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Christina
Aguilera can also whip your ass at Donkey Kong.
“I’m extremely good at video
games,” asserts the Staten Island, N.Y.– born,
Pennsylvania-raised singer between sips of Pellegrino in the
bustling bar of L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly
Hills. “People come over to my house after a
night of going out just to try to beat my scores. I have all
the top scores.”

Spend a little
time with Aguilera—after giving her swell new CD,
Back to Basics, a listen—and you
come away believing the petite platinum-blond with the
plus-size pipes can do whatever she sets her mind to.
And no monkey is going to stop her. “I love absorbing
information,” she explains, gesturing to a
coffee table book about pinup artist Alberto Vargas
she’s using as inspiration for her next video,
“Candyman.” “I’m always
looking to go new places. That’s hard sometimes,
because you’re setting yourself up for people
loving it or hating it, but I’m willing to take
that risk.”

As pop risks go,
Back to Basics is a doozy: an unapologetic
“concept album” in two parts inspired by
vintage soul, jazz, and blues. Disc 1 features retro
sounds and samples set to modern beats; the more
theatrical second disc reunites Aguilera with Linda Perry,
the out songwriter-producer behind the singer’s
2003 Grammy-winning ballad “Beautiful.”

“They’re like my babies, my fraternal
twins,” gushes Aguilera of the discs. “I
wanted to use elements of the music that influenced me, from
the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, and reinvent
them in a modern way. I accomplished exactly what I
wanted to do.”

The lyrics on
Back to Basics reflect a more hopeful, romantic
Christina, attributable largely to her marriage last year to
music executive Jordan Bratman. “I was in an
extremely heavy space during the recording of
Stripped,” admits Aguilera, referring to her
polarizing 2002 disc. “With Back to Basics I
was able to focus on a brighter, lighter side of
myself.”

As if on cue,
Bratman strolls into the bar to remind his wife that they
have dinner reservations in a few minutes. Aguilera lights
up. They’re clearly crazy about each
other—but in a way that seems sane, particularly
by showbiz standards. Before heading to dinner, Bratman
confirms that his new wife does have mad video-gaming
skills. Then Aguilera stands up onto a pair of do-me
pumps that match her red lipstick. “I have to go to
the bathroom,” she announces, “but while
I’m gone, Jordie can tell you what else
I’m good at—if you know what I mean.”
With that, she lets out a husky Mae West laugh. She
begins to step away, then says, “That was a
joke.” Uh-huh, right.

What is it about the vintage music that moves you so much?
It’s very real. It had grit, heart, and
emotion. When I was a little girl, I was introduced to
the music by my grandma and my mom. We used to go
listen to old records at a store in Pittsburgh. As soon as I
got an old record, I’d run up to my room, pop
it in, learn every lyric right away, come back down
and say, “Grandma, I learned it,” and act it
out for her in our dining room. I think also I related
to the pain in that music. Although I was only 6 or 7,
I had already dealt with a great deal of pain with the
abuse and witnessing all the chaos in my home. So there was
something I got about that music and I’ve always kept
it with me.

Do you remember any specific songs you used to perform?
B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”
was one of my standards. Then there were more modern
things like Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and
Roll,” and I sang Whitney Houston’s
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” at my first
grade talent show.

How did you set out to create Back to Basics?
I put together a CD of music I’m inspired by. I
called it the “producer’s
package” and I wrote a letter saying, “These
are songs that I’m inspired by. Please listen
to them, reference them, use bits and pieces,
experiment and enter this world with me.” And a lot
of people didn’t get it, but the people that
did are the main people on both discs. Actually, I was
surprised that Linda (Perry) got it so well. She really
dove in hard and listened to every detail that I had to say.

Linda was quoted as saying you two only had one fight on
this record. What was it about?

Oh, nothing. It wasn’t even a real fight.
Sometimes you’re tired when you come to the
studio, and we’re girls, we vent on each other, but
that’s what great friends are about and
that’s what great creators do together.
They’re able to let their guard down with each other
and whatever comes out, comes out. We’re very
passionate people. Get us in a room together and
there’s lots of different moods that go on.

Do you think the fact that Linda’s a lesbian has
anything to do with your connection?
It would be wrong to say it had anything to do with
being a certain label or stereotype, but I think
she’s had a hard road with some of the things
she’s experienced, as have I. We relate to each
other.

Do you remember your first exposure to gay people?
I can’t even remember. It was an immediately
accepted thing with me. I never see color. I never see
race. I judge someone based upon how good they are to
me, basically. In the entertainment business, you’re
around a lot of gay people and they tend to be the
talented ones—like my hair and makeup
team—and they’re always very kind and sweet to
me.

In 2003, you were honored by GLAAD for your music video
for “Beautiful,” which incorporated
images of a gay male couple kissing on a public
bench and a man transforming himself into a woman. Where
did the idea for the video come from?

The lyrics are based on loving things about you
that other people might be opposed to or make fun of
you for. A lot of the gay people that write me say
that me being true to myself and putting that in my songs is
inspirational to them. So it’s almost my tribute to
them, to let them feel that the turmoil they might be
feeling because they feel like outsiders is OK.

The part of you that relates to outsiders seems to come
from a very deep place for you.
Absolutely. I constantly felt like an outsider growing
up. Because I wanted to perform, that kind of put me
on the outs a lot. The other kids weren’t very
kind to me when my name appeared in the paper or when I was
on Star Search when I was 7. My mom would get threats. I was
threatened and I got the cold shoulder a lot merely
because of what I loved to do and who I was. So I
completely relate to anybody that feels that they ever
have to confine anything about themselves to please someone
else. I knew at a really young age that I would never
do that. Though I would feel helpless in many ways, I
would always be courageous and stand up for what I
believed in. That drive was instilled very young.

There’s a song on your new album called “Oh
Mother,” where you sing about the abuse
that was going on in your home as a child and the
feelings that your mother was going through. What does
she think of the song?

I wanted to play it for her in person, but my
schedule is so crazy I didn’t find the time, so
I called her and said, “There’s a song on the
next record…” When she heard it, she called me
and said, “I never knew that you knew how I
felt going through all that.” I have a lot of respect
for the fact that she was strong enough to get her and me
out of the situation.

Did she make a gradual decision to leave or was it
more sudden, like you both just took off in the middle
of the night?
There was a period where we were going back and forth a
bit. She would leave and he would talk all his Spanish
about how he would treat her like a china doll. He
knew how to romance her like that, and she would come
back a few times but finally she got out and stayed out. She
and I both feel that it’s important for us to get the
message out there that that kind of abuse is something
that stays with you. You can heal and you can make
sense of it later, but it’s a constant journey.

On “The Right Man,” you sing about your
wedding day and the fact that you chose to walk
yourself down the aisle, as opposed to having your
father or another father figure do it. What was it like
when that moment arrived?
It was a turning point in my life. I went through my
whole life not really ever caring or wanting [a father
figure], but when the time came around and everybody
started asking, “Who’s going to walk you down
the aisle?” it saddened me that I really
didn’t have a good answer. I have a good
answer, I think, for everything. It’s crazy that I
don’t have anyone really that represents that
for me. I have a few people that are close to me in
the business, but at the end of the day, I was like,
I’m a strong woman, I can do this. At
the end of the aisle is my husband. I’m
going to look at him.
When the actual moment came, I
didn’t imagine feeling the way I did. It was
emotionally overwhelming. I was shaking and thinking
how amazing it would be to have that man that resembled this
protector in your life, this man with those
“Don’t hurt my little girl” kind
of words, and feeling the pain of never having that. I
wanted to write about that because I thought, How many
other women must feel this?

Was it a huge relief emotionally for you to go from
taking care of yourself all the time to having
Jordan there to help take care of you?
You totally hit that on the head. I’ve been
providing for my family for a number of years now and
I’m always feeling like I hold the whole ship
up. I’m the team provider. If I let it go,
who’s going to take over? We’re getting
very therapy now—Who’s going to cradle me?
[Laughs]—but now, with my husband, I strongly
feel that I have someone.

Did you ever think you would be married—and
happily—at 25?
No. I never was the kind of girl to fantasize, Oh, I
want the white wedding and the picket fence and the
dog. I was super focused on my career and never
flinched, but Jordan and I just connected immediately
and I knew that I didn’t want to be without him.

Given that you’re a newlywed yourself, is marriage
equality for gay people something you believe in?
Yes. My trainer married her girlfriend last weekend and
we went. It was beautiful. I was so touched by their
vows to each other, I totally cried. They have some
disapproving family members who actually decided to be
present for the wedding. Afterwards, I wondered, Did they
get it? Did they see the love? I never get people that
think [being gay] is some kind of choice. You might be
able to suppress it, but why would you live life that
way? It really saddens me. I’ve heard stories of
parents saying, “I’ll be there, but I
can’t treat it as a real marriage.” Legally or
not, it’s still a unity of two people’s
love for each other.

Have you ever fallen in love with a gay guy?
[Laughs] That’s a really interesting
question. Now that I’m married, I guess I can
say I think I kind of did. Maybe. I was involved with
someone who had a gay past. I was in the relationship
knowing that.

That wasn’t a deal-breaker for you?
No. I’m a basically open-minded person.

Did you end up getting hurt?
It was a paranoia at times, like when you walk into a
room with a guy that you know has feelings for other
men, you’re like, Is he looking at the guy or
the girl over there? I don’t know if he’s come
to terms with it yet.

I would imagine there are a number of gay people in your
tour crew. Do you ever go out clubbing with them?
Absolutely. Are you kidding? If I work hard, I play
hard. So much fun. My best friend in the whole world,
Steve Sollitto, is my makeup artist, and he was one of
my bridesmaids in my wedding. He has such a good
energy, the most honest and sincere spirit. He was rumored
to be my lover for a minute because we were
photographed together all the time. We would crack up
because we were like, “Eww, we’re totally
brother and sister.” We do like to go out and
have a good time, though sometimes he likes to have
“boy time.”

Another collaborator of yours who happens to be gay is
photographer and director David LaChapelle.
I love working with David because he’s such a
free spirit. Throw an idea at him and he’ll
immediately come up with five other ideas that are the
same concept but with a twist. He goes beyond thinking
outside of the box.

He directed several of your videos including
“Dirrty,” which some people
criticized for its brazen, in-your-face sexuality.
The reason that I do it is not to create controversy or
anger in anyone, but I like getting people to talk
about it. I feel like there are so many rules and
regulations and stereotypes for just being who you are.
There are so many labels, for women in particular. If
you’re not sexual enough, you’re a
prude. If you’re overtly sexual, you’re a
slut. I don’t believe anyone should be judged
as long as they’re not intentionally hurting
anyone. I think it’s the people that have problems
with their own sexuality that try to pick on people
that are just being who they are.

How did you first learn about sex?
My mom sat me down and just had an open talk about it. I
think when you talk to kids in a mature way
they’ll surprise you. My mom was always pretty
amazing.

Speaking of sex, your spot-on imitation of Sex and the
City
’s Kim Cattrall on Saturday
Night Live
a few years back blew people
away. Did you ever hear from her?
No, but I think someone did say that she liked it. Some
people said they thought I was lip-synching.

Do you think having an ear for music gives you an ear for
imitating people?
I do, actually. It’s interesting. I do dog voices
and everyone says I should do cartoon characters. I do
Shakira and do a great Cher impersonation.

So do many of the people reading this magazine.
[Laughs] I do the “Do you believe
in life after love” Cher, but I don’t
really do it anymore.

How would you describe your relationship to your voice?
Do you think of it as something separate from
yourself? A gift you were given?
It comes from a place—I don’t know how to
describe it—here [touches her stomach] in my
soul. Whenever I connect with it, it’s a freedom for
me. It’s the voice of my soul and I feel it so
wholeheartedly that I think it comes out in my music.
I would hope. It’s not something that’s
pushed or forced. When I was little, though, I used to get
annoyed sometimes and I’d say, “When I
open my mouth and sing from my heart, why does it have
to be so loud?” but it was the only thing I knew, so
it felt very natural.

Given all that your voice can do, is it ever a challenge
for you to sing small. Do your producers ever tell
you, “Less is more, Christina”?
[Nods] I made a point to do that more on this record. On
“Save Me From Myself,” I don’t
think I’ve ever been heard singing so quietly or so
soft, but the emotion I wanted to convey was so vulnerable,
honest, and sincere. It’s the only song
that’s literally dedicated to my husband.
It’s thanking him for being the only person in my
life that can really reach in there to take me out of
whatever heavy space I might be in and let me realize
all the beautiful and amazing things around me.

What did Jordan think when he heard the song?
He was very moved. It stayed in his car, on repeat, for
the next few months. He really appreciates it.
He’s so sweet. I’m sorry, I’m gushing,
but I’m still a newlywed and it’s a big part
of my life. I always put my heart on the table.

When you first began dating him, was it difficult for you
to break down certain walls to open up to him?
I’m still breaking down walls. It’s an
ongoing process. I’ve had no real positive male
role model in my life—no father figure, no older
brother—and whenever I left home, I was presented to
a world of guys in the business who were hitting on me
when I was underage. It was a constant negative
reflection, so there are walls that go up.

When one thinks of other young women in show business,
they all seem to have family members as part of
their posse—father-managers, stage moms,
little sisters. You seem, from the outside at least,
like a one-person show.

I completely am that. By the time I was old
enough to drive, I didn’t have someone to hold
my hand at all. It’s been difficult, but it’s
built up so much character and I think I’m far
older than my years. I don’t feel 25. All my
dearest friends who I completely connect with tend to be
older. At this point, nothing gets approved without my
looking at it and crossing the t’s and dotting
the i’s. It’s a lot on my shoulders, but I
wouldn’t have it any other way.

How competitive are you when it comes to how your records
are selling and charting compared to the other
artists out there?
Of course I look at what’s out there and I take
it in. But everyone is here for a reason and everyone
is doing their own thing. I try to stay focused on my
path. If this album doesn’t sell as much as the last
one, then all I know is I gave it my best and I did
what I believed in wholeheartedly.

I have to ask you about the track “FUSS.”
It’s a clever title, right?

My guess, based on the lyrics, is that it stands for
“Fuck You Scott Storch” [the
high-living Miami producer with whom Aguilera
collaborated extensively on Stripped].

Basically, but by no means is it directed
towards him. It’s something that I needed to
get off my chest. It’s a celebration song, that I
accomplished something without the help of someone that
obviously didn’t find it important enough to be
a part of.

In Rolling Stone he said that he felt insulted
because he wanted a private plane to bring his
gear and posse to L.A. to work with you and you
wouldn’t “go to bat” for him. Was
the rift all about the plane?

I don’t know. I think we were in
different spaces. I just think that some people get
really affected by success. It’s sad.

Your “Lady Marmalade” collaborator Pink
released a song earlier this year, “Stupid
Girls,” about the seeming vacuousness of the
young female celebrity set. Do you share her sentiments?

I don’t think these are stupid girls. The
problem I have sometimes with the way they’re
portrayed is that…I think the term is “dumbing
yourself down” to appease other people to gain
some sort of popularity or success from it. As a
woman, that’s absolutely not what you should be
about, and as a person, you know. The thing is, you
gotta be smart to be doing this, too. The pictures you
see of these girls on their cell phones or in their
cars—you know, they’re working. Maybe on their
free time they like to go shopping. At the end of the
day, everyone has their reasons for what
they’re doing. So no judgement from me whatsoever.

Still, we don’t ever tend to see you talking on
your cell while you’re shopping Beverly Hills.
I’m not the girl that goes out and goes on my
cell phone all day. I’m into my BlackBerry, but
I hate the phone. I don’t go to places on purpose
to get photographed. That’s just not me. When
it’s time for me to create, I go into my
creative cave and hide myself so that when I come out, it
really takes people aback and it is exciting.

What other artists’ careers do you emulate?
I’m reading Etta James’s autobiography
right now. This woman has been through so much and
she’s always approached everything like, I
don’t give a fuck what you think about me.
I’m going to do it my way, so don’t get
in the way. I love that ballsy attitude, especially for a
woman. In her day, with racism going on in extreme and
having to face all that, that’s very powerful
to me. And of course, I love Madonna for her strength and
discipline. Her ideas are amazing and she tries to go above
and beyond in challenging herself. I love people who
stand up for what they passionately believe in and
don’t back down.

What’s your personal relationship with Madonna?
You very famously shared a kiss on the MTV Video
Music Awards a few years back.
That was our closest experience working together.
She’s always kind to me.

Were you surprised at all at the reaction to that moment?
Not really. When you go into something like that, you
know people are going to get shocked. Yawn yawn. I
thought it was a very interesting touch though.
[Laughs] And it was super fun.

Your former Mickey Mouse Club costar Britney
Spears has been in the press a lot recently, and
not always positively. What do you think when you
see the coverage of her?

I think the media has grown into such an unfair,
horrible monster, and I think it’s really sad.
She’s in a beautiful place in her life right now,
and I think it’s so unfair to judge anyone if
you’re not living in their shoes.

If there were to be a reunion of The Mickey Mouse
Club
today, what do you think it would be like?
I think it would be sweet. It would be totally
interesting to reconnect and reflect on how far
we’ve come. The drive and determination and the
talent that came off that show was just incredible.

At the time, would you all share your dreams and goals
with each other?

Yeah, we all were really passionate and ready to
work for it. I remember Janet Jackson was like the
“It Girl” for us, with “If” and
the Janet album. And we loved the cover of Rolling
Stone
with her on it.

Justin Timberlake was also a cast member. What’s
your favorite memory of touring with him a few
years back?
Just some of our talks on certain nights. It’s
really nice when you get to open up with a fellow
artist that does what you do. He’s such a great
guy. He’s just warm and personable and he knows the
work ethic that I’m under because he’s
under it as well. I like his efforts in trying to
change himself as well, which is apparent with this new
single. It’s fun.

Speaking of fun songs, I like that you sample your
breakout song “Genie in a Bottle” on
the song “Thank You.” Somehow, I had
gotten the sense that you were trying to distance
yourself from that song.

Oh, my God, I could never not embrace that song.
I thank God for it. It got my foot in the door and
introduced me to the world and gave me a voice to
share. I included it because it created a fan base for me,
and a lot of them have grown with me, and it’s
enabled me to have the creative freedom that I
cherish.

That song also incorporates voice-mail messages from some
of your fans. How did you choose which to include?
I ran a contest on my Web site asking for fans to speak
about how my music affected them or helped them
through difficult periods of their lives, how
I’ve touched their lives, and their responses were so
amazing. At first I was only going to run five voices,
and it turned into this whole amazing thing. I took
the backseat and let the song just be about them.

One young fan talking about considering suicide, and I
wonder if maybe he was a gay teen.
I don’t think anyone came out and said that. A
lot of what they had to say was how much they admired
the fact that I could be an individual and that I
don’t care about what other people think. That means
a lot to me.

What’s a compliment you received recently that
really moved you?
Etta James said I’m a very old soul and talked
about how smart I am, and I really appreciated that.

How would you describe this time in your life?
Peaceful.

With all you’ve got going on? Your
BlackBerry’s practically smoking.
Scheduling-wise, it’s pretty chaotic. I’m
talking about inner [peace]. I’m in a beautiful
place right now. I always feel corny speaking about
it, but it’s the honest truth. There’s no
negativity. I don’t welcome it in my life
anymore. I’m at a great place, a happy place, a
very, very happy place.

If you, as Christina today, could talk to Christina, the
little girl who listened to old records to escape
the pain of her childhood, what would you say to her?
I don’t know if I would say anything. Throughout
all those painful things that happened to me, I
learned so many things. It’s not the great
times that I am thankful for, it’s really the hard
times. You gain so much from being able to pick
yourself up again and get through it. That’s
why I’m big on never regretting anything. Each thing
that may feel like a mistake is a greater lesson
learned, not to sound cliché or corny, but I
sincerely believe that. I guess if I were to say something,
it would be to stay strong and keep pushing on.
I’m sounding like one of my songs.
[Laughs] But it’s true. You gotta keep going.

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