Christina Aguilera's Fast Track
Ex-Mouseketeer Has the Voice to Pull Away From Teenpop Pack
By Richard Harrington
Maybe a few Disney kids, remembering Mouseketeer Christina from "The New Mickey Mouse Club" in the early '90s, where Aguilera was the little 12-year-old with the big voice.
Now, who doesn't know Christina Aguilera?
Her self-titled debut album, released in June, opened at No. 1 and is closing in on sales of 7 million. She's just finished touring with TLC, probably the last time Aguilera will be second-billed and not headlining.
She's all over television, including star turns on the American Music Awards and the Super Bowl halftime show. A mainstay of MTV, its top-rated "Total Request Live" in particular, Aguilera co-hosted and performed at MTV's New Year's Eve bash and presided over the network's "What a Girl Wants" weekend.
It's a punishing schedule, which is why the morning after her recent MCI Center show, the 19-year-old Aguilera is pooped. The diminutive singer is fighting off a lingering head cold and admits to a certain exhaustion, as if someone had fired a starter's pistol in June and she had yet to see a finish line anywhere on the horizon.
"It's one thing I was not expecting when I signed the deal with RCA," Aguilera says with a now-knowing laugh. "The schedule is crazy--it's all suitcases and hotel rooms and you just go nonstop. It's a crazy lifestyle, it really is."
Of course it helps to have a huge entourage to take care of your needs. Aguilera's doctor even makes house calls--all the way from California! That's what happens when you sell hundreds of thousands of albums week after week after week.
"It's really weird sometimes," Aguilera concedes as she describes her sudden, overwhelming, supersaturating stardom. "Even though you might have been dreaming about it and you can picture yourself a million times doing it and being there, when it happens, it's still really surreal and weird."
But it's not surprising. Aguilera is exactly where she expected to be when she appeared on "Star Search" 10 years ago, precociously belting out Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All." So what if Aguilera lost that time? She obviously kept her eye on first prize.
Aguilera's mother, Shelly Kearns, often says Christina was born focused. Christina had also grown up quickly: Her father, Fausto Aguilera, was an Ecuadoran American whose Army service took the family to New York, Texas, New Jersey and Japan. After their parents separated, Christina, her younger sister and mother (who later married paramedic James Kearns) went to live with her maternal grandmother in Wexford, just outside of Pittsburgh.
"I aways envied people who had childhood friends and memories of growing up together because I never really had that," says Aguilera. "Then the divorce and hard times at school, all those things combined to mold me, to make me grow up quicker. And it gave me the drive to pursue my dreams that I wouldn't necessarily have had otherwise."
Aguilera won her first talent show at age 8 with another Houston standard, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," and earned her stripes singing the national anthem for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, the professional sports teams closest to home.
All that sounds like a variation on the LeAnn Rimes story, but this version detours into one of the dominant music trends at century's close--the return of teenpop. It's a journey that took Aguilera to Orlando in 1993 and 1994 for Disney's "New Mickey Mouse Club." Then 12, Aguilera joined a young cast that included 11-year-old Britney Spears, Keri Russell (now star of television's "Felicity") and Justin Timberlake and J.C. Chasez, who'd go on to form 'N Sync.
"The show was like summer camp, all of us coming together," Aguilera recalls. "We'd start the school year late, and leave school early in the spring."
Aguilera was particularly close to Spears--both had had to wait a couple of years to get on the show--and they shared similar ambitions. "These are two individuals who knew what they wanted at age 6," says Teen People Editor Lori Majewski. "They didn't turn 15 and go, 'I want to be a pop star.' They worked really hard from their early childhood to make it where they are today."
The older-than-30 set might not be able to tell Aguilera apart from Spears or Mandy Moore or Jessica Simpson or Sarah Michelle Gellar; they do all share the latter's wispy "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" blondishness. But Aguilera separates herself from the pack the moment she opens her mouth. She's blessed with a true powerhouse voice, one that belies both her small frame and her youth.
Time magazine dubbed her a young Mariah Carey. Tom Calderone, senior vice president for programming at MTV, agrees, saying Aguilera has "the star caliber and bigness of Mariah and Whitney, who are huge artists for MTV. Some of these teenpop acts, the born-on date might be coming up quickly, but when you look at Christina, she's got the legs because of her singing range, because of her personality."
These days, the media like to pit the teenpop stars against each other--it's 'N Sync vs. Backstreet Boys, Britney vs. Christina. In reality, these artists represent a new class of professional kids whose parents started investing in singing, dancing and acting lessons early on. They all prepared for stardom, which is why its eventual arrival came as no surprise.
"There's a certain truth to that," says Aguilera. "I believe that the reason I'm here today is because of my love for it ever since I was young, just wanting it so bad, and knowing that I was going to get there regardless, that nothing was going to hold me back. Even in my worst days, when I thought there was no way I was going to get a record deal, I might be in tears and stuff, but I knew that something had to happen because I wasn't going to give up until it did."
It wasn't a matter of effort, just a matter of time. After "The New Mickey Mouse Club," "we all went back to our own home towns, went back to our own schools. Britney and I kept in touch in the early years because we were both trying to get record deals. I knew she was in Philly doing demos and I was working with a couple of producers out of New Jersey. Then I heard this girl had signed with Jive--I was being shopped there, too--and my gosh, it was Britney. And I thought, my gosh, we're both going for the same thing. It was cool to me that we were both doing it, but never would I have imagined what was to follow."
This is what followed: In 1998, 'N Sync blew up alongside the Backstreet Boys, and videogenic boybands sparked a new teenpop craze. In January of last year, Spears's debut album, "Baby One More Time," opened atop the Billboard charts; six months later, so did Aguilera's, though she insists it wasn't soon enough.
"I would watch 'Total Request Live' and see all their videos and go, 'I can't wait till I'm a part of that.' But I was still in the recording studio. I had to work on my patience a little at that point."
A year earlier, she'd caught the ear of Ron Fair, a senior vice president at RCA who would sign Aguilera and become her executive producer. He'd heard a rough demo--it included yet another Whitney Houston song, "Run to You"--and Fair thought, "excellent singing but the material was not really strong."
"Then I took a meeting with Christina and said, 'Okay, sing!' It was in a very, very small office, with three or four people crammed into it, but she basically got into that performance zone and sang a cappella, with a complete sense of self-possession, with perfect intonation. She was very determined and extremely professional. From a musical point of view her chops were way beyond her years and it was obvious that she had the potential to become a major vocalist. I went to my boss and said, 'This girl's the bomb, let's sign her.' "
RCA did, and then groomed Aguilera for almost a year. The label reportedly spent $1 million on writers, producers, even voice lessons. All of which Aguilera embraced.
"I was never trained enough to know when is too much, what's going to blow my voice out," she admits. "Since then, I fell in love with technique, how to make your range go even farther, how to place notes, all these things I never knew about, rather than just singing and listening to my favorite vocalists and going on instinct. I never would have been able to hit the notes I'm hitting now a couple of years ago."
Much of the delay had to do with choosing the right material.
"When I met her she was a world-class singer but hadn't really formed opinions about what style she wanted to sing or what her direction should be," says Fair. "She was very much a raw talent, so building a collection of songs that would become her first album was a time-consuming process. We wanted to find the ones that could knock the door down and put her up there."
What they started with was a frothy, slightly suggestive dance track, "Genie in a Bottle."
"Christina was just 18 and she needed to connect with her audience and there was never any question that that was the way to do it," Fair says. "In our business, it's more important to start off with a number one record on a debut act than it is to start off with a great song. But it's still great sugar candy."
Apparently. "Genie" spent five weeks atop the Billboard singles chart and had a long run on "Total Request Live." It set the album up to open at No. 1, trumping Puff Daddy's much-hyped "Forever," released the same day. The follow-up single, "What a Girl Wants," also went to No. 1, and RCA is about to unleash a big Diane Warren ballad, "I Turn to You."
"I think we're doing this right," says Fair. "And people are realizing Christina is one hell of a singer."
People who hear Aguilera live are getting to hear her take on the Etta James blues classic "At Last." It's not the kind of song someone without chops would ever want to attempt, but Aguilera gives it a strong ride, with the kind of powerhouse vocal and melismatic flurries that warrant the comparisons with Carey and Houston.
"It shows a different side of me, something past all the catchy stuff on the radio," Aguilera explains. If she has her way, some of that side will pop up on the next record. On her debut, the singer says, "I was held back a lot from doing more R&B ad-libbing. They clearly wanted to make a fresh-sounding young pop record and that's not always the direction I wanted to go in. Sometimes they didn't get it, didn't want to hear me out because of my age, and that was a little bit frustrating. Since all the success, it's a little easier to get my opinions across.
"I want to take this next record to the next level," Aguilera adds. "I don't want to be just a straight pop singer. I'm a vocalist and that's what I want to be seen as in the long run."
For now, the short run is easier to map out. In the spring, there will be a Spanish version of the album, with three or four new songs and accompanying videos (Aguilera has vocal coaches in that language as well as English). November will bring a Christmas album, almost inevitable after her version of Mel Torme's seasonal chestnut, "The Christmas Song," went Top 20 last year--the only time that tune, which has seen more than 4,000 different recordings, has been a chart hit since Nat King Cole's original in 1946.
There will also be a fashion and jewelry line, a headlining tour in the fall, and "writing and getting ideas for my follow-up album" in 2001. Several people could build careers on what Aguilera's turning down, including a flood of offers from Hollywood.
"There's no time to really sit down and get into it," Aguilera says. "I'm not trying to overwork myself, though being an all-around entertainer is what I do want to do in the long run. But music will always be number one, what I always want to be known for."
There's another, perhaps inevitable, flood of offers directed at Christina Aguilera--from love-struck young men eager to salve her lonely soul. You can be 19 and drop-dead cute and still be out of sync with the tides of youthful romance when you're on a never-ending promotional mission. Aguilera's an avid reader of gossipy tabloids, which allows her to keep track of her own alleged romances with the likes of MTV's Carson Daly, rapper Eminem and Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst. Sometimes, Aguilera herself instigates such rumors.
"I like to stir things up every once in a while and get a reaction," she says with a mischievous chuckle. "If I can't really date, at least I can think about it, or think about having crushes. It's just fun, and they never last very long, my crushes. It would be very nice if I could find the time to actually meet some really cool people, get to know them . . . .
"But all my life, my career has been my number one focus, more so than boys ever were. That's the way it's always been, and I really don't want anything to get in the way of that."
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company