One of the most fascinatingly jarring parts about Stripped wasn't the topless cover, but the wide range of music it covered. While Christina's rivals stuck to a signature sound (Britney Spears' dance-pop helped define an era) or awkwardly tried to hop genres (Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore's flips from bubblegum to sultry pop felt more like a label push than artistic renaissance), Christina was set on showcasing her span of influences and sounds for Album No. 2 after firmly establishing herself in top 40 world. That range was consistent throughout the 20 tracks as she embraced elements of...and take a breath here...Latin-pop and flamenco ("Infatuation"), neo-soul ("Loving Me 4 Me"), jazz and funk ("Impossible," "Underappreciated"), rock ("Fighter"), gospel ("Soar," "Keep on Singing My Song") and beyond. And she sold each and every performance, bringing in the right guests like Linda Perry, Lil' Kim, Dave Navarro, Alicia Keys, Redman and more to help her vision.
Despite introducing the record with a turned-up club jam, Aguilera flipped everyone on their head by following up with a ballad as classic as they come with "Beautiful." Rihanna instantly comes to mind as another musical shapeshifter, able to seamlessly showcase all her different influences throughout albums. But Ariana Grande's latest LPs My Everything and Dangerous Woman also show a huge range of genres and influences (compare "Side to Side" to "Into You"), as did Miley Cyrus on Bangerz, which jumped from its sassy, Salt-N-Pepa-inspired title track to a gut-wrenching ballad, "Maybe You're Right."
Ultimately, Christina defining herself as "stripped" was not an ode to her sexually empowered image, but representative of her peeling back layers and getting to the music and emotions that make up the vocal powerhouse as a human -- including all her darkness, fears and insecurities.
With edgier makeup, outfits, and hair choices, Christina was visually marking her evolution, rocking jet-black hair for half her era, infamously using piercings as a way to cope with trauma, and taking more fashion risks than ever with bold dresses, cheeky pins and lots of see-through. Of recent, Rihanna may have most famously made this artistic jump during her Rated R era that saw her taking a noticeably darker turn (see the songs "Russian Roulette," "Mad House") and her look growing more provocative (with an asymmetrical pixie cut and showing lots more skin), and being more frank about who she was at the time (specifically requesting more somber music).
But the idea of Stripped also represented the topics and hyper-specific experiences that Xtina was examining in herself.
Penultimate track "I'm OK" saw her on the verge of tears singing about the domestic abuse she witnessed as a child, "Walk Away" detailed her inability to leave a toxic relationship, "Infatuation" discussed her first love in former dancer Jorge Santos, as the "Loves Embrace Interlude" gave insight into her fear to let someone love her, almost certainly about then-boyfriend Jordan Bratman. Listeners got insight into Demi Lovato's head via her revealing "Daddy Issues" off her Xtina-approved Tell Me You Love Me album, which explores how the star's estranged father affects her love and sex life. Meanwhile, Cyrus' Bangerz album is essentially the tale of her dissolving engagement with Liam Hemsworth that begins with the tender love song "Adore You" and ends with the aggressively declarative "Someone Else."
And, of course, Stripped lives on for its bold embracing of sexuality.
All four of the aforementioned pop stars have become increasingly aware of the power their sexuality brings in the public eye. Whether it's Ariana seducing the camera while declaring herself a "Dangerous Woman" in the accompanying video, Demi making sexual experimentation "Cool for the Summer," or Miley literally donning her own pair of leather chaps on tour (to which Xtina applauded, "Cheers from one dirrty girl to the next") it all feels like the next steps in the path Aguilera helped build after the likes of Donna Summer, Madonna and Cher.
But today's stars have a much more sex-positive environment and won't have Saturday Night Live making a judgey (and unfortunately quite unfunny) skit, Entertainment Weekly calling them "desperate and shrill," Time referring to them as "hookers," or continuous hatred from other celebrities (did Kelly Osbourne really have a crush on Xtina?). Songs like "Get Mine, Get Yours" talk of Xtina's affinity for casual sex, while "Can't Hold Us Down" includes lines like, "The guy gets all the glory the more he can score / While the girl can do the same yet you call her a whore." Who else was talking like that and owning it with an equally open and sexually positive image in 2002?
If people had been paying attention to the full story instead of just the leather chaps, they would have seen the grand vision Aguilera was unfolding and her influence would be much more widely recognized on today's pop scene. The Thursday before Stripped's release, Christina delivered a short set at Chicago radio station B96's Halloween Bash. She performed "Dirrty" and "Get Mine, Get Yours," but during her performance of "Beautiful" -- one of the first live renditions of the future Grammy-winning song -- the instrumental track started skipping so Xtina asked for the music to be cut and busted out an a cappella performance with her backup singers before wrapping it up with the bluesy "Impossible." Yes, getting dirrty help introduce the world to the new Xtina, but the deeper messages of individuality, positivity, hopefulness and above-all-else confidence that came with that introduction have only recently begun to be embraced and recognized in pop music. Whenever that next album comes -- it's soon right, Ms. Christina Maria?!? -- one can only hope her shape-shifting legacy fuels more empowering, exciting artistry.