— by Jennifer Vineyard, with additional reporting by John Norris and Luc Edwards
It didn't bother her until her wedding day, when she realized there was no one to give her away.
Christina Aguilera wasn't the sort of girl who had dreamed of the perfect dress for her wedding, or floral arrangements or songs for the first dance. So it also hadn't occurred to her that not inviting her estranged father to the ceremony last November also meant she'd be walking down the aisle alone.
"I was thinking, 'I'm a performer, I'll be fine, I can handle it on my own,' and I felt good about it," she recalls. "But then, all of a sudden, I was actually doing it and I just felt, 'Wow' — like, I finally got that whole 'daddy's girl' thing. It would have felt good to have that support right there next to you." She pauses, actually tearing up a little, then regains her composure. "I didn't think it was important before," she says.
There seems to be a new Christina Aguilera on view these days — especially on her new double album, Back to Basics. She may have showed a lot of skin in the past, but she didn't let many people get beneath the surface. "I'm very protective of how much I let people see," she says, citing trust issues that she traces back to childhood abuse and unsavory early business experiences.
So on her new album, she's finally breaking down the walls with a cycle of songs that actually deal with that childhood abuse ("Oh Mother"), lacking a father figure ("The Right Man"), and how true love can heal all wounds in the end. In fact, with tracks like "Understand," "Save Me From Myself," "Makes Me Wanna Pray," "On Our Way" and "Without You," Back to Basics is essentially a love letter to her new husband Jordan Bratman. Being with him, she says, has made it possible to "leave behind my past."
"I'm excited about my future with my new husband," she continues. "Everybody needs that one person that takes you to the right place to see all the positives in your life. At 25 years old, I feel happier than I've ever been."
She's still singing the blues, but because she wants to. The album's first disc, produced by DJ Premier, samples everything from songs by blues legend B.B. King and old-school New Orleans hitmaker Allen Toussaint to deeply obscure jazz tracks from the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Disc two, produced by Linda Perry (Pink, James Blunt, Christina's 2002 LP, Stripped), is different: It hardly has any samples, but a vintage sound was created with techniques like using vintage microphones muffled with cloth. These retrospective overtones — this interview even took place at Hollywood's historic Roosevelt Hotel, "the playground of luminaries including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Marilyn Monroe," according to its Web site — are more than just a new commercial strategy. For Christina, the past is a place in which she's found refuge before.
"I call it my fun music," she says of the unexpected sounds that crop up in her new songs. They date back to her childhood, when she was 7 or 8 years old and had just moved in with her grandmother to escape from her father, whom she claims was physically abusive. Grandma decided that little Christina needed some retail therapy, so together they made the rounds of Pittsburgh record stores, buying up vinyl albums by Etta James, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Ray Charles. "I was just so drawn to that [kind of music], even at a very young age," Christina recalls. "Blues and soul and jazz music has so much pain, so much beauty of raw emotion and passion. It made me want to dance; it made me want to sing."
And sing she did. Christina started performing some of the songs her grandmother had exposed her to at local block parties, then graduated to singing the national anthem at Pittsburgh Pirates games, and then to "Star Search," which she calls "the 'American Idol' of my time." She was embarrassed to be called "the little girl with the big voice," but the proverbial shoe fit. "I just opened my mouth, and when it came from the heart, it just came out."
When she won a spot on the "Mickey Mouse Club" show — appearing alongside such other future stars as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Keri Russell — she felt she was home at last: "Like, finally, kids that enjoy doing the same things that I like to do." The bad old days with her father began to recede, although they never disappeared from her memory.
"I think going through what I went through at a young age — the abuse that went on in my household — did affect me a lot," Christina says. "Domestic violence is a topic that is very hush-hush in society. People don't really want to talk about it or get involved — 'Oh, that's personal family business,' they say. But really, children's lives, real lives, are at stake. If someone was drowning in a pool, wouldn't you try to reach in and help them?"