These past few days I listened to the entire Stripped album by Christina Aguilera. I listened to “Fighter”, “Soar”, “Beautiful”, “Can’t Hold Us Down” and “Dirrty” before, but I hadn’t listened to her other songs on the album. So I decided to give it a go because I was nostalgic for some good old early 2000s music. I’m just going to touch on just a few of the songs on the album. I’ll probably talk more about it in the future.
First and foremost, this is the rawest album yet, next to Joss Stone’s Introducing Joss Stone. (another excellent album) As much criticism and mixed reviews as she got, Christina Aguilera, in my personal opinion, put her heart and soul in this album. I like her early album Christina Aguilera because while it’s categorized as pop, it’s also this mature lovely album about sexuality, womanhood and other things. “I Turn to You” is one of my favorite songs and makes me cry nearly everytime.
In Stripped, Christina takes that maturity up to another level. She uses the piano and strings in the most symbiotic way to create this organic collection of personal lyrical narratives. In “Impossible”, her ballad with Alicia Keys on piano, she starts off with Alicia playing a simple calm piano solo and interludes with some syncopated singing. Then she dives into a chilling 3/4 blues, jazz waltz with drum tats and brass interluding with her deep soulful voice, conveying the pain of trying to read the mind of a guy who won’t tell her how he really feels, a real feeling that happens a lot of times in every day relationships. In “Cruz” she opens with a chorus of resounding voices, then goes right into a beautiful rock ballad. The chords have this lovely emotional complexity that show the versatility of her voice. “Cruz” reminded me of “The First Cut is the Deepest” by Sheryl Crow because both songs integrate country and rock music and add a powerful dash of soul. I love how in this song she goes back and forth from G major to F major to G major to F major back to G major. The song evokes a bittersweet longing to be free, a longing that Christina feels to leave a painful situation, and we hear the freedom in her unbridled voice as she belts out the end of the song in the key of G major.
Another thing that makes this album truly one of my favorites (and as a staunch music lover, that is hard for me to say because I have a lot of “favorites”) is her free use of the key E minor. The key of E minor is one of my favorite keys because it evokes this beautiful darkness that is just hard to describe in words. In “Keep on Singin’ My Song” Aguilera uses E minor to its utmost advantage, opening up with a simple introduction of humming and soft singing, then plunging into this poignant raw piece about not looking back at the past and moving forward with what you want to do with your life, even if it’s painful to do so or if other people don’t like it (“that’s why I’m gonna/ Say goodbye to all the tears I’ve cried/ For every time somebody hurt my pride/ Feeling like they won’t let me live life/ Take the time to look at what is mine”). Around the 4:13 mark, she slows down the tempo, giving the listener about thirteen seconds to contemplate the rough-shod ride she just took us on through her song, and then picks it back up at 4:26 with just her and the chorus, and then moves back into a rhythmic 4/4 beat with the percussion keeping the tempo. Around 5:22, the drums and the flutist bring a beautiful close to the song.
In “Walk Away” the song opens with a lone piano waltz (it reminded me of “Dangerous Woman” in a way because that song, too, is in the form of a waltz. Also “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys has the same time signature and key as “Walk Away”, so I thought about that while listening to the song), and Christina brings us into a chilling mezzo-forte first verse, and then crescendos into a gut-wrenching chorus, backed by strings, piano and percussion. Hearing this chorus each time gave me chills up and down my spine because she doesn’t try to beat around the bush or pull any punches about illustrating the pain she suffered for the longest time. Honestly, while listening to this song at work, all I could envision was myself dancing alone in an empty studio to this song, contorting my body dressed in a black long-sleeved leotard, leaping around, sliding across the dance floor, my body moving in time with Christina’s rhymes. The middle of the song she crescendos and falls into the softness of the third verse, and then crescendos back into the chorus. I would love to play this song on my cello just because even though I can’t directly relate to Aguilera’s personal struggles, it doesn’t take much for her to suck me in with her mature powerful lyrics. I mean, seriously, if the lyrics don’t strike some kind of emotion in you, then what will? Gosh, listening to the song was one thing, but actually reading the lyrics just heightened the overall suspense of the album. It reminds me of “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna because both songs present gritty portrayals of emotional abuse in relationships and how it psychologically messes up the survivor of this abuse because they know deep down they need to leave the relationship, but the perpetrator’s power is so life-threatening and the trauma so enduring that it is easier said than done to “just leave” an abusive relationship.
She also uses the E minor key in one of her most famous songs “Fighter”. I first heard this song when I was around eight years old. A friend had gotten me a mix of 2003 hits and “Fighter” was one of those hits. Every time I listen to it, I want to hit a punching bag or go back to tae kwon do to finally get my black belt. Somehow when I hear songs in the key of E minor I see a portentous black cloud hovering over an empty landscape, so that’s why E minor takes on such a dark tone for me as the listener. It reminded me of “U + Ur Hand” by P!nk because both songs are in the key of E minor and they also punch us in the ears with their heavy rock beats and thematic material.
As a classical musician, hearing Stripped was like listening to a piece by a Romantic-era composer. The Romantic era of music, which emerged from the Classical music period around 1830, allowed for a great deal of freedom in composing music, and composers such as Peter Tchaikovsky, Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler embraced passion and used music as a means of expressing deep emotions, such as depression and infatuation. Composers also branched out from the traditional orchestra format and experimented with woodwinds and percussion. Beethoven helped usher in this new approach to music by referencing other aspects of life, such as nature, in his works, and making sonatas and symphonies less strict-sounding. His “Ode to Joy” is a famous example, with its grand sweeping gestures and booming majestic chorus. A lot of Romantic era music I have noticed uses the key of E minor because it is such a brooding key. While listening to Stripped, I thought about all the Romantic era compositions that use E minor, and the list is inexhaustible. Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor smacks you in the face with E minor; the entire symphony is passionate and the last movement is a turbulent beautiful tangled-up web of pain, grief and yearning. Schumann’s Cello Concerto is another example; it is so hard to play in part because it is so emotionally complex. Schumann suffered with mental illness and so the player must feel what Schumann was trying to convey through the movements. While practicing it, I had to read up on the piece to understand what kind of emotional expression I needed to bring to the piece.
I could talk about this album for ages. Heck, I would love to do a deeper musical analysis. But there’s only so much I can say about how much this album touched me on a personal level. This blog can’t do justice to how incredible and powerful Stripped is for me. Aguilera’s songs have lifted me, inspired me to keep going even when I don’t feel like I can. Here’s one of the songs: