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, pop music video icon Christina Aguilera looks back at the iconic clip she still views as her all-time favorite: the daring, empowering, ahead of its time “Dirrty.”
Let’s be upfront with it: Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” music video is capital-I Important. She’s always understood this, even if it took the rest of the world a few years to catch up.
It’s true that the 2002 visual, for the lead single from Aguilera’s sophomore album Stripped, served as a crucial inflection point in her professional life. Coming off of a Best New Artist Grammy win and Hot 100-topping smashes like “Genie in a Bottle” and the “Lady Marmalade” remake, the teen pop singer and former Disney star led her second full-length by challenging the boundaries of style and sound propped up around her. Gone were the flirtatious glances and long walks in the rain from her earlier clips, replaced by mud wrestling, cheekless chaps, dirt bikes, “slutdrops,” shots where Aguilera is literally surrounded by muscles, and Redman, delivering a particularly playful shout-rap over a crackling rhythm.
In retrospect, the David LaChapelle-directed video is an essential artifact from the popular music landscape of the early 2000s, representative of the turn-of-the-century bubblegum superstars leaving their baked-in wholesomeness behind and embracing more mature (read: scandalous!) imagery. Long before the Jonas Brothers ditched their purity rings and Miley Cyrus heralded her twerking renaissance, an entire generation of TRL titans — Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Britney Spears — had to figure out how to grow up in the spotlight: to be provocative, without alienating young fans and the parents who would buy them concert tickets. In its own explosive way, the “Dirrty” video was Aguilera’s respective moment to declare herself not a girl, most definitely a woman.
But that’s not why it’s important — plenty of teen artists have evolved into adults, with varying levels of sexy outfits and mature lyrical themes. The truth is, “Dirrty” was a battle cry. For Aguilera, “Dirrty” was less about sexuality than defiance — in (literally) muddying a pristine image, in fighting for her own agency as a young female artist in the major label system. None of Aguilera’s other music videos triggered such a pronounced backlash, including a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Aguilera is portrayed as a dumb Southerner; horrified critics comparing it to Girls Gone Wild; and fellow artists like Shakira and Jessica Simpson expressing concern. Yet “Dirrty,” Aguilera says now, ultimately set an example for young women to take control of their bodies; it’s the reason the video still means so much to her.
“The female body is something that I think is beautiful, and it is all about how you own it, really, and not exploit it for a man’s pleasure,” Aguilera tells Billboard. “If you are owning your own body and your own confidence, then it becomes something empowering.”
During a week in which Billboard staff named “Dirrty” one of the greatest music videos of the 21st century, the 37-year-old pop star — who returned last month with Liberation, her first album in six years — reflected on the making and importance of the visual, including her favorite scene to film, the role that gender played in the backlash and the strength at the heart of Stripped, which also included the hit singles “Beautiful” and “Fighter.” (Note: this interview has been edited for clarity.)
Aguilera: [It’s] my favorite video that I’ve ever done, to be honest — on a personal, fun note, because it’s just so freeing, and it was the first one on an album that was about just finding my own independence from feeling told what to do by a label. It was at a time where it was very about a squeaky-clean, pop-based image of what would sell as a package… But I was coming into my own. I had already done “Genie in a Bottle,” “Lady Marmalade,” and it was about coming of age, turning 21, and being free and making an album called Stripped — which had such a sexual connotation at the time, but it really didn’t. It was more about shedding a skin that I felt was not real to the person that I was growing into.
I had a lot of thoughts and emotions that I felt were not yet expressed and hadn’t been heard yet from a female perspective in my genre. I wanted to show all the sides on my record. It was very controversial at the time, and there were a lot of more straight-laced people who were more opposed to me coming out like that, after they had come to know me for something else in a different image. But I needed to be myself and express myself, and sexuality has always been something that I am comfortable with expressing. The female body is something that I think is beautiful, and it is all about how you own it, really, and not exploit it for a man’s pleasure. If you are owning your own body and your own confidence, then it becomes something empowering.
To me, “Dirrty” was all about being empowered and owning my sexuality for the first time, and not feeling that bearing my midriff was something for the label’s packaging or for commercialism. It was something that I was doing for myself, and being a little brash and having fun with it. I mean, calling a song “Dirrty” — it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be clean, perfect hair and pretty nails. It is going to be a little tousled, it’s going to be a big clusterfuck of characters and a mish-mosh of different personalities.
We had plushies, we had boxing, we had dirt bikes and Redman and muscle-heads. God, we had so many amazing people in that video, and it was such an amazing moment of feeling empowered and loving this crazy cast of characters around me, and David LaChapelle and his energy. I remember specifically doing that shower scene was so much fun for me — just being in the water, kicking it with my boots on, splashing around, getting down on my knees and hitting it with my knee pads, just feeling the water. It was so freeing. I will never forget that moment: just being able to be a young girl, and in charge of my own world at that point.
It was a time too where, [being] 21, you are exploring the club scene, going out more, seeing what’s out there. You have that rebellious side you are exploring. The funny thing is that I was definitely the late-bloomer. In many senses of the word, it took me a while to gain experience. I was definitely not a bad girl, and I was not that rebellious. I always had this focus and this dream and this dedication to what I wanted to accomplish in my life.
So “Dirrty” was not even a reflection of this bad-girl image — it was just me freeing myself and having fun. And, if you really want to look at it in the best possible way, I wasn’t even doing it with drugs, or in this behind-closed-doors way. I was expressing it on camera, being free, being creative, exploring the creative energies around me with my choreographer at the time Jeri Slaughter — who did an amazing job with this I thought. I mean, this video really showcased the original white girl twerking, to be honest! It was definitely that, when I got down low, “show you a little something, on the floor…” That was the moment that I let it be known, I had that little something going on where I knew what was up.
It was very hard to go through [the backlash to the video]. There was a lot of, I thought, gender discrimination with this. Because here you have boy bands pelvic-thrusting to death on stage, and all these girls screaming, and no one really says anything about it. It’s just “boys will be boys,” and once again, we are labeling girls who were trying to own their sexuality and not just use it as a man’s pleasure. There was a lot of shaming that was going on when I was doing that video. As fun as it was, and I was surrounded by a team that was very supportive that I was just going to be me.
I saw the injustice of a lot of it, and I really wanted to turn that into a conversation, when someone would question me about it. Even when I would notice a female journalist get upset about how sexual the video was or whatnot, I would say, “Let’s talk about it — why does that upset you? Why does it affect you so much on a strong, personal level?” Because I could see that some people weren’t getting over this. And it’s interesting now, looking back, it is such a statement video, and it is very tame in comparison to some of the videos that we even see to date. Also, with some of the wardrobe choices and things that female pop stars are fearlessly wearing now, which is so amazing… back then, if anyone were to walk a red carpet wearing a lot of the things I see other pop stars in this generation wearing, they would be laughed off the carpet, ridiculed and made so much fun of. They wouldn’t have a career.
Now, things that aren’t “normal” are being far more embraced. Things that are more risk-taking are far more appreciated for being fearless. And now we also have social media where you can speak your mind and speak up for what you believe in and address your actions right on the spot, and also defend other females that you support and that you connect with. With social media, that is the plus of it. At that time that I was coming out, I only had the voice through outside media. You went from creating your art to what the press illustrated of it, and what words they chose to use of yours in their articles. So, it was very difficult. But I stood my ground, and honestly, I am so proud of myself for doing that. At such a young age, it was hard, and I tend to be a very sensitive, vulnerable person. But integrity is far more important to me than any other thing.
And then what do you do [after “Dirrty”]? You hit them with the one-two punch of “Beautiful” next, and “Fighter,” and you realize it’s all done with a purpose. I’m showcasing the many sides of being a strong woman: a little bit of owning your sexuality, being able to be vulnerable and owning your vulnerability, and then being able to stand up for yourself and own your past. Speaking to that little girl within — which then becomes that voice within — it all is on purpose. So, it all came full circle, but it all had to start somewhere and get people’s attention and wake them up… You can only be 21 once, and there was a first time for those chaps, and it was a pretty epic thing.