On Bionic again:
"Bionic” wasn’t this commercially acceptable, packaged-up, proper thing. But it was an experimental, beautiful piece of work that will live on in time and make its mark later on in its life. It was very artistic."
After a turbulent two years taking in divorce, critical drubbings and dramas on stage and off, Christina Aguilera is back with a new album – and the same fiery attitude. She tells Craig McLean what’s made her such a tough cookie.
In a dimly lit bedroom in Beverly Hills, Christina Aguilera and I are discussing the current crop of television-talent-show feuds.
The octave-straddling superstar, who has sold 43 million records and won five Grammy Awards since her debut single, Genie in a Bottle, in 1999, is a judge and mentor on the American television programme The Voice (which was adapted for the British audience by the BBC earlier this year).
The Voice has since engaged in an intense ratings war with Simon Cowell’s American X Factor. Also at war, more importantly, are the celebrity judges on each of the shows.
On The X Factor, the rapper Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey are at such loggerheads that it’s become national news.
Even President Obama has commented, 'I think they are going to be able to sort it out, I am confident. I am all about bringing people together, working for the same cause.’
On The Voice, there is constant on-screen bickering between Aguilera and Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5. How much of that is real, I ask her, and how much is a pantomime for the benefit of the television cameras?
As she so often does in response to a question (I’ve interviewed her before), Aguilera laughs – a hard, rattling, not-really-that-amused laugh.
'Um, you know, I think that we’re [Adam] both really passionate people. I live very much in the moment on The Voice – I don’t watch the show back – I feel what I feel, I say what I say, and then I leave it be.
'And I go home and either be with my son [four-year-old Max] or go into the studio and record my own record. I compartmentalise it.’
Aguilera talks quickly and at length, often without a pause, and sometimes without answering the question.
When I press her, she adds that 'at the beginning we all got along great. But then we started filming and I was just taken aback – I was not expecting how competitive Adam was. He wants to win!’
Out comes that laugh again. 'And words were tossed round. And if a guy’s gonna come and try to get in there and be competitive with me, well, I’m kind of a ball-buster myself. ’
Still, Aguilera and Levine did manage to play 'nice’ long enough to record Moves Like Jagger together. Their collaboration was the second biggest-selling single in Britain last year. And the song nicely rebooted Maroon 5’s career.
'I don’t think they’ve experienced that kind of success before [Moves Like Jagger],’ she says, pointedly.
The Los Angeles band went from being a somewhat lumpen funk-rock combo to taking on a more swaggering musical attitude – their recent hit single Payphone is evidence of a definite post-Jagger style shift.
Christina Aguilera is sitting cross-legged on a crumpled hotel bed. Her blonde hair tumbles down her back, her knuckle-duster jewellery glints.
The lights are low, and so is her neckline. Aguilera is wearing (just about) a slashed and torn Mickey Mouse T-shirt, revealing bras (plural) and a lot of cleavage.
On the floor lies a pair of 6in-high Christian Louboutin stilettos encrusted with metal spikes. 'Those are don’t-f—-with-me shoes,’ the 31-year-old states with some pride.
Aguilera was born on Staten Island into a family rocked by domestic violence. Her Ecuadorian father was an American army sergeant and his job took the family across the country. When she was six her parents divorced.
Two years ago she told me that music had provided a refuge during her childhood.
'Soul and blues spoke to me at an age when many would think I was too young to appreciate it. I was six and I was listening to Billie Holiday! I related to blues and soul because I never had a safe haven growing up.
'It was a very chaotic environment to grow up in.’
Aguilera, her mother and younger sister relocated to Pittsburgh. The little girl with the big voice started to make a name for herself at local talent shows.
When she was 13 she won a place on the television show The Mickey Mouse Club where she sang, danced and acted alongside fellow future stars Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling.
The exposure led to a record deal in her mid-teens. But fame was already coming at a cost: she was bullied at school by jealous peers. In our 2010 interview she insisted these trials only made her stronger.
'I look back at that and I smile, in a way. Because it was such training for the bigger picture, for dealing with nastiness and negativity.’
Aguilera’s defiance worked its way into her music, too. She moved on from the squeaky-clean teen-pop of her early singles towards something altogether more adult.
On her fourth album, 'Stripped’ (2002), she took control of much of the song-writing, unveiling a harder sound and, in the video for Dirrty, an extremely raunchy new look.
She rebranded herself as Xtina, a hard-bodied diva with multiple piercings and buttock-baring chaps. Not that she subsumed her vocal talents in a welter of provocative sexual imagery: the album’s second single, Beautiful, was a life-affirming ballad that proved a worldwide hit.
We’re here to talk about 'Lotus’, her seventh studio album, which I am permitted to hear only once, immediately before the interview.
It is a dance-flavoured pop record and is being billed as her comeback after two turbulent years away from the recording studio. But, I am told by her publicity team, we are not to rake through any rumours pertaining to those two years.
It seems that earlier in the day another journalist mentioned something that made Aguilera and/or her people unhappy.
The question is, what?
The poor sales of her album 'Bionic’ (2010) and the resulting cancelled tour? The critical and commercial flop that was her first big film role in Burlesque (2011)? Her divorce from her husband of five years, Jordan Bratman?
Fluffing a line of the American national anthem at last year’s Super Bowl, then, seven days later, stumbling on the stairs at the Grammy Awards? Or perhaps somebody asked about the night she spent detained at the LAPD’s pleasure last year.
She and her boyfriend, Matthew Rutler (they met during the making of Burlesque on which he was a set-assistant), were pulled over in West Hollywood at 2.45am.
He was charged with driving under the influence. As for Aguilera, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s spokesman said, 'When she got out of the car she couldn’t stand. She didn’t know where she was or her own address.’
All of this added up to the suggestion that Aguilera’s life was in free-fall.
Last month quotes appeared online – apparently given to a journalist at the American magazine Billboard – in which she claimed she’d been subject to years of intense pressure from her record company to keep her yo-yoing weight under control.
She said the label had told her that 'people I toured with would also miss out if I gained weight because I’d sell no records or tickets for my shows’.
But, the quotes continued, 'I told them during the “Lotus” recording, “You’re working with a fat girl. Know it now and get over it.” They need a reminder sometimes that I don’t belong to them. It’s my body.’
The problem is, when the Billboard interview was finally published, those quotes were nowhere to be found. Were they fabricated? She cuts me off with That Laugh.
'Yeah. I don’t know about any comments.’
'She doesn’t know about that,’ chips in her assistant, who is hovering a few steps from the bed.
Really? 'No,’ replies Aguilera. 'But I do know that I have spoken about embracing curves and loving my body. It’s always been something that I’m comfortable with. But yeah, reflecting on your specific enquiry, I don’t know anything about that.’
'She doesn’t look at good press, or bad,’ comes her assistant’s voice, while from the bed there’s the tinkle of jewellery and swish of hair.
'I don’t,’ Aguilera says, nodding. 'I try to stay focused on my creativity. And my son. [My assistant] has to fill me in. Sometimes I’ll hear things and I’m like, “What’s going on?” I’m in the dark, I have no idea what’s going on.’
So she didn’t know, for example, that last year her management team were reportedly keen to haul her into rehab for her drinking?
'Oh! Trust me,’ she says with an eye-roll, 'there are endless stories out there. But it’s a matter of being in this business, and it’s a matter of taking the punches.
'And hey, at the end of the day, if I’m getting to do what I love, and share my message and my stories with the world, and share my voice and my gift with my fans and bring out a positive message, then so be it, right? I’ll take the bullets.’
Those bullets seem to bounce off Aguilera. Of her electronic-flavoured last album, for example, widely seen as an ill-conceived attempt to out-Gaga Lady Gaga, she says,
'“Bionic” wasn’t this commercially acceptable, packaged-up, proper thing. But it was an experimental, beautiful piece of work that will live on in time and make its mark later on in its life. It was very artistic.’
She also refuses to see Burlesque – the tale of a small-town girl pursuing her dreams of a life on the stage (taking her clothes off) – as a bit of silly fluff.
Rather, Aguilera talks of drawing on the pain of her own difficult upbringing to play a character who had lost her mother in childhood.
'It’s probably not something you have to do,’ she says of her method. 'But I try to make things as real and honest as possible.
'I feel things deeply. That’s why the tough exterior is important. Vulnerability and weakness is something that I’ve had a problem showing since childhood.
'That’s why it’s empowering for me to be able to be open nowin talking about vulnerability. It’s a release.’
She is not so open, however, that she will discuss her divorce from Bratman last year, nor any impact it has had on their son. Will she at least tell me who took custody of the couple’s collection of 10 artworks by the British street artist Banksy?
'Ah ha ha!’ comes that armour-plated laugh. 'Oh my goodness. Um. Next question! But yes, I got to keep my favourite one.’ That’s the piece that features Queen Victoria – in Aguilera’s words – 'sitting on a woman’s face’.
And now Christina Aguilera’s assistant is trying to wind up our interview. But before we go I have one more story to put to the singer.
Last year the television watchdog Ofcom censured Aguilera for her 'overly sexual’ performance on The X Factor.
She and Rihanna (who appeared in a separate episode) were found to have overstepped the mark, but Aguilera received the strongest criticism.
She and her dancers wore costumes that, to quote Ofcom, 'were revealing, with limited coverage of the buttocks that were of a sexualised nature because they were based on lingerie such as basques, stockings and suspenders’.
So, I say, you were deemed ruder than Rihanna, the reigning queen of risqué pop performances. She claps her hands delightedly.
'I wouldn’t have it any other way!’ Aguilera laughs, and, for once, it sounds uncontrollably real.