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Free the Artist
by Gerrick D Kennedy July 13, 2018
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In the 20 years since Christina Aguilera’s arrival helped usher in a new era of pop, the performer has shown she’s unafraid of transformation.

Aguilera famously torched the bubblegum teen-pop image crafted for her with a pair of leather chaps and edgier genre-blending music that announced a young woman in full control of her agency. It shocked America, and the then 21-year-old singer was shamed by critics, peers and even Tina Fey.

At one point, she took her cues from the styles of the 1920s-1940s, committing wholly to a vintage pinup aesthetic to match the modern take on vintage jazz, soul and blues she was exploring. She’s assumed the role of a cyborg, channelled Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Manson — for the same project — and re-emerged as a blissed-out earth mother.

Shapeshifting has always been a part of Aguilera’s charm, but her real appeal lies in that voice. With a fiery range that recalled early Whitney Houston, Aguilera was able to separate herself from the pack of pop ingénues reaching superstar status during the early aughts. Aguilera has sold over 50 million records worldwide, notched dozens of Billboard Hot 100 hits, won six Grammys, dipped into film and helped make NBC’s The Voice a TV phenomenon.

Yet the past decade has been shaky for Aguilera on the music front. Her most recent work — 2010’s underrated Bionic and it’s mostly forgotten follow-up Lotus — wasn’t met with the same fanfare she was used to, and a lengthy stint on The Voice left Aguilera’s fans wondering if she would ever return to music.

Now 37, Aguilera is undertaking her latest reinvention, one that was fuelled by the singer-songwriter feeling “disconnected” from her purpose. “I had to get back to my own artist body and self,” she says.

Finding her way back to herself and her passion is the core of Liberation, her first album in six years. Debuting at No.6 on the Billboard 200 upon its release last month, Liberation showcases a creatively renewed Aguilera, but don’t call it a comeback: “I feel like a brand new artist,” she says.

While tending to her 3-year-old daughter, Summer Rain, Aguilera discussed Liberation and why she gave up on The Voice.

For a while there it felt like an album was never going to materialise.
I do take my time with records, but Jesus, yeah, this one was a while in waiting — for many different factors and reasons. I love collaborating so much and taking the time to get to know the people that you’re working with and truly do something meaningful and not just commercialised and cliché. I’m not the artist that’s going to just get a bunch of songs from my label, record it and put it in a little bow and send it off.

What kept you away from music for so long?

I felt disconnected for a while and I wasn’t in the right headspace either, being in an environment that was just not good for me.

That environment you’re referring to is The Voice. You said you felt suffocated as a judge. When did it stop being fun for you?
The blind audition thing was very intriguing to me because it provided an opportunity for anybody to get on stage and be discovered, regardless of their look. Being in this business for so long and knowing how labels work and how packaging is so very important, that idea of not being able to see them was genius to me. But year by year, I kept seeing things that were not lining up with that original vision. The show progressed in a direction I wasn’t into and that I didn’t think was a lot of times fair.

Your last projects weren’t critical or commercial successes. Did that add any pressure while working on Liberation?
It is an amazing thing whenever things are commercially received and successful. I’ve had those successes with Genie in a Bottle and What a Girl Wants, and I was still miserable because I wasn’t connected to the music and wasn’t being able to change it. I’ve done my share of that and I see a lot of artists get into that trap of chasing the charts. After I’m dead and gone, I really want the music paid attention to and not because of where I charted or how commercially successful it was but because the quality has stood the test of time.

There’s always been a thread of empowerment in your music. How much of what was going on in the world influenced the music you were working on?
The climate right now is interesting because there are so many people that are feeling oppressed or suppressed. I’ve always been about putting out messages that I feel strongly about and about my truth. It’s why I did songs like Beautiful and Fighter so long ago and why I have songs like Fall in Line and Sick of Sittin’ on this album, records that are perfect for anyone that maybe need(s) to find their own truth. We’re in a place where people need to feel liberated and I wanted to reflect that.


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