WHEN Christina Aguilera was six years old, she would escape the chaos and trauma of her family by thinking of Julie Andrews singing “The Sound of Music.” “I watched her twirl around those mountains, and she was just so free,” Aguilera recalled when we met to talk about her nightmare tabloid year of divorce, flubbed lyrics, falls on national television, winding up in the wrong bed, and (finally) triumph. “I felt caged by my childhood. And unsafe: Bad things happened in my home; there was violence. The Sound of Music looked like a form of release. I would open my bedroom window to sing out like Maria. In my own way, I’d be in those hills.” Aguilera paused. She is small and, as she spoke, was nearly swallowed by a large, overstuffed couch in the lobby lounge of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Manhattan, where she was staying. Aguilera looked more “Oliver” than von Trapp—she was dressed like an urchin in a large gray sweater and black leggings, and her bright yellow hair was barely visible under a sideways schoolboy cap. Her skin was pale; she was not wearing her trademark red lipstick but, as a kind of concession to girlishness, had on sky-high platform stripper heels. “Sometimes,” Aguilera continued, “especially in the last six months, I still feel like going to the window and singing out all my troubles.” She looked down, laughed quietly, and shook her head a little. “I laugh a lot lately. People expect me to cry, but I always laugh when things go wrong.”
For Aguilera, who is 30, things started to go seriously haywire sometime around June 2010 when her album Bionic was released. Although she has sold more than 30 million records worldwide, won four Grammy Awards, and been a star since age 12, when she appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club (alongside Justin Timberlake and her then best friend, Britney Spears), Aguilera’s audience did not respond to Bionic’s fusion of hip-hop beats, disco rhythms, and nonmelodic vocals. There were no compelling sob-inducing anthems like “Beautiful,” Aguilera’s signature song, an empowerment ballad from 2002 that speaks to the proud but wounded bird within us all. Instead, Bionic ventured into new territory: Its techno-fueled sound didn’t utilize Aguilera’s greatest strength, her soaring, multioctave voice. Instead, she seemed to be trying too hard to be hip—to be current rather than classic. “It’s an artistic swerve,” Jon Pareles wrote about Bionic in The New York Times. He dismissed Aguilera’s attempt at reinvention, describing her new incarnation as a “one-dimensional hot chick chanting come-ons to club beats.”
While Aguilera once owned the little-girl-with-the-big-voice pop-star niche, with Bionic, she willfully entered the land of Lady Gaga. In the press, she pretended not to care or notice. “Oh, the newcomer?” Aguilera told reporters when asked about Gaga. “This person was just brought to my attention not too long ago. I’m not quite sure who this person is, to be honest. I don’t know if it is a man or a woman.” Despite her feeble claims to confusion over Gaga’s gender and her uncharitable reluctance to give her credit, the video for “Not Myself Tonight,” Bionic’s first single, had eerily similar tableaux to Gaga’s smash video “Bad Romance.” Image for S&M image, they matched up. Old fans of Aguilera’s weren’t intrigued by her revamped identity, and new fans didn’t materialize. As the album sputtered, her 20-city summer tour didn’t sell and was canceled, at a cost of millions. There were rumors that her record company wanted to drop her. Things were not good.