From the Vaults: The Fall & Rise of Christina Aguilera
The pop diva comes clean about her fall from grace and how she’s singing her way back to the top.
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.
By October 2010, the true decline began: Aguilera announced that she was leaving her husband of five years, music producer Jordan Bratman, with whom she has a three-year-old son, Max. Marriage had seemed to calm Aguilera down—in articles, she bragged about her sex life with her husband, claiming that they liked to frolic naked around their 11,500-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills. “At one time or another,” Aguilera told me, hinting at affairs on both sides, “we were both not angels. It got to a point where our life at home was reminding me of my own childhood. I will not have my son grow up in a tension-filled home. I knew there would be a negative reaction in the press to my divorce, but I am not going to live my life because of something someone might say. That goes against everything I sing on my records. I have to be myself.”
Soon it became clear that Aguilera had fallen in love with another man—Matt Rutler, a 25-year-old musician/production assistant. The couple met on the set of Burlesque, Aguilera’s first film, which was released just before last Thanksgiving. The movie would seem to have been tailor-made for Aguilera: the story of a talented, wide-eyed singer who escapes her abusive past in small-town America and seeks her fortune in Los Angeles at a nightclub. If you made the twentysomething protagonist a small child, that was Aguilera’s career path: She began performing in the first grade and signed her first record deal at 13. By 19 she had a platinum album and was touring the world. “I was like a rocket that got shot out of a gun,” she told me.
By all accounts, Burlesque was a tumultuous set: Steve Antin, the first-time director, and Clint Culpepper, the head of the studio, were longtime boyfriends who clashed and almost broke up over the movie. Their fights were loud, constant, and often physical. During one skirmish, Culpepper reportedly poured an iced tea over Antin’s head.
“There was a lot of incestuous energy in that movie,” Aguilera recalled. “And it was very hard to be in the center of all that. A lot was riding on the film, and I bore the brunt. I was like, ‘Hey, stop fighting—this is my career.’”
Burlesque, which cost $55 million, did not provide an antidote to Bionic: The film fizzled at the box office. Although it’s rare for a pop star to have success in musicals (for every Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues there’s a Mariah Carey in Glitter), Burlesque was a major disappointment for Aguilera. “I was sad, but I’m still glad that I did the movie,” she said. “During production, I was going through a lot of self-discovery. As a quote-unquote pop star, you have your entourage with you at all times. When you enter and leave a place, backstage, even at home—you always have your team. On the movie set, I didn’t have anyone around me. And it felt good. When I first met my husband, I needed that helping hand to take the reins and look after me. After the movie, I grew out of being that little girl: I became more of an adult.”
And yet, when I asked Aguilera what had attracted her to Rutler, she conceded, “I could depend on him for everything. Matt was working on the movie, and he was so supportive. And he still is. We’ve been through a lot in the past year.” Rutler, who rarely leaves Aguilera’s side, is handsome, boyish, and polite, but he has also been something of a bad-luck charm—in the last year, when he’s been her date for big events, things seem to go terribly wrong. In February the couple attended the Super Bowl together in Dallas, where Aguilera was set to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game. As a child sensation, she had performed the national anthem dozens of times for her local Pittsburgh teams—the Penguins (hockey), the Pirates (baseball), and the Steelers (football). “Everything on the field at the Super Bowl was vividly bright, and I was having a moment,” Aguilera recalled. “I got lost in the emotion of being there and I messed up the lyrics to the song.” Instead of singing, “O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming,” she belted out, “What so proudly we watched at the twilight’s last reaming.”
Her improvised line made instant headlines. “I knew the press would glom onto it,” she said. “I went to dinner after the Super Bowl with Matt and I laughed about how I’d made myself into a Trivial Pursuit question: ‘In 2011 what female singer flubbed the lyrics to the national anthem?’” The weirdness was compounded by a bizarre incident that had happened a few weeks earlier, when Rutler and Aguilera attended a birthday party at actor Jeremy Renner’s house. “Matt was the one who was invited—I went as his girlfriend,” Aguilera recalled. “It was an open party, and everyone was spread out all over the house. At one point I sat on the edge of a bed. It was a guest room. But it only takes one person to start the negativity, and then everyone wants to hop aboard and continue the story.”
The story, according to Renner, was that Aguilera climbed into his bed. He insinuated that she was intoxicated or cuckoo or both. Questions about her sobriety and Rutler’s negative influence reached a fever pitch when, in February, Aguilera tripped and nearly fell to the ground during a tribute to Aretha Franklin at the Grammys. There were too many surprising, inexplicable mishaps: People assumed she was drunk or falling apart or desperately in need of an intervention. “I know what everyone was saying,” Aguilera told me. “And during that Grammy moment, when I nearly collapsed, I was thinking, Are you kidding me? I’ve always been really good with my heels. Even pregnant, I could perform in heels. Note to self: Never wear a train onstage. My heel got caught in my train, and if it wasn’t for Jennifer Hudson, who picked me up as I went down, I would have fallen to the floor.” Aguilera paused. “When it happened,” she continued, “it was just like, What else, God?! What else?! I threw my hands up in the air and started smiling, because what else could go wrong?”
Well…less than a month later, despite press accusations of bad behavior backstage at the Grammys and some understandable speculation that she was becoming a famous train wreck, Aguilera and Rutler were out to dinner at Osteria Mozza in West Hollywood, one of her favorite restaurants. They were celebrating the completion of her deal for The Voice, an American Idol–type show that pits all kinds of singers against one another. The Voice, which is based on a Dutch hit, has a unique twist: The judges—Aguilera, Adam Levine of the rock band Maroon 5, country star Blake Shelton, and Cee Lo Green, an R&B singer—sit in huge chairs with their backs to the performer. By not looking, they can’t be influenced by the aspirants’ appearances or how they move—the judges’ decisions are solely based on how the contestants sound. If the judges like what they hear, they press a button and their chairs turn to face the stage. Each professional then picks eight singers, whom he or she will mentor. As the season progresses, the chosen singers compete with one another in a sort of battle of songs, and the winner will be crowned The Voice.
“I’ve never watched an entire episode of American Idol,” Aguilera said, explaining her initial resistance to The Voice. “It’s too mean. Why would anyone want to go on a show to be ripped apart? I don’t want to be tough with my singers, but I do want to tell them on The Voice that if you really want this, you’ll be kicked when you’re down. You have to be willing to roll with those punches. You have to really want it.” As an ambitious nine-year-old, Aguilera competed on Star Search, performing “Sunday Kind of Love.” She lost in the semifinals. “Do we even remember who I lost to?” she joked. “At that age, I always sang songs meant for older people. That fit my personality—I had pain to sing about. If there had been a show like The Voice, I would have gone on it. It would have been amazing to be coached by a mentor.”
Instinctively, Aguilera must have realized that this TV show would be good for her flailing career. It was smart: The Voice reminds audiences of what she does best, which is sing. The judges perform and are also depicted as calm, sane, passionate, and experienced. That gravitas was missing from Aguilera’s recent profile.
Excited about The Voice, she and Rutler were feeling optimistic. On the way home from their March 1 celebratory dinner, Rutler, who was “driving erratically” at 2:45 a.m., was pulled over. Allegedly, he was drunk, although it was later revealed that his blood alcohol level was .06, well under California’s legal limit of 0.8. Nevertheless, the police arrested Rutler and Aguilera, whom they claimed was “extremely intoxicated.” Both were fingerprinted, photographed, and put in jail overnight. As awful as this incident was, it may have been a turning point for the good: The case against Rutler was subsequently dropped for insufficient evidence.
“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.”