On July 31, 1999, Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, beginning a five-week stint at No. 1. Like Britney Spears’ breakthrough, “…Baby One More Time,” which dropped the previous October, it was an infectious teen-pop banger with a suggestive edge. “You’re lickin’ your lips and blowing kisses my way,” Aguilera sang on the first verse. “But that don’t mean I’m gonna give it away.” A month later, Aguilera’s eponymous debut album also hit No. 1; it would eventually go eight-times platinum and earn Aguilera the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, ahead of fellow nominees including Spears.
“Genie in a Bottle” wasn’t technically Aguilera’s debut single—a year earlier, she’d released “Reflection,” a decent Disney ballad from the Mulan soundtrack. But she became a full-on pop phenomenon in August 1999, so the 20th anniversary feels like a fitting time to explore her legacy and connection with fans who call themselves “fighters.” Alongside Spears, Aguilera is the most iconic pop star of her era, an artist who’s been hailed as an influence by Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Tinashe, Sam Smith, and Demi Lovato. But perhaps because she’s been less prolific during the last decade, she still feels somewhat under-appreciated—to borrow the title from one of her best deep cuts.
Jessica Nadal, a 32-year-old super fan from the U.K., fell for Aguilera when she bought “What a Girl Wants,” a soulful bop that became the singer’s second big hit. “There was an album medley on the CD single which featured [showboating power ballad] “I Turn to You,” Nadal tells VICE. “I’d never heard anyone sing like that before—it was her vocal ability and range that really got me hooked. Her voice just gave me a completely different vibe from the typical bubblegum pop princesses.”
Nadal has remained loyal ever since: she has a tattoo of the singer’s face on her forearm, and even gave her daughter the middle name “Christina.” Many other “fighters” were also drawn initially to Aguilera’s four-octave vocal range; then became even more invested when she released 2002’s Stripped album. Co-writing all but two songs, Aguilera blossomed from an uncommonly gifted pop singer into a musically versatile and lyrically candid artist who sang about feminism, sex, and self-worth. “Sorry I’m not a virgin, sorry I’m not a slut,” she sang on an album interlude, refusing to let herself be defined by sexist female archetypes. The defiant “Fighter” saw her lean into bombastic arena-rock, while “Keep on Singin’ My Song” was an empowerment anthem that blended elements of gospel and drum and bass.
“Stripped was the first album I really got into as a kid,” L.A.-based singer-songwriter Maggie Lindemann said. “I remember getting it for my birthday and from that moment on being obsessed with Christina. I loved her lyrics, how they were meaningful, but also how she wasn’t scared to wear and do whatever she wanted. She was never scared to be herself even at a time when other people were still following the same rules. She just didn’t care.”
Where “Genie in a Bottle” felt suggestive a few years earlier, Stripped’s lead single “Dirrty” was unapologetically sexual. Its notoriously raunchy video obliterated Aguilera’s girl next door image and provoked a sexist backlash—an MTV writer even branded her a “pop tart.” Still, this criticism didn’t stop fans from realizing that at its core, Stripped was an album about growing up, claiming space, and learning to accept yourself.
“That album has shaped me in so many ways,” Martin Kay, a 25-year-old fighter from Australia, said. “It opened my eyes to self-love and healing with songs like “Fighter” and “Loving Me 4 Me.” It was my first glimpse into feminism with “Can’t Hold Us Down.” And I don’t think I would’ve come to the realization that I was gay as early in my life if it wasn’t for someone like Christina showing LGBTQ people in such an inspiring way in the ”Beautiful” video.”
After Stripped, Aguilera continued to push forward with 2006’s ambitious double album Back to Basics. On its brilliant singles “Ain’t No Other Man” and “Candyman,” she made good on her aim to create “kind of a throwback with elements of jazz, blues, and soul music, combined with a modern-day twist.” Alice Chater, a singer-songwriter from the U.K. who’s currently working on her debut album, said she admires Aguilera because “she’s always crafted her eras so effortlessly and consistently. Stripped was way ahead of its time with a visual like ‘Beautiful,’” which was so progressive and all about acceptance and authenticity,” Chater explained.
Still, 2010’s futuristic electro-pop album Bionic, on which Aguilera expanded her palette of collaborators to include left field artists Le Tigre and Ladytron, was a risk that didn’t quite pay off. It yielded only one hit single, the glossy dance-pop banger “Not Myself Tonight,” and Aguilera was forced to fend off accusations that she’d stolen another artist’s look. “Had that album been released earlier, before Christina made [her 2009 movie] Burlesque, she might have avoided the Lady Gaga comparisons, but in 2010 Gaga was omnipresent, so it was really a case of bad timing,” Hunter Anderson, a 25-year-old super fan from Washington D.C., told VICE.
The period that followed was probably even more testing for Aguilera’s fighters. Between 2011 and 2016, their heroine appeared on six seasons of The Voice—but released just one album, 2012’s relatively unadventurous Lotus. Smash collaborations with Maroon 5 (“Moves Like Jagger”) and A Great Big World (“Say Something”) gave us brief reminders of her day job, but Aguilera has since called the show a “churning hamster wheel” that stifled her creativity. “I didn’t get into this business to be a television show host and to be given all these [rules],” she told Billboard last year. “Especially as a female: You can’t wear this, can’t say that. I would find myself on that show desperately trying to express myself through clothing or makeup or hair. It was my only kind of outlet.”
More recently, Aguilera has begun to rehabilitate her reputation as an artist by exploring contemporary pop, R&B, and hip-hop sounds on last year’s pointedly titled comeback album, Liberation. She’s also embarked on U.S. and European tours, and launched her first ever Las Vegas residency. But do fans think she’s done enough to cement her legacy?
“I think she’s always going to be known as the pop star with a huge voice,” says Dan Cox, a 26-year-old fighter from the U.K. “But in the future, I’d like her to be known less as the supposed ‘rival’ to Britney Spears, and more as someone who’s been innovative in her career and one of our boldest female pop singers ever.” Nadal pointed out that Aguilera is “continuing to inspire young girls and women with the powerful message in [her 2018 single] “Fall in Line.” “I wasn’t made to fall in line,” she and Demi Lovato, an artist who’s hailed Aguilera as an influence, sing together defiantly.
When you listen to “Keeps Gettin’ Better,” the electro-stomping title track from Aguilera’s 2008 greatest hits compilation, it’s hard not to agree with their assessments. “Some days I’m a super-bitch, up to my old tricks, but it won’t last forever,” Aguilera sings. “Next day, I’m your supergirl, out to save the world, and it keeps gettin’ better.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the impossible pressures that mainstream female pop singers are placed under, expressed in a playful way that only Aguilera would try to get away with. Let the Xtina revival commence.