“It never should have happened in the first place,” Aguilera told me. “The police knew my recent history and wanted to jump on the bandwagon. I don’t mean to martyr myself, but I think I was a victim of celebrity. I don’t drive, I wasn’t driving, and I committed no crimes, but they put me in jail. They called me a ‘political hot potato.’ They said, ‘What are we going to do with this woman?’ I think they were bored that night.”
Aguilera paused. Eight weeks after her false arrest, The Voice premiered to huge numbers, scoring 11.8 million viewers. The audience increased for the second week of the show, making it the No. 1 program of the night among adults 18 to 49—the most coveted demographic in television. The success of The Voice has quieted many of Aguilera’s critics and has given her year of woe a happy ending.
And yet, Aguilera’s public mishaps and extreme behavior have actually been good for her career. The pop-star narrative demands intrigue and reversals of fortune. America likes its icons—especially ones like Aguilera, who have grown up in public and been famous for years—to be both pristine and tabloid ready. It’s an odd extension of the Madonna-whore complex rewritten for celebrity culture: Pop stars should be pure phenoms who never age or reveal their imperfections, but they must also be provocative enough to stay interesting to an increasingly fickle, restless, and media-obsessed audience. Without bumps in the road or some kind of personal drama, a pop star is easy to forget. Which is why, for instance, the squeaky-clean Jonas Brothers were followed by the squeaky-clean Justin Bieber. Unless Bieber gets arrested soon, he will be replaced by Greyson Chance, a youngster on the rise.
From Sinatra to Elvis to Madonna to Aguilera, stardom is a balancing act between light and darkness. Unlike actors and actresses who are defined by the parts they play (parts that are written for them), pop stars must invent themselves. They may have help from managers, producers, publicists, and stylists in shaping that identity, but the relationship between a singer and her public (Gaga and her “monsters”) is more direct than it is with an actor. For someone like Aguilera, talent is important, but an instinctive understanding of the American fascination with personality, with failure and redemption, is crucial to a long career. Falling on the Grammys stage may have been the best thing to happen to Aguilera. That is, as long as she picked herself up.
“I really admire all the greats,” Aguilera said. “They’ve had their ups and downs during their careers. And I would never go down without a fight. I still have my eyes on the prize: I want to be that old lady onstage shaking her hips and singing her greatest hits.”