how xtina’s ”dirrty” changed sex in pop
Before Miley’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ there were Christina’s chaps.
On the cover of Stripped, the fourth studio album by Christina Aguilera, the singer is wearing nought but leathery pants, a black armband, and a lashing of eyeshadow. One of the world's biggest pop stars at the time, Aguilera had, until then, been more or less the Girl Next Door. Albeit with pretty cheeky undertones—"I'm a genie in a bottle / You gotta rub me the right way."
Going into pre-production for Stripped, her sophomore if you don't count a rather rushed Spanish-language and subsequent Christmas album (and you don't), Aguilera had just won creative control and taken the reins, fiercely rebranding herself as explicitly and unapologetically adult. Stripped was marketed as a leap into Womanhood and self-discovery. Much later it was made public that the singer has suffered mental health issues—her team officially calling it a "mental breakdown"—leading up to its inception. This had inspired the drastic conceptual shift.
"Allow me to introduce myself," goes the first line of the first song on Stripped. "I want you to get to know me… the real me." This was Christina's way of saying: All that shit before? That was a fabrication. That was marketing. This? This is real.
Aguilera's manager Steve Kurtz had been at the helm of her team for years. It was her professional break up with Kurtz that allowed Aguilera to leave behind the cookie cutter image she hated so much, that had apparently caused her so much anguish. As a result, Stripped wasn't so much a reinvention as an uncovering of the truth.
Lead single Dirrty, featuring Redman, was actually just about dancing with your friends in the club. Sweating, getting low, maybe getting a little turned on by proxy. Nothing too crazy. But the music video took otherwise innocent-enough lyrics—"Paid my dues, in the mood"—and turned them into a sexual anthem that, bear with me, literally changed the world. It also happened to be part of the "Two Rs" conspiracy, involving it, Nelly's Hot in Herre from earlier that year, and Right Thurr from the following year. But that's another article for another time.
The Dirrty video, shot and directed by David LaChapelle, depicted a re-vamped 21-year-old Christina (who was this close to styling her name Xtina) wearing a bikini top, assless chaps and teeny tiny underwear with an "X" on the butt. Sweaty, and bearing new labret and nose piercings, she is released from a cage, before strutting into a boxing ring, doing a few moves amidst the heaving throngs of sweaty, chiseled dancers, and then fighting and KO-ing a woman in a mexican wrestling mask. The video wraps with Christina knee-deep in water, whipping her hair around in concentric circles a la Willow Smith.
While the single itself wasn't aggressively beloved—it peaked at number 48 on the American Billboard charts, and garnered little radio play—the video was an instant hit. It was #1 on MTV's Total Request Live and was voted the fifth best music video in TRL history in a countdown that took place in 2008. Later that year it was voted the 9th Sexiest Music Video of All Time by FHM readers, and in 2013, it took out the number 2 spot on VH1's list of Scandalously Sexy Music Videos.
Viewers around the world seemed thrilled, fixated. And why shouldn't they be? Tits, ass, sex, absurdity, aggression. Practically a peephole into the average teenager's head.
Meanwhile, people above the age of thirty were—quite frankly—shocked and appalled. David Browne, a writer at Entertainment Weekly, called Aguilera "the world's skeeziest reptile woman." Time's review said that she "appeared to have arrived on the set direct from an intergalactic hooker convention."
Not long after, Saturday Night Live parodied the clip starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as Christina. "When people see this video," went Gellar's character in a ditzy, inexplicably Southern accent, "they gonna stop thinking of me as some blonde-haired, bubblegum, music-industry ho… and start thinking of me as an actual ho." During that same episode, Tina Fey joked that the clip had given her television genital warts.
In short: the Dirrty video… did things to people. It took all the late-90s bubblegum pop that MTV had been force-feeding us—Britney, Mandy, Monica—and threw it out the window. It bypassed suggestiveness and went straight to sex and madness. Sure, the adults were upset, but it showed a generation of tweens what their parents had been keeping from them for years. And it presented us with what we were sure to be looking down the barrel of: sexual independence and, if LaChapelle's vision was to be believed, a grimy fuck-fest of dance floors and underground fight clubs.
Aguilera's response to the media's criticism was a measured and unabashed one, telling Blender "When you are bold and open, artistically speaking, in music and in video, a whole bunch of people feel threatened by you, especially in Middle America. I'm in the power position, in complete command of everything and everybody around me. To be totally balls-out like that is, for me, the measure of a true artist."
While critics continued to reject the legitimacy of Christina's sexual openness—many citing (over and over and over again) the "simulation of masturbation" in the video as lewd—she simply said: "I think all my fans will have grown with me and appreciate my need to express myself."
And then came Beautiful. The second single from Stripped, and the ultimate "fuck you" to the haters. A song that insisted on self-love despite the critics: "Words can't bring me down."
Now, in this era of (attempted) acceptance and liberation, it's hard to imagine something so commonplace—soft-core sex and violence in film—causing such chaos and anger, but that may well be, in part at least, thanks to Dirrty and Christina Aguilera.
Looking back, what people said about it then is out-and-out misogyny. All of that discontent was aimed at a young woman in the public eye expressing her sexuality without the prop of a man. That scared people. It scared them in the same way that Madonna had before her, and Aretha had prior to that. It had people asking: don't these women have any shame? And Christina's answer was, simply: "No."
In its way, Dirrty paved a path for videos like Anaconda and Wrecking Ball. It paved the way for Fergie and Beyonce and for open sexuality from women in pop. And perhaps most importantly, it paved the way for Kylie Jenner's 2016 Halloween costume. And for all of that, Christina, we will be eternally grateful.
Text Isobel Beech
Screengrab via Vevo