like a big brother to me,” whom she said was stealing from her. When success allowed her at 20 to seize the reins for her follow-up album, Stripped, the notoriously rauncy single, “Dirrty” and scandalous David LaChapelle-directed video recast the singer as a kind of New Skank on the Block. Lost in ensuing media froth was just how angry and sad a record the largely Aguilera-written Stripped really was.

“I was not the kind of artist that had my mommy hold my hand and my daddy managing my career,” she said emphatically, over dinner. “It was just me. I was in New York at 15 all by myself, and eventually, it was a hard space to be in.” The album’s main thrust was largely misunderstood. “Stripped was really me saying everything that was inside, stripped down to who I am, regardless of everyone around me.” She called it “an accumulation. After years of being told how to dress, what to wear, not to be provocative in the least — and I’m a very sexual person, it’s just part of my nature to portray that in my art; it’s part of my artistic expression. And my management was so unsupportive, making me do these stupid online Beanie Baby contests” — pitching her hard to the pubescent demo. “This whole image was pushed on me — and thank God for it, it got my foot in the door — but it was really hard for me. I had a lot of stuff pent up.”

But while recording the edgier Stripped provided catharsis, it also brought yet more guy problems — in the form of a producer who left deep wounds of one sort or another (she will not go into specifics). “He’s not worthy of mentioning,” she said. “It’s in the past, and I’ve buried the whole thing. I’ll just say he’s a despicable person and a sorry excuse for a man.” One more in a long line of despicable males that left her doubting whether there was any other kind.

When Aguilera was beginning work on Stripped, Ron Fair, who’d become her mentor, had the inspired suggestion that she try working with a female producer. He hooked up with Linda Perry, former singer-songwriter from the early 90’s San Fransisco alt-rock band 4 Non Blondes. They immediately hit it off, and within a few months Perry happened to play Aguilera a song she’d been working on, the career-transforming hit “Beautiful.” The ballsy big-girl ballad let Aguilera take a significant step past the holographic pop porn she’d come up on and into something a little deeper. Call it neo-soul.

“The first time she sat down at the piano and started singing it, “Aguilera recalls, ” I was like, ‘I have to sing this song!’ I completely related to it in that moment in my life, I felt so vunerable. In the bridge when it says, “No matter what we do, no matter what we say/ We’re the song inside the tune/Full of beautiful mistakes….” It takes a strong connection to oneself to say words like that.”

It’s 11 pm on a Thursday at Perry’s recording studio in North Hollywood. Flanked by a golden Buddah and lit by candles, a demure studious-looking, Aguilera sits sipping a large coffee , wearing a white tee over wrist-covering long sleeves, hair pulled back into a schoolmarmish bun, listening intently to Perry’s latest mix. Baroquely pierced and tattooed, Perry sits behind the console in a reggae-ish stocking cap. The olive-skinned producer with the kohl-rimmed eyes looks — if you can imagine this — like a pretty Keith Richards. “Okay, here we go,” she says.

From wall-mounted speakers, a spooky ’20s carnival fantasia comes swirling up, a female barker’s voice promising thrills and chills with the dark costs implicit in the musical drama. Welcome to the greatest show…greatest show on earth. Then, as the orchrestra sweeps into a striding Abbey Road-evoking chord progression, a sinewy, stadium-sized alto comes soaring over it. The contrast between that voice and the tiny bookish-looking source of it sitting before me raises haris on the back of my neck.

When it stops, Aguilera nods and glances at her notepad. “It’s cool,” she says. “I love the music, but I can’t hear enough of you.” It’s Perry doing the barker’s voice. “Also, I lost some of the epic sound on the chorus.”

Drawing from Perry’s extensive vintage-record collection, the album uses an orchestra, choir, string quartet, and jazz horn players, plus jury-rigged recording techniques like a beat-up kick drum mike with fabric over it for the scratchy blues-field-recording sound of “I Got Trouble,” as well as a bit of method singing, Aguilera sang “Trouble” when she had a cold and drank Maker’s Mark to perform the raw-sounding “Save Me from Myself.” The touchstones are Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Judy Garland –“what I used to call my ‘fun music’ when I was 8 years old,” Aguilera says.

“I think he’s a great little singer,” says Etta James, now a friend, who hears some of Billie Holiday’s sadness in Aguilera’s voice. “For a young girl like that to be singing real songs? I mean she’s headed for the pop market, but she can do everything. She’s like somebody that was born at another time. An old soul.”

A gritty rock yin to Aguilera’s R&B yang, Linda Perry had to build up significant trust with Aguilera to lead her into exploring the less Star Search-winning sides of herself. “I would never be able to be as open with anybody else,” says Aguilera. “Like that song ‘Save Me from Myself.’ [It’s recorded] upclose on the mike, with no ad-libs, no nothing, and that’s so not like me. No effects, no reverb –and i’m a reverb queen. Every scratch, every little imperfection is there. I think we push eachother to go places that we normally wouldn’t go.”

Aguilera is dedicating this emotionally naked song to Bratman, whose role in her life seems to be exactly what the title suggests. They met during the debacle with her Atlanta producer, became close friends immediately, and then, when Bratman moved out to L.A., inseperable.

“Before Jordy I don’t think I’ve ever encountered what a real man is,” she says. “Most men that I’ve known in my life — and growing up with an abusive father, trying to find a father figure in sketchy guys — tended to be guys twenty years my senior, often married, and generally just dogs. That’s what I thought men were. He’s the first guy that treated me like I feel a woman should be treated.” And then Aguilera makes me realizes just how bad it must have been before Bratman: He’s a very strong person, a strong man, who will carry me through any difficult time in my life, who is always there to save me. He can get me out of my own box, my own depression. He’s my angel. He saves me in so many ways.”

I’ve got to believe its a true testament to his love that Bratman willingly subjected his undesecrated flesh to the tattoo needle (Aguilera, of course, is copiously inked and pierced.) As a wedding gift, hip-hop graffiti artist Mister Cartoon gave the couple a set of his-and her tattoo designs. On her back: I AM MY BELOVED AND MY BELOVED IS MINE. On his arm: I LOVE CA FOREVER, but in hebrew characters. During the wedding, which featured white roses, crystal chandeliers, a five-tier wedding cake, and a hymn from the soul-saving sountrack to The Sound of Music, Aguilera was coaxed into singing a song, the Etta James classic “At Last.” And when she reached the end, Branfman – ever the goofy dude from Riverdale, hardly believing his good luck — ran onstage, hoiseted the satin-clad package , and with a yard-wide grin yelled, “This is my fucking wife!”

Etta James remembers meeting Bratman at a party, “I walked up to him and said, ‘You gonna take care of her?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I do, I do, I do.’ And I said, ‘Well you make sure you take care of a woman like that.’ She’s like a l’il doll baby, you know?”

Four months into married life and eighteen years into stardom, Aguilera seems prepped for a new and quite different path, even attempting some equanimity with her sister divas. “I think Kelly Clarkson has a really powerful voice,” she says. “She’s really good. And when I met her, she was a real sweetheart. Some of these girls, like even Lindsay Lohan, when I run into them they’re so complimentary, saying how they grew up listening to me and all this. And I forget, I mean, I feel young still, but these girls are even younger. But I never want to get to the place where I’m so…I dunno, diva-ed out for people that have admired me to be around me.” Like it was for Aguilera to be around say, Mariah Carey. “She was never cool to me,” she says, “to the point that one time we were at a party and I think she got really drunk, and she had just really derogatory things to say to me in front of…” she trails off. “but it was at that time that she had that breakdown, so she might have been very medicated.”

The question is, does showbiz generosity plus a cozy new marriage signal the softening of Christina Aguilera? Not if you believe the club track “Still Dirrty” in which she assures her fans that she’s “Still got that nasty in me/ Still got that dirrty degree…/Still got that freak in me.” Then there’s the song “Nasty Naughty Boy,” which includes the rare poetry, “Now you better give me a taste /Put your icing on my cake.” I ask how her mom feels when her daughter gets so risqué.

“My mom has been so supportive, she really has,” Aguilera says, before exiting the restaurant into a blinding fireflight of paparazzi and climbing into her white Rolls-Royce.

“And you know?” she adds, suddenly arching her shapely eyebrows. “I don’t get it from nowhere.” She laughs, “Let’s just say that.”

2006