Christina Aguilera can also whip your ass at Donkey Kong. "I'm extremely good at video games," asserts the Staten Island, N.Y.-born, Pennsylvania-raised singer between sips of Pellegrino in the bustling bar of L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. "People come over to my house after a night of going out just to try to beat my scores. I have all the top scores."
Spend a little time with Aguilera--after giving her swell new CD, Back to Basics, a listen--and you come away believing the petite platinum-blond with the plus-size pipes can do whatever she sets her mind to. And no monkey is going to stop her. "I love absorbing information," she explains, gesturing to a coffee table book about pinup artist Alberto Vargas she's using as inspiration for her next video, "Candyman." "I'm always looking to go new places. That's hard sometimes, because you're setting yourself up for people loving it or hating it, but I'm willing to take that risk."
As pop risks go, Back to Basics is a doozy: an unapologetic "concept album" in two parts inspired by vintage soul, jazz, and blues. Disc I features retro sounds and samples set to modern beats; the more theatrical second disc reunites Aguilera with Linda Perry, the out songwriter-producer behind the singers 2003 Grammy-winning ballad "Beautiful."
"They're like my babies, my fraternal twins," gushes Aguilera of the discs. "I wanted to use elements of the music that influenced me, from the '20s, '30s, and '40s, and reinvent them in a modern way. I accomplished exactly what I wanted to do."
The lyrics on Back to Basics reflect a more hopeful, romantic Christina, attributable largely to her marriage last year to music executive Jordan Bratman. "I was in an extremely heavy space during the recording of Stripped," admits Aguilera, referring to her polarizing 2002 disc. "With Back to Basics I was able to focus on a brighter, lighter side of myself."
As if on cue, Bratman strolls into the bar to remind his wife that they have dinner reservations in a few minutes. Aguilera lights up. They're clearly crazy about each other but in a way that seems sane, particularly by showbiz standards. Before heading to dinner, Bratman confirms that his new wife does have mad video-gaming skills. Then Aguilera stands up onto a pair of do-me pumps that match her red lipstick. "I have to go to the bathroom," she announces, "but while I'm gone, Jordie can tell you what else I'm good at--if you know what I mean." With that, she lets out a husky Mae West laugh. She begins to step away, then says, "That was a joke." Uh-huh, right.
How did you set out to create Back to Basics?
I put together a CD of music I'm inspired by. I called it the "producer's package," and I wrote a letter [to prospective producers] saying, "These are songs that I'm inspired by. Please listen to them, reference them, use bits and pieces, experiment, and enter this world with me."
A lot of people didn't get it, but the people that did are the main people on both discs. I was surprised that Linda [Perry] got it so well. She really dove in hard and listened to every detail that I had to say.
Do you think the fact that Linda's a lesbian has anything to do with your connection?
It would be wrong to say it had anything to do with being a certain label or stereotype, but I think she's had a hard road with some of the things she's experienced, as have I. We relate to each other.
The part of you that relates to outsiders seems to come from a very deep place for you.
Absolutely. I constantly felt like an outsider growing up. Because I wanted to perform, that kind of put me on the outs a lot. The other kids weren't very kind to me when my name appeared in the paper or when I was on Star Search when I was 7. So I completely relate to anybody that feels that they ever have to confine anything about themselves to please someone else. I knew at a really young age that I would never do that, that I would always be courageous and stand up for what I believed in. …