Once upon a time, when ex-Mouseketeers with burning ambition and blinding smiles ruled the universe, there lived two princesses. One was an iffy singer with undeniable sex appeal; the other was a secret soul diva working within record-label constraints, biding her time until she could unleash her inner-freak/pinup/cyborg/whatever. Both released debut albums in 1999, and both topped the Billboard 200.
The former, of course, was naughty schoolgirl Britney Spears, the figurehead of the teen-pop movement. The latter was Christina Aguilera, an artist who was never really equipped to compete with the day’s boy bands and pop tarts -- not on their field of battle, anyway. Sure, teen-queen Christina sold truckloads of records -- her self-titled debut yielded an astounding three No. 1 singles -- but in those early years, she struggled to assert her personality.
Released on August 25, 1999, Christina Aguilera is a mistitled album. It’s a solid set of Top 40 pop songs, and even its deep cuts remain quite listenable, but these dozen tracks tell us precious little about the girl on the cover.
“Must I pretend that I'm someone else for all time?” Aguilera sings on track six, “Reflection,” a song she first recorded for the soundtrack to Disney’s Mulan. It’s the tune that got her signed to RCA, and in a funny way, it sums up this album. She wouldn’t have to wait forever, but it would take this Staten Island-born daughter of Ecuadoran and Irish American parents another couple of years to find her voice.
She cut a Spanish-language LP (Mi Reflejo) and a holiday collection (My Kind of Christmas) before dropping her proper sophomore set, Stripped, an album nearly as shocking as this one is plain. Here, we get mere flashes of that more adventurous and controversial artist she’d become.
Read on to get our track-by-track take on this, the world’s introduction to a supremely talented pop chameleon whose fearlessness is a blessing, a curse, and a constant topic of conversation.
“Genie In a Bottle”: Every great teen-pop song essentially echoes the dilemma of this one’s chorus: “My body’s saying let’s go / but my heart in sayin’ no.” Aguilera is young and frisky, but she won’t give it up to just any young buck with nice abs and frosted tips. She’s got self-respect -- “You gotta rub me the right way” -- and thanks to David Frank, one of the three writers credited on the track, she’s got a cool 32nd-note bass-drum pattern that mimics the heart palpitations of a teenager in lust.
“What a Girl Wants”: Following the success of “Genie In a Bottle,” Aguilera and her team re-recorded this pop-R&B tune, transforming the fluffy original (available on early pressings of the record) into something a little harder and sexier. It’s still pretty airy, but Christina hints at the soulfulness and sensuality she’d explore to greater degrees later on.
“I Turn to You”: Aguilera aims for the heart with a big ol’ Diane Warren ballad. Originally recorded by All-4-One for the Space Jam soundtrack, “I Turn to You” is inspirational Hallmark soul coated in sap and sprinkled with Splenda. And yet for all its tummy-churning sweetness, Christina turns in a winning vocal performance. Maybe that’s why it hit No. 3 on the Hot 100. Still, everything you need to hear takes place between 3:35 and 3:45.
“So Emotional”: Sadly, it’s not a Whitney Houston cover. Instead, it’s a cool mid-tempo groover about a fellow who’s got our girl on the ropes. He’s hot then cold, high then low, sunshine then rain. Aguilera handles the tune like Aaliyah might have, and given how assuredly she pushes through the quarter-note cadence of the chorus (“You-make-me-feel…”), it’s clear she’ll get over this guy.
“Come On Over (All I Want Is You)”: Like “What a Girl Wants,” this one arrived on radio in recut form. The redo is slightly rougher and randier, and Christina offers an Xtina preview in the form of a self-penned rap bridge: “Don’t you wanna be the one tonight? / We could do exactly what you like.”
“Reflection”: It’s the gooey centerpiece of a Disney animated film, so you can’t expect too much. While it’s no “A Whole New World” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” -- cartoon anthems with a bit more humanity -- “Refection” is an apt song for a 17-year-old up-and-comer wading into the music-biz shark pool. “You may think you see who I really am,” Aguilera sings, “but you’ll never know me.” It’s silly to read too much into those lines, since she didn’t write them, but imagining Christina imagining Xtina makes this 3:36 way less of a slog.
“Love for All Seasons”: This summery pop jam is similar in sound and sentiment to Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” It’s not the most memorable of tunes, but if you’re wasting time on a tire swing, you can do worse. Plus, Christina gets to throw in a few impressive runs toward the end.
“Somebody’s Somebody”: Of the album’s two Diane Warren compositions, this one holds up best. The drums snap, the bass pops, and the down-home gospel organ in the bridge fits nicely with the comforting, if bland, lyrics. This is a tune about finding safety and permanence in another’s arms, and in light of subsequent recordings, it’s a reminder that Aguilera can do sweet as well as sexy.
“When You Put Your Hands On Me”: Aguilera celebrates the alchemy of sex on this slinky R&B standout, telling her man, “I just know / when you put your hands on me / I feel sexy / and my body turns to gold.” The song was co-written by none other than Robin “Blurred Lines” Thicke, and while it’s far tamer than his signature tune, he and cowriter James Gaas slip in one rather salacious line some listeners may have missed: “I haven't used a particular noun very much / then we touched.” Whatever the word is, pre-“Dirrty” can’t bring herself to sing it.
“Blessed”: Just because Aguilera can sing the hell out of ballads like this, it doesn’t mean she should. “Blessed” is the most egregious example of Christina’s handlers misjudging her abilities and saddling her with subpar material. It’s by far the most skippable track. A speed bump on the way to…
“Love Will Find a Way”: Christina’s back in Mariah mode, this time doing a kind of “Dreamlover” update. After “Blessed,” this feels like a banger -- something a teenager would actually want to sing along with. She’s especially playful on the “I want you / I need you / You know that I believe you” bit, and just when you think she’s going to end on a flirty high note, she sticks around for one last ballad.
“Obvious”: This is like Christina’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” but unlike that 2002 Britney ballad, it doesn’t have the benefit of Dido and Max Martin’s touch. “Can you hear it in my voice?” Aguilera asks in the opening line, wondering whether her confusion -- about life, love, etc. -- is apparent to everyone. Maybe, but so is her potential. The years ahead would bring assless chaps, Marlene Dietrich hairstyles, over-the-top circus-themed concerts, a movie with Cher, and a stint on reality TV. Since this record, Christina’s career moves have been many things, but “Obvious” is not one.
What was your favorite Debutina song?