3 Aughts-Era Pop Songs I Think Are Underrated: Part One
In 2002, people liked talking about how much they disliked this song, but not nearly so much as they loved talking about how Christina Aguilera was a trashy whore who’d gone crazy. I distinctly remember the kids in my 10th Grade Spanish class expressing these sentiments in atrociously circumlocuted Spanish to my teacher’s nodded approval. (“Es una cancion muy mala, y Christina es…una mujer…como la basura!…y loca!…que…que…que duerme con muchos muchachos! Y es muy sucia y tiene SIIIIIIIDA!”)
A reviewer for AllMusic described Dirrty as “…a non-song that requires less range than the slinky sexiness of ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’…” and the accompanying Stripped album as “…utterly bizarre, surpassing Mariah Carey’s Glitter as the modern-day standard for musical immolation….” (“…y tiene la SIIIIIIIIIIIIDA,” they failed to add.)
I wasn’t about to admit this in Honors Spanish III, but I really liked this song, and appreciated what the Crazy Trashy Whore was trying to do.
Some context for those of you without younger sisters who insisted on watching Total Request Live everyday from 1998 through 2000:
You’d think the virgin/whore thing would have been beyond passé by the end of the 20th century, but no. For evidence of this, you need merely consider that teasing sexuality cloaked in syrupy, ignorant innocence was the major theme of every single female teeny-bopper hit on the charts: “Genie in a Bottle,” “Irresistible,” “Candy,” every single Brittney Spears hit prior to “Toxic”. The lyrics to all of them could be summed up thus: “I am an innocent virgin flower! (FUCK ME NOW.)”
The media devoted a lot of time trying to put the lie to these pop stars’ virginity, and the pop stars in turn devoted a lot of time in interviews trying to convince us that they were naïve and unsophisticated, and women spent a lot of time being disgusted and self-righteous, and men spent a lot of time pretending to be disgusted and masturbating, and everybody spent a ton of time making condescending, sexist comments about the poor, frail, vulnerable, weak-minded, virginal adolescent girls who listened to this music. It was all very fraught and tedious. *
But so it was refreshing when Christina Aguilera finally decided that she was done helping to perpetuate this nonsense, and basically came out and screamed “FUCK ME NOW (DOOOOOOO IT)”** in this song. Was it an overt and graceless and immature response? Well, sure. But that was a big part of the appeal: you could tell that this was the artist speaking in her true, unmoderated voice, because no handlers in their right minds would have approved of putting something so overt and graceless and immature on an album, let alone be released as a lead single. Dirrty was, in its own expensively produced and music-videoed little way, kind of punk rock.
And it was actually a pretty savvy strategic move (whether Aguilera fully realized it or not [and if she did, she’s a genius]), because it ended up taking something this blunt to finally get her out from under Brittney Spears’s shadow. It made her seem more like a human and a singer and less like a part of a pop culture phenomenon. And that, I think, is what ultimately allowed her to flourish as an artist on her own terms long after Spears’s breakdown and the resulting colapse of the innocence illusion that effectively crushed the careers of Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore. (The fact that she can actually sing really, really well probably didn’t hurt, either).
It’s also just a super catchy song. I love the anticipatory build of the opening: the shuddering beat, the whispered echos of “dirty” and “filthy,” the proud way she announces “Ladies! Gentlemen!” like a freaking ringleader at the orgy. It’s a pretty musically minimalistic dance track, but I hardly think that makes it a “non-song,” especially if you compare it to some of the soulless, melody-free dance songs you hear on the radio these days.
It’s also accompanied by a very cool video directed by David LaChapelle (not that I had any idea who the hell he was when I was 15; I just knew that people holding deviant sexual congress in a warehouse had never ever looked so fucking glamorous). And you’ll notice that she’s not really showing much more skin than Spears did in her videos. The only difference is that instead of pretending to be a helpless child who doesn’t know what she’s doing and blah blah statutory rape, Aguilera’s acknowledging her sexuality and that she understands the implications of her semi-nudity. To which of these women’s images would you rather catch your husband/father/son masturbating?
One final comment: the follow-up single to this one was Beautiful, and you have to kind of respect the combined message of “FUCK ME NOW (But I’ll still love myself even if you call me a whore afterward),” as though she’d anticipated the backlash against Dirrty. The aggressive sexuality/rah-rah self esteem thing is the standard trope for pop-music divas today, but back when Aguilera did it, it was novel and felt genuine.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2!
*Chuck Klosterman wrote a really great piece about this whole moment in culture that I believe is published in Eating the Dinosaur, and it’s definitely worth a read if you have a free Sunday afternoon sometime.
**You could argue that Slave 4 U was a pretty clear declaration of whoredom, too, what with the slave business and the performance with the phallic snake at the VMAs that year, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s more of an innocent girl who’s trying to talk naughty than a woman who’s explicitly embracing her sexuality. Slave 4 U is Spears’s team seeing how far they get can get away with pushing the Virgin/Whore line. Dirrty is Christina Aguilera getting the fuck off the line and digging her heels into the Whore side.