This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week’s worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we take a look back at one of the most controversial videos in pop music history — Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” — as director David LaChapelle and choreographer reflect on working on the singer’s biggest visual transition in her career.
On September 30, 2002, Christina Aguilera returned to the music world by stripping (literally) away her saccharine Disney image and reclaiming her artistry with the music video release of “Dirrty” — the lead single from Stripped, follow-up LP to her ’99 self-titled breakthrough.
The visual was a major shock for the singer’s fans, stuffed with “Did she really do that?” visuals that are now permanently etched in pop culture history. The black-and-white hair extensions, the assless chaps, the wacky Redman appearance, the gyrating shower orgy, the slutdrop! Aguilera fully transformed into her edgy “Xtina” persona, one that was centered on sexual freedom. At the time, the video faced immediate blowback, with critics describing it as an “intergalactic hooker convention” or brandishing the singer as “desperate and shrill.”
But despite the backlash, Aguilera stuck to her objective of flipping the male gaze. “OK, I may have been the naked-ass girl in the video, but if you look at it carefully, I’m also at the forefront,” she told Blender in 2003. “I’m not just some lame chick in a rap video; I’m in the power position, in complete command of everything and everybody around me.” Both the song and video were an introduction to a bolder, stronger and more self-aware Xtina — a mentality that shaped her entire Stripped album. Fast forward to almost two decades later, and Aguilera’s risk-taking move has inspired younger female pop singers — from Demi Lovato to Miley Cyrus — to take control of their image, own their sexuality and to, well, get down and dirty.
Below, Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” video director David LaChapelle and choreographer Jeri Slaughter go down memory lane with Billboard as they discuss the impact of the video and the roles they played to bring her vision to life.
LaChapelle: We first met through friends. I actually shot her for MTV’s [TRL Grammy Class Of 2000 photoshoot]. It’s funny, because I did a video before that for Moby called “Natural Blues” that had a smaller budget and was a totally different thing. Christina [Aguilera] wasn’t sure a photographer would give enough of a dirty departure for her. [laughs] But I really wanted to [direct the video] and had to get her feel confident with me.
Slaughter: I met Christina prior to doing “Dirrty.” I was actually an assistant choreographer [for Tina Landon in Los Angeles] at the time, and she kind of just wanted something super-fresh and new. It was such a different time for her. You know, being that she knew that she was stepping away from the norm of the pop world that she was basically living in. I would be in the studio with her, I think because we were around the same age, we would actually, like, chill out together. We would hit the clubs and whatnot. So she goes: “Would you be willing to submit a little something so that I can see what you would do to this song?” And she was looking at other people at the time to as well, it wasn’t just like she could kind of hand over the job to me. “Instead of putting it on a video,” I said, “I want you to come in and actually see it in person.” I was like, “I want you to feel so hype” — ‘cause sometimes watching the video, it’s not the same.
Slaughter: It was such a fun time, as far as going out during that time. There were no iPhones and videos and people taking pictures — you just felt free. And I think that that’s where the inspiration came from, not being clique-y with this group — oh, it’s bottle service over here. You were dancing on tables and grinding on a guy and a girl. It was the stuff that people were doing behind closed doors that was never seen. And I think that’s what we all love Christina for doing. She was doing stuff on the forefront that people were doing behind closed doors.
I work with her still to this day. Sixteen years later, it’s like, “What looks good on her?” Like, I know she’s really good at doing hip choreography. So I took that and heightened it [for the video]. And I would see her dance at the clubs and be like, “Girl, you are dropping it low! Okay, that what we’re gonna do.” I think [with] any artist, I believe that you always take the natural ability that someone has and grow off of that. It was all about booty popping back in the day and that’s what we called it. “Twerking” was actually booty popping. It’s just a new age form of it. You only did it at the club [back then].
LaChapelle: So we assured her that it would be [dirty enough], and we developed this underground Fight Club kind of situation. Just imagine this club that your parents wouldn’t want you to see! So we incorporated as many moments of insanity as possible. Like no one knew what a plushy was at that time. You know, people who would dress up as animals and dance at parties. [Laughs.] I came up with this scenario where I wanted her to come in on a motorcycle. My brother was a motocross state champion as a kid, so I wanted to bring a bike in. I thought the best thing to do was shoot in those dirty leather chaps. So that’s where the first shot [of the video] comes from.
We brought in certain street cats from Los Angeles, and were looking for dancers and freestylers. One of my friends told me about this thing going on in South Central called “Clowning,” and he wanted me to go see that. So we went looking for dancers for the “Dirrty” video, and that’s when I found this whole underground Krumping scene that turned into the movie Rize [a 2005 documentary directed by LaChapelle]. It was quite an interesting trajectory. The production company we were working with wanted to build a floor of concrete and wanted the dancers to dance on it. It would cost like $30,000. They said, “Well you’re not gonna see it.” But I told them, “I don’t care. They’re gonna feel it and get hurt.”
Back then, people just used dancers as extras. But I thought they played such a big part and bring so much to videos. It’s very helpful when it comes to editing. But “Dirrty” wasn’t too dark and edgy — it kind of had a sense of humor to the whole thing that saved it from being too gratuitous. For me, the atmosphere you create on set has to seep into what you’re gonna film. So it didn’t take itself too seriously.
TIME TO GET WET
LaChapelle: It was a really good time at the end of the day. I wanted to be at that party! [laughs] I think it was a three-day shoot. She ended it with the scene of her dancing in water with her girls, and just cleansing it all off. We were going overtime and we thought we wouldn’t have time to do it. But she was like, “Oh no, ‘that’s’ definitely happening!” She fought for that to stay in the video. All the guys were gone, so it was very cool to have these girls having fun without anyone bothering them. That was refreshing. Christina made shooting that really easy, she just went for it. And when we said ‘cut’ and turned the cameras off, that party vibe still kept going. Redman and his crew were so funny. Everyone kept pulling pranks on each other.
Slaughter: It was actually funny because it was actually the last scene that she shot of the video, which is towards the end of the music video as well. David was like, “Okay girls, let’s get in there and we’re just gonna kind of play with the water a little bit.” And I actually asked David, “Can we please do the choreography in the water?” Everybody was like, “Wait, what?” I told Christina, “Trust me. When you’re rolling on the floor and you’re slapping the ground with the booty pop, you’re gonna smack the water. And that’s gonna give it a really cool effect.” And so we did that and then the girls just went with it. It wasn’t really like this, like, “Oh, all these girls in shower” — it was just such a freeing kind of open experience that they just didn’t care who was watching or what they were doing. It was just like, “Let’s just have fun in the water.” And it was difficult because you already have like a foot of water that you’re trying to like splash around and move within it.
But the girls did amazing, and it was so worth it to end with that last scene. They were all so focused. There were a couple slips in the water here and there. But they’re professionals so they got it together right away. I mean, the minute you hear David LaChapelle [is going to be the director], you’re like, “Oh shit. What the hell is going to happen in this music video?” He’s so amazing and out there, in the best way. So, I think everyone was just super excited to see where he was gonna take it.
FROM DISNEY TO “DIRRTY”
Slaughter: I was super excited [for this new image]. I was there with her during this process of recording Stripped and saw how happy she was to be doing her own style of music. I was so honored to have received the okay to choreograph this video, because I saw how happy she was to break through something that she was wanted, but had to hold it back.
LaChapelle: She really went there [on set]. There were certain parts of it where everyone was looking at each other like, “Oh no, is this gonna work?” And then Christina comes out and just nails it. She’s got a very good presence on camera. She really wanted it to be dirtier! There were so many shots that we cut out because we were like, “Oh my gosh, there’s no way we can add that!” There was one point where she gets down [on the floor] and her red panties popped off under that schoolgirl kilt. So we just edited it out because we thought it was too much. But she said, “No no, put that back in!” [Laughs.] She was never late either, was really hands on and was really a part of the team. It was way easier than certain shoots where the artist was more delicate or stuck-up — that was not the case with Christina.
FACING THE CRITICS
LaChapelle: The reaction to the video was so overwhelming and a little overblown. We were on a roll with creating videos [at that time], so we didn’t actually have time to sit and think about it. But there was so much female empowerment involved, and Christina was ahead of her time in that sense. I did two follow-up videos with her — “Can’t Hold Us Down” and “The Voice Within.” We were listening to what people were saying [about “Dirrty”], and Christina wanted to give more input just based on the backlash it was getting. In a way, it upstaged her voice.
So when we did “The Voice Within,” it was one-take and black-and-white. It was really pared down to be all about her voice, and to bring [the conversation] right back to her music and artistry. We wanted it to be a reminder for people that she was still a great performer. So by following up with “The Voice Within,” we really replied to [that criticism].
Slaughter: [My response was]: “So what?” Like she said at the end of the video, “Ugh, what?” That was our motto. That was our “YOLO” back in the day. Like, “what are you gonna do?” Yeah, you can talk all you want, but you can’t hate on what’s good. You know, I think it was ahead of its time. You see things right now and you’re like, “That was the ‘Dirrty’ video back in the day.” She just wasn’t scared. And that’s what I love about her.
LaChapelle: The “Dirrty” video was such a shock to people after her being on Disney and doing “Genie In a Bottle.” I guess it did open the floodgates for [other pop singers]. But you have to have the musical chops. People see right through your work if you don’t have the talent to back it up — you can’t get by with just spectacles. I look at it now and there’s kind of an innocence to it compared to videos today. Back then, MTV had these standards you had to abide by, and today that’s all out the window and you can do pretty much anything you want in a video. So there were these parameters we had to work in, and it was fun because we pushed and bended it a little as much as we could without breaking the rules.
We tried to get as big of a production value from the budget as possible and really put the money in front of the camera. One of the funniest things is that Saturday Night Live parodied it and they did such a good job! Jimmy Fallon even had the shirt that I was wearing. It was so perfectly shot. Like, where did they get that budget? [Laughs.]
Slaughter: Out of all the videos I helped choreograph for her, “Dirrty” is number one, hands down. She didn’t care if people would like it or not. She just was being her and she’s always gonna do that from the very get-go. That time actually helped her for the many albums and music videos later. She was not afraid.
I 100 percent can say that it definitely opened the pop girls’ minds to be a little bit bold and to do what they want and feel. [The video] helped everybody in so many different ways. It helped all the women, the younger generation, the norm of society to open up. [Female empowerment] is something that will never leave her. She will always believe in that. There’s not many female artists that do that. She will fight ‘til the end.