Baz Luhrmann was driving through Los Angeles when he heard Christina Aguilera belt the bridge of “Lady Marmalade” on the radio for the first time. It was the spring of 2001, and this version — produced by Missy Elliott, and featuring the staggering pop/rap supergroup of Mya, P!nk, Lil Kim, and Aguilera — had been playing on a loop in the head of the Australian director since he popped into the studio while they were recording it.
The hook, “voulez-vous couchez avec mois ce soir?,” was delivered in French, but universally understood thanks to the largesse of the original: first released by R&B trio Labelle in 1974, “Lady Marmalade” was an ode to a New Orleanian prostitute that seduced listeners with an unforgettable proposition — in English, do you want to sleep with me tonight? — and an iconic bass line that propelled it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Later that day, Luhrmann pulled up to the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, and Aguilera’s same high notes came blasting out the windows of a car rolling down Sunset Boulevard. He then flew to France to attend the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where his third feature, a jukebox musical starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor called Moulin Rouge!, was set to premiere. By then, “Lady Marmalade,” Moulin Rouge!’s signature song, was inescapable — and the movie it was recorded for hadn’t even hit theaters yet.
“You could feel the energy,” he recalls. “It pretty much didn’t stop. There was lots of amazing music in the film, but everywhere I went, every talk show I went on, we were played on with duh nuh nuh nuhhh, nuh nuh nuh — that opening riff brought us on for the next year and a half.”
Set in the bohemian throes of turn-of-the-century Paris, Moulin Rouge! told a tragic love story through reimagined versions of pop’s most enduring classics, from Elton John’s “Your Song” to Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” “Lady Marmalade,” the star of the soundtrack, was tailor-made for Luhrmann’s romantic epic: the can-can dancers and courtesans of the Moulin Rouge! needed a theme, and they found it in this fresh arrangement orchestrated by Elliott, who produced it alongside Rockwilder, her frequent collaborator, and Ron Fair, who discovered Aguilera and helmed the vocals throughout the recording process.
In hindsight, “Lady Marmalade” was always destined to be huge — even if the film studio, 20th Century Fox, and Interscope Records, the label distributing the soundtrack, didn’t initially understand what Luhrmann was trying to do. Like its predecessor, the quartet’s new version was an indisputable smash: it reigned at No. 1 on the Hot 100 for five weeks — one of the first No. 1 hits to get to the top spot on the strength of airplay alone — making “Marmalade” only one of a handful of songs to reach the chart’s summit through two separate renditions. The music video, directed by Paul Hunter, ran with Moulin Rouge!’s lingerie-clad aesthetic and was an instant favorite on MTV’s Total Request Live. Both Moulin Rouge! and “Lady Marmalade” went on to enjoy a fruitful awards season, with the film collecting two Academy Awards and the song scoring a Grammy for best pop collaboration with vocals at the 2002 ceremonies.
Twenty years later, “Lady Marmalade” remains one of the most-streamed songs on any platform for the five women involved; it’s enjoyed a place of honor in Aguilera and Mya’s live setlists, and Lil Kim joined Aguilera onstage as recently as 2019 to relive the glory of these “badass chicks from the Moulin Rouge.” Below, Aguilera, Mya, Patti LaBelle, Rockwilder, Fair, Luhrmann, and the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack and music supervision team revisit how they gave “Lady Marmalade” a second life, and how it continues to thrive in sassy, sultry glory.
“There’s a blood line from Romeo + Juliet straight into Moulin Rouge!”
Moulin Rouge! is the third and final installment in Lurhmann’s “red curtain trilogy,” which includes his directorial debut, 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, his edgy, contemporary presentation of William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy. Music played a crucial part in anchoring Romeo + Juliet in a modern context, but the studio balked when he paired Garbage, Desiree and Radiohead with iambic pentameter. They were proven wrong when the film came in first at the box office and the soundtrack debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, which made it easier for Luhrmann to ask for and receive the support he needed when it came time to plan his next picture.
Still, the studio didn’t fully understand the appeal of a Belle Epoque musical that mashed up “Lady Marmalade” with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — but Jimmy Iovine, the founder of Interscope Records, trusted Lurhmann and his vision. After getting the green light from Fox and Interscope, Luhrmann and his team set about securing the songs that would eventually build the foundation of Moulin Rouge! — and bring “Lady Marmalade” into the fold.
Anton Monsted (music supervisor, Moulin Rouge!; EVP of soundtracks and A&R, Capitol Records): When I came into the picture on Romeo + Juliet [as Luhrmann’s assistant], one of the first things he said was, “Music is going to play a huge part in helping to bridge the storytelling language [between] the Shakespearean language and the contemporary setting.” When he pitched the film to 20th Century Fox, it was a tall order: he very memorably said to the head of the studio, “Oh, did I mention there’ll be contemporary music, hit records, more hit records than you can possibly imagine?” After getting the film greenlit, we all had to set about living up to that promise.
Laura Wasserman (music supervisor, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!): At first, people didn’t understand [Romeo + Juliet], but the one thing that was solid was, if you took scenes to musical artists, they went crazy — musicians and artists just loved it. I was never scared to put him in a room with an artist. He understood the artist’s mind, the musician’s mind; he could really express visually what he wanted to them, and they just wanted so badly to be part of his creative vision.
Karyn Rachtman (music supervisor, Romeo + Juliet; soundtrack exec. producer, Moulin Rouge!): I really remember the conversation for Romeo + Juliet, how we had to convince the record label every step of the way, and how Baz had to fight Fox every step of the way. With Moulin Rouge!, it was based on the success of Romeo + Juliet, and there was no question: whatever Baz was doing next, every record label wanted it.
Luhrmann: I found my great advocate for what, at the time, people thought was the most ridiculous idea in the world, and I can understand why — [Moulin Rouge!] was a musical set in the 19th century. But the gift, the preposterous conceit of the musical, is that Christian, the poet, the hits of the 20th century come out of his mouth instead of poetry — therefore, in a comic way, we know he’s a genius. When I went to see Jimmy Iovine at Interscope, he said: “You know, it’s a crazy friggin’ idea, but I’m gonna throw the dice.” In his Jimmy way, he said, “I’ve spent my life betting on creative ideas and creative folk.” He really backed us.
Wasserman: Baz has a very good sense of music, and he comes to the table with a lot of taste and a lot of ideas. You just take what he talks about and elaborate on it. He’s not scared of new things.
Monsted: There’s a blood line, or a lineage, from Romeo + Juliet straight into Moulin Rouge! In many ways, Moulin Rouge! is an evolution and a deeper dive into that style of storytelling.
Luhrmann: The whole idea was to make a popular opera, really. A lot of what I learnt and the rules that we started to set with Romeo + Juliet, we went on to say, “How far can we go with Moulin Rouge!?” Back in the day, publishing was so protected.
Anton and I really had to battle, and the only way we got that done — I literally met with Elton John [about “Your Song”], who said, “What are you talking about, darling, this is a great idea!” I remember getting a lovely note from Phil Collins, who said, “I think it’s great, let’s do it!” I met with Dolly Parton, who said to me, “You know, that song of mine, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ has been a hit twice — maybe it’ll be a hit three times.” It was the artists who actually led the charge to allow us to make what now is commonplace: it’s more than mashing up, it’s cross-fertilizing music. It’s a natural part of musical growth.
Rachtman: It was a very interesting time then in the soundtrack world, too, because soundtracks were doing so phenomenal that there were people out there doing “inspired by” records, where these songs had absolutely nothing to do with the movie… We had MTV then, and we had videos, and we had singles, and it would help promote the movie that would help promote the record. It was a beautiful relationship. People were making excuses to get a video on MTV that would cross-promote both things when it really wasn’t organic and authentic. With Baz Luhrmann, everything about the music in that movie was authentic.
“We wanted something a little bit like the Fantastic Four or the Avengers”
Lurhmann, Monsted, Wasserman, and the rest of the music team had hundreds of songs on a shortlist to work with, but “Lady Marmalade” stood out as the perfect track to introduce the vibrant vixens of the Moulin Rouge on the dance floor. Once they secured the rights to the track, they considered the possibility of a supergroup that could refresh Labelle’s treatment in a very 2001 way — and that began with approaching Missy Elliott, one of the most compelling artists and producers of the new millennium.
Monsted: [“Lady Marmalade”] was written into the screenplay fairly early in the process. Baz and (co-screenwriter) Craig Pierce certainly thought that this was the song that could be used to express the world of the courtesans. When those can-can dancers come out, they’re not just dancers: they are Parisienne courtesans who are showing their availability to all the men of the Moulin Rouge — selling their wares, if you like. The “voulez-vous couchez avec moi,” it’s French, it’s cheeky, and it’s sexy, and it felt like the right song to introduce the courtesans. It was part of the fabric of this film very early.
Patti LaBelle: I really didn’t have a clue that I was singing about a hooker when we heard the song [for the first time in the ‘70s]. Bob Krewe had played it for us, and we were on our way from L.A. to New Orleans to record with Allen Touissant. I said, “My god, we have a hit!” And he said, “Well, what’s the name of it?” And I said, “Lady Marmalade.”
We got to the part: “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, gitchy gitchy ya ya da da, mocha chocolata, ya ya.” It was about a hooker, and we didn’t realize that until maybe three months after the song was out, because there were some nuns who were a little upset with us singing about a hooker. My response was, well, a hooker has to make a living, too — she don’t take the mic out of my mouth and I’m not gonna take the mattress from under her. It was an accident, but a good accident.
Monsted: We were working on crafting a hybrid musical language, and “Lady Marmalade” was part of the crafting of that language. We had the actual cast members who were in the film singing that song as it appeared in the opening sequence of Moulin Rouge!
Wasserman: It’s funny because the studio didn’t understand it: they thought it was going to be really cool, but the opening scene was just that crazy sort of montage, you know? The studio just couldn’t deal. They were like, “You gotta fix whatever,” and [Baz] was just like, “No. I’m not changing my vision.” He was right.
Monsted: That song had a second life quite a bit later — twelve months later — after the film had been shot. We approached Missy Elliott, she brought in Rockwilder, and we went on that second journey of reinterpreting the song on top of the bones that had already been in place.
Lurhmann: Because the Moulin Rouge had such diversity, my original idea was, “Let’s do ‘Lady Marmalade,’ but let’s let all of the characters be sung by the greatest pop singers from each continent in the world.” I wanted the greatest K-pop girl, the greatest European singer, the greatest American singer. I have to give props, very much so, to Laura Wasserman: she [said], “Look, that sounds like it’ll take forever to do. Why don’t we go with every different genre in America? Let’s get the most emerging pop singer, the edgiest rap artist…”
Wasserman: It took two years to get the song organized, and then it took me a while to put all those girls together. [Laughs.] I didn’t even know what I was getting into. Baz always makes it [seem] like, anything can happen, anything is possible, just try and go for it. I was the type of person who would be like, “Okay, I’ll go do it!”
Monsted: We wanted these performers [to] clearly come from different places in the world of pop music culture — a little bit like the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or the X-Men. If you were trying to create a supergroup, you wanted to make sure that in doing so, their combined power is greater than the sum of its parts.
Wasserman: It was sort of like the chicken and the egg. I started throwing all these balls up in the air. [I got] Missy Elliott as the producer, and then I went to Irving Azoff, and I was like, “This movie is really incredible, I’m telling you, it’s going to be really amazing — do you think Christina would do it?” At first [he] was like, “Yeah, for a gazillion dollars.” I’m like, “I can’t do that. I have to make a deal, it has to be equal, it has to be appropriate.” Fox just wasn’t going to give us the budget. He’s like, “Let me think about it.” Then I found out that [Christina] loves Missy and Lil Kim, and so I got Lil Kim to agree, and then Christina was like, “I really wanna do this!”
We went to P!nk, and someone else in the department had a relationship with her. We got her on board. They all sort of said they would do it if the other one would do it — and tried to get one to say yes before the other. We got them all together, and then Interscope was like, “We want to have Mya in there.”
Lurhmann: Jimmy had to put the money down to make sure we could get all the different labels on board. At the time, it was very much Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, but Christina really had the pipes. Jimmy loved the idea because with his crazy movie, there would be this one powerhouse single — if we could pull it off. P!nk had just emerged on the scene; Mya had “Ghetto Supastar.” Lil Kim was a super edgy, young rap artist. Christina was the powerhouse. Eventually, we got them all on board, and the question was how to get them recorded. Ron Fair, who ran the label and was Christina’s guy, is also a great, great vocal producer.
Ron Fair (exec. producer; then-president, A&M Records): At the time I still had a very vigorous, wonderful relationship with Christina, who I discovered and signed to RCA, which probably is the single most important act of A&R in my life. Through Jimmy’s vision, when I became the president of A&M, I still was allowed to work with Christina. We were coming off of a hot streak of albums we made together when I was at RCA. I was really brought in to be the guy to help with the vocals, and we were constantly in touch with the producer, Missy, but her DJ and producer, Rockwilder, really did a lot of production on the music track.
Rockwilder (producer): I think I was working on stuff for Janet [Jackson] — the All For You album — at Westlake studios. Missy was in the next room and asked if I wanted to be a part of this journey with her of remaking “Lady Marmalade.” I was like, “Wow, ‘Lady Marmalade?!’” I said, “Yes, no problem.”
Mosted: We were obsessed with Missy Elliott. Once we knew that we would be working with Missy on the track, we knew that we were in the right hands to do something incredible… I remember how fresh Missy’s production sounded at the time, how it felt very of the moment. That was what we were trying to do: we were trying to nod to the classic stature of the track and people’s relationship to LaBelle’s version, which is the one everybody knows, the one everybody grew up with. We wanted to break new ground, but you can’t throw out the past while you’re doing it.
Fair: In Baz Luhrmann’s mind, Missy was going to be the grand chef of the flavor of the whole reinterpretation of the song, and we knew what an important scene it was in the film.
Rockwilder: The glue to the whole thing is the fact that Missy was involved. She has such an attractive vibe that the only way I think it could’ve been pulled off [was] if Missy was actually the glue in it, hearing the sonics of what she needed to hear from us to take it to that level. She’s like this intersection: once she’s in the middle of it, it has no choice but to be great, and I love her for that. (Ed. Note: Missy Elliott, along with P!nk and Lil’ Kim, declined to be interviewed for this article. Elliott sent a statement to Billboard calling the “Lady Marmalade” recording “one of the best creative experiences we all ever had,” and declaring it “a true celebration of diversity, talent, and female unity.”)
Christina Aguilera: When the song first came to me and it was presented as an idea, I was totally into it. Ron and I were working very closely together, and had just come off the success of my first record. This was an important and exciting time for me to sink my teeth into stuff I loved, and as I soon as I heard Missy Elliott and Rockwilder’s duh nuh nuh nuhhhh nuh nuh nuh — as soon as you hear that hard bass line and bring that into the picture, it was undeniable that this was something that feels good from your gut.
Mya: I got a call from my management, and it was very vague: “Hey, do you wanna do a song with a couple of females? We’re looking at P!nk, Missy, Christina Aguilera, Lil Kim.” I’m not sure they had everyone together, but it sounded interesting. I didn’t even know what the song was. I said, “Sure, that sounds really cool, what is it about?”
And so, as time went on, I got wind of when the session might be and what time I could start studying, and it was a song I was already familiar with. I had worked with Missy Elliott on my very first album, and P!nk and I used to work with the same producers when we were like, 16 years old in Philly. I knew her as Alecia prior to P!nk, so that was pretty cool.
Anton Monsted: It’s a bit like when I’ve watched Baz assemble the cast for any of his films: there’s a moment where it just clicks, and you go, “Ah! We’re there. We’ve got the right cast to make this movie.” It felt that way with this combination of performers and with Missy very much in the mix.
“There was a really healthy, love-of-music riff fest going on”
With Elliott and the quartet secured, recording began: Rockwilder set about putting a 2001 spin on Allen Toussaint’s funky arrangements from the original, while Fair worked with Aguilera, Mya, P!nk, and Lil Kim on their respective vocal tracks.
Everyone involved had either just come off a career-defining hit or was on their ascent to super stardom: Mya was riding the wave of her 2000 hit, “Case of the Ex;” P!nk released her debut single, “There You Go,” in 2000; Lil Kim stunned the world with her highest-charting album yet, The Notorious K.I.M., that summer. Aguilera was on the cusp of transitioning from teen-pop stardom to a more mature sound. It was the perfect time to bring these ascending talents together while giving the can-can girls something to dance to.
Due to scheduling conflicts, the artists were rarely together in the studio, but controversy played out in the headlines anyway: P!nk later alluded to tense negotiations at the onset of the recording process in an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, which led to what Fair refers to as a “media-generated feud” between her and Aguilera. (The pop stars have long since made amends.)
Monsted: I remember the “Lady Marmalade” period as one where we were all feeling the pressure of time. We were mixing the film, finishing the music for the rest of the film — and then just, night after night after night, I remember being in the studio with Baz. We’d go to the studio, and listen to the track with Missy, and then the next night, we’d be in the studio with P!nk, or Christina — I think it was quite a mountain to climb to get all these elements together.
Rockwilder: They had the scheduling of the days that we were supposed to sit down and talk about it, but when they had the session, I saw Mya come in, then P!nk came in, and then Christina came in, and I remember being with my friend Twin, and he looked at me, and he was like, “What’s about to happen?!” And I said, “I don’t know!”
Fair: Rockwilder found a way to reinvent the harmonic structure without any sacrifice. If you go back and listen to Toussaint’s version, it’s got all the Professor Longhair piano, and all the New Orleans stuff, and I love all that. But in this version, in order for it to live at a contemporary spot, it had to be simplified.
Rockwilder: That growl that was in the original, the bass melody was really the first and foremost thing that you actually needed to really stand out. So what I did, I basically took it and made it more rock, more aggressive, more grimey, and brought it back with some harder drums, and the bridge. Everyone [recognizes] the familiar cowbell, and then the organ and the bridge part — I think those were the major key parts I wanted to accent from the original.
Luhrmann: We were all into tech, and Missy had just got with Rockwilder, and they’d just laid down the bottom mic tracks. I talked to them, and took them through the world of Moulin Rouge!, and Rockwilder said, “I got it: it’s kind of like the follies.”
Fair: Mya, she’s a recording monster — loves the process, totally disciplined, has a great pocket — so she was like, “Well let me start!” She started with the “voulez-vous couchez avec moi”s, and laid down the pocket for the background parts that later on Christina and P!nk would jump on… She was a great partner at the beginning to lay down the structure of how we’re going to do it.
Mya: When we recorded the song we did it in two phases: we started with backgrounds at the same recording studio, and we were all there. We cut out leads separately, and we sang the song down from top to bottom.
Fair: There was a really healthy, love-of-music riff fest going on within the record. We had a very architecturally profound template from Mya, and then Christina and P!nk both in their absolute prime, singing to the 45th row, swinging to the fences in the way they approached the song.
Christina Aguilera: We were all very busy ladies at the time as well, at the same time, doing our own records and our own travels. We ended up separating [and] just squeezing in the recording whenever we had the chance, so not all of us got to be in the same room for all of that. I remember there being some kind of an initial sit-down and listening to the song and playing it. Just the beat alone kicking in was incredible, and feeling the energy, it was a beautiful thing to know that we were embarking off on something that was going to be super groundbreaking and special.
Rockwilder: The vocals, there was no ego nowhere: everybody was just professional, and everybody was good.
Fair: I don’t remember any real friction between them because they weren’t in the studio at the same time. I was so proud of all of them. P!nk had an amazing tone; she sounded like Joplin on steroids. She brought such a broad paintbrush in her vocal tone.
Rockwilder: There are a lot of things that a lot of people don’t know P!nk is capable of vocally, man — she does it effortlessly. She’ll do it with a beer and a cigarette in her hand, you know? [Laughs.] [Kim], like P!nk, her persona is in the vocals: you can close your eyes and those girls could take you somewhere. Kim is definitely one of those people. Of course the music changes up, the track gets more hip-hop, but she works with anything that comes to her. I didn’t make the beat too hip-hop for her, but I made it just a one-two step thing, and she landed right on it, and brought it.
Mya: I love that for Kim being the pioneer — as hardcore as she was, and still is — I think that’s a beautiful thing, to be able to be yourself and take your world wherever you go. That’s just the beauty of collaboration and people being open-minded… [Her verse] adds a different flavor to what was once already a hit. It’s not revamp, it’s not refresh; it gives a new twist, a new-era type of twist to the original.
Rockwilder: When Lil Kim’s part came on, that’s when the whole marriage came together. It gave me an opportunity to experiment with mixing pop in hip-hop. It became its own world. We weren’t prepared for what was to come with this record.
You know what’s funny about that part? There’s a song called “Crush On You” that Lil Kim did in her early years with [Lil Cease]. She says, “And you can gitchi gitchi ya ya with the Marmalade.” Every time I hear that part, I’m like, “I wonder — did she know that years later she would’ve been part of what she sang?” That was like, [‘97]: who woulda known she would’ve been a part of the biggest, most iconic thing to do with that vocal?
Luhrmann: [Ron] was so intense. For all of Christina’s incredible vocal powers, he had her record over and over and over again. I just have this image in my mind of him laying on his back with a tiny whiskey flask in his hand, doing shots of whiskey at like, 5 in the morning, and they’d been doing that vocal over and over and over again. When you listen to that track, you listen to how pristine that vocal is — that’s just Ron with his particular gift for vocal coaching.
Fair: Instead of trying to land a lick and put it in a place, I just said, “Sing anywhere!” because the song is modular enough that I could extract them and put them anywhere I wanted later on. If Christina got into a good lick, I’d say, “Do it again!” and she’d give me two or three passes. Then I extracted all the ad libs, and attached them to two keyboards in the shape of an L. I had maybe 25 Christina licks, 25 P!nk licks, 25 Mya licks, and 25 licks from Lil Kim. I broke them into individual files, and then assigned them to the notes of the keyboard… Then I played them off the keyboard into the record until I had this unbelievable scheme where it sounded like they were singing it all, so one girl started, one girl came in on the end, and it turned into this magnificent thing. It was 13 days where I did not sleep. It was an absolutely holy experience making that record.
Aguilera: This was a transition time for me, where [I sang] how I wanted to sing for the first time. I’m a vocalist, and at the end of the day, I can’t help the way I feel a song and if I want to ad lib. Within the pop boundaries at the time, I remember, I would be told a lot to hold back — to not sing so much, to not sing so loud, to not put an adlib here or there, because it doesn’t fit a pop format. By the time I was done with [“Lady Marmalade”], I was moving on to Stripped and making a record that I felt embodied me, and not caring about having a lot of restrictions.
So it was a transition song — but also, the way it was written, Patti LaBelle being the greatest and the other ladies in LaBelle… they really sang that song. I was able to be like, “Okay, I can really feel this, and I can really feel good about letting loose and belt if I wanna belt, adlib if I wanna adlib.” The fact that all the ladies brought their vocals to the table, too, in unison and harmonies, it was so beautiful to see. It wasn’t so formatted. We were doing a lot vocally, and it was demanding! It was an incredible thing that everybody met that bar.
Mya: My worry and concern was always covering a hit record and doing it justice, keeping the integrity, and also making it appeasing or pleasing to the ears of the listeners from the generation that received the first hit record [while] merging both worlds together. You want to pay homage respectfully and appropriately, artistically, and have the originators be proud of your rendition, and not say, “Why did I clear this song? This sucks!” That was my only concern… but I loved the finished product. I was actually wowed when I heard it. You never know how it’s going to sound after you leave the studio unless you’re engineering it yourself.
Fair: We were sending [Missy] files: every time I would do another pass or another edit or another version, I’d be like, “Are we good?” She’d give me notes and make me change things. She kept her hand on the steering wheel, which was a great thing, because she couldn’t be in the room with us, but she gave me enough freedom to bring this sort of polished pop thing that I do, but keep the hum. It was a magic collaboration.
Luhrmann: The CD-Rom had just been invented, I think, so we wanted to get a copy of the track. We had these new laptops; they were probably the size of a fridge. So it was like, “I got it, we can burn the CD!” We put the CD in to burn the track, and it wouldn’t work. Missy was like, “I want to get outta here.” She said to roll the track, and she took her phone out, she called herself at home, and said, “Hi, this is Missy, leave a message” — and she recorded the track on her answer service at home. She said, “That’s how we roll,” and left. [Laughs.]
Wasserman: I remember getting this rough cut of “Lady Marmalade” — I think I still have it somewhere — and I played it for people at the studio, and they were just dying: What did we just do?
Rockwilder: I’ve never had a studio session [like that] in my whole career — and I’m blessed to say that…. Will it happen again, we don’t know, but I was able to witness that and be a part of that and watch everybody walk in the room. I wish we had iPhones back then. [Laughs.]
Monsted: The song is an expression of the essence of the film: It’s cheeky, it’s sexy, it has inherent drama. It makes you want to dance. All those things come together, and I think it mirrors the world of the Moulin Rouge. It’s a banner that announces the film to the world.
Rachtman: That’s the beauty of soundtracks: that song felt like the movie, and that movie felt like the song.
Rockwilder: Jimmy Iovine put his hand on my shoulder and said, “If you don’t make another song again, this record — this is going to be the one right here…. You did it. This is the one.” I’ll never forget that.
Fair: Each of them really made a massive contribution. Mya had the pocket. Christina brought the fireworks. P!nk brought the sandpaper and the grit and the attitude. Lil Kim put the hip-hop sauce on it. The rest is history.
“I’d never, ever considered having a whip in my hand for any of my music videos….”
Once “Lady Marmalade” hit airwaves on March 25, 2001, the soundtrack flew off record store shelves and served as the pitch-perfect opening act for Moulin Rouge! Mya, P!nk, Lil Kim, and Aguilera reunited to film the music video, which was directed by Paul Hunter and rolled with Lurhmann’s vivid hues and brought one scandalous pajama party to the screen. Soon, it was a popular favorite on MTV’s TRL, and a radio hit; within a year, it was a fixture at awards shows and a winner, too.
The 2001 MTV Video Music Awards and the 2002 Grammy Awards both featured, and celebrated, “Lady Marmalade”: the ladies laced up their boots and grabbed their corsets to perform for each audience, and LaBelle herself endorsed their cover by joining them to perform it at the Grammys. Kidman’s Satine may have been the queen of the Moulin Rouge on screen, but the “Lady Marmalade” quintet enjoyed their own victory lap long after the movie left theaters.
Aguilera: [The video] was when all the magic happened, because we all got to play dress-up, and wear our boots, and our heels… the big hair, the jewels, just over-the-top makeup and theatrics — playing up to that Baz Luhrmann [aesthetic], making things fun and just alive and beautiful. I mean, that was the goal.
Monsted: Baz and I went down to the shoot, which was at a theater in downtown L.A., late at night. Baz was like, “Oh my God, have you ever seen a crew this size?! This is bigger than the movie crew we had on the film!” [Laughs.] The craft service was really elaborate. We were bowled over by how well resourced this music video was!
Aguilera: The energy of what we were all doing — embracing our own sexuality, honing in on how we felt best expressed as the individual women we were, bringing that all to the table and owning that — that was what really came across. I think the confidence that we all brought to the table, just being ourselves, was undeniable, and everyone did a kickass job.
Mya: I’d never, ever in my life considered having a whip in my hand for any of my music videos! [Laughs.] You get to live a little in a different space. It was a sacred space to explore that side of yourself. It’s in there somewhere, it may be locked away, but [there’s] something about being around other women that’s very freeing, where you’re giving yourself permission to explore that part of yourself, and then to be young, and female, in a world or society that often either criticizes or labels that as a not so good thing — it was fun.
Aguilera: It wasn’t for anyone else. It was truly about celebrating ourselves as women, which, I’m so happy this conversation is more open now: we have marches, we celebrate women’s day, we recognize each other, we praise each other on a platform that didn’t exist back then. Before social media, before we had any of these outlets, I think it definitely set a precedent and a tone that it’s okay to be different, and be amazing together, to showcase how you feel individually in representing yourselves.
All of us were also getting to play over-the-top characters and be loud and vibrant and kickass, stomping around in our big heels, all in unison together like that. I remember the confetti going off at the end — I mean, how fun is that, just being part of such a powerful moment?
Mya: I do remember working with [choreographer] Tina Landon in rehearsal, and us all being there together, like, “Wow, I feel like I’m in a girl group!” I’d never experienced that before, but I loved it. I think being on the road forever by yourself, it gets a little lonely, and not as much fun when everyone around you is just business, including the dancers and the staff. But when you’re there with other artists who totally relate to what you have been through, it’s really freeing, and it’s such a fun place to be. You can really let your hair down.
There were a lot of jokes in rehearsal, a lot of running around the studio; we went out to lunch together. I cherish those types of moments, because being solo for so long, it’s very rare that you can truly let go because you’re always on guard… the boundaries between business and friendship can be a little bit of a task. But that was amazing to experience, because, hey, these are girls that are just like me.
Luhrmann: There was some comment at the time, going, “Okay, so these are young women running around in their underwear?” There was some pushback — I think about what’s going on now with Cardi B and Megan The Stallion — [because] they presented themselves as “I own this, I am strong, I have the upperhand here, it’s me.” I think that’s something that was inherent in [Moulin Rouge!].
Fair: When we finished the record, I brought it to Interscope’s phenomenal head of promotion, Brenda Romano. As an A&R guy, the person who matters the most to me is the head of promotion, because I want my record to work on radio. She’s in New York; she takes it over to Z100 and Hot 97. So Z100 says, “We’re sorry, but we don’t play covers.” So Brenda calls me, I remember it clear as day, and goes, “Ron, I don’t know how to break the news, but I’m really sorry — we’re gonna have a problem at Z100 because they don’t want to play covers. That’s not what they do.”
She called back four hours later, and she said, “Hot 97, the rhythm station, went crazy, and they put the record on the air.” The phones lit up like in the movies, like That Thing You Do!, it was like, out of a movie where all of a sudden, the phones at the station light up. By the end of the day, Z100 reversed themselves and added the record.
Wasserman: The way that it exploded was just the way Billie Eilish explodes, or the way Taylor Swift explodes — it’s just because it’s good, and because it speaks to somebody. Jimmy was excited, and it all goes back to Baz Lurhmann, because Baz knows how to work it. All these people want to be around him — they want to be in that little twirl of fairy dust that’s Baz. Baz walks around with sparkles. I can’t explain it. You want to be in the sparkles.
Fair: The Holy Grail of a song from a soundtrack is that you have a No. 1 record the weekend the movie opens — and we hit the mark on this one. So it’s another thing: the record peaked when the movie opened, and that’s part of why, when people went to see the movie, they thought they were gonna see Christina, P!nk, Mya and Lil Kim in the movie. The timing was perfect… In those days, the commercial single sales were a big component of the chart positioning. “Lady Marmalade” became [a rare] no. 1 record that achieved that ranking without any sales at all, just on airplay, because Jimmy was wise enough to not ever put out a commercial single so people had to buy the album. And then Moulin Rouge! became a cultural phenomenon.
Laura Wasserman: There’s one thing I will say, which is kind of the strangest thing of all of this: The song is barely in the movie. Barely! It’s what it is. It’s the strong women, the video… That’s what so crazy: it’s iconic, and it’s not like it’s this huge scene in the movie.
LaBelle: I think it’s the best thing ever. When I heard the remake with Christina and all the girls, I said, “Dang!” I mean, they did it so well. There was something they said in their version, “Better get that gold, sister” — some of the things they put in there, I started using again on stage when I would do it live, because I love their version! They were all wonderful.
Mya: Meeting Patti LaBelle, and having her come to the studio and walking into our rehearsal [for the 2002 Grammy Awards], I think that’s when it really got real for us. Yes, we shot a music video; yes, we recorded a song; yes, it’s being received nicely on MTV and TRL — but the queen and the legend herself is here, and she’s performing with us? Who would’ve thought in a million years?! It was a very surreal moment, an honorable moment, a humbling moment, but I think we all turned into mute fans for a minute (laughs). I think the Grammys were just the icing on the cake for something that was just already amazingly beautiful.
LaBelle: The funniest thing was, I had a red gown on, and it was my turn to come out, and go down the steps to the audience and whatever — girl, my dress got caught. It got stuck on the bannister of the steps, and I think P!nk had to pull my lace. They had to undo me! I did finish the song; it was just wonderful. Singing with those ladies is just wonderful. They did a great job.
Mya: Some of the challenges didn’t have anything to do with vocals: it was more so not falling in heels, but also getting enough breath in the corsets that scrunch in your entire diaphragm that you need for belting notes. I think Christina had the highest part in the song and the most demanding, vocally — the verses are very low in range, and then the bridge, which was her section, is the highest. That can be a challenge when your diaphragm is being squeezed three times smaller, you know? [Laughs.]
Aguilera: Us ladies, we definitely did what we did, but having the original come on that stage with us and bring her own legendary magic to all of us was so beautiful and humbling and just incredible to be a part of. You know, when you look back sometimes, there are some amazing moments in my life that I just feel so euphoric that they’re blurry. That would maybe be one of those moments.
“We came together as women at a time where it wasn’t embraced to come together”
A huge selling point for signing on to “Lady Marmalade” was getting to work with Luhrmann in any capacity: Mya respected his “brilliant mind” and hands-on approach, while Aguilera loved his bold aesthetic and how he “intertwines it with such magical stories and music.” Another was the rare opportunity to work with fellow female artists — as well as a female producer — on such a compelling cover that encouraged them to share the spotlight instead of fight for it.
Moulin Rouge! championed female empowerment, especially when it came to exploring power and agency in relationships — a theme that resonated in pop at the time, when women were often pitted against each other and tabloids criticized every relationship development or wardrobe choice. The opportunity to work with other women on such a huge single was an even bigger selling point: it was a rarity for these pop stars to work with other women on stage or in the studio, and rarer still to work on a track that fused pop and hip-hop in such a modern, compelling way.
Looking back, this is the backbone of the legacy of “Lady Marmalade,” especially for the women who made it: the single was revolutionary in how it brought them, and their respective corners of popular music, together.
Mya: The obvious commonality was that we were women, but also successful, established, solo recording artists, and entertainers, songwriters, producers — but yet, we were extremely different from one another, from diverse backgrounds and fan bases. I think these dynamics made the project super special, making the statement that yes, we’re women, yes we’re different, yes we can get together and do some cool, kickass stuff, and bring so many different walks of life and generations together.
It was all about representation, too, because we didn’t [see] that type of collaboration happening often — much less with women. I had worked with so many male rappers or singers and it was pretty cutting edge — so to be invited to work with women, and ones that I was a fan of, and familiar with, I thought they were really amazing at what they did. I was fan-girling the whole time.
Aguilera: We also came together as women at a time where it wasn’t embraced to come together as women. There was no social media; we sort of [had to] put our own ideals and opinions and promotion for artists out there. You kind of had to rely on the gossip magazines or an interviewer’s take on how [you] saw the industry, rather than how you really saw it, and things that you wanted to say.
It was a really interesting and, I think, hard time for women in the business to be pitted against each other. So it was especially amazing within its time, to come out as five strong, incredible, powerful females who really brought [it]. We all had such individual styles, and I love that we all brought each piece to the table to really create something so powerful.
Luhrmann: You’ve got to remember, today, we have R&B vocals and rap blending without even thinking about it. Back in the day, rap and R&B did not sit as happy bedfellows. There was a lot of territorial claim… the whole song was about different disciplines coming together to make something that was bigger than all of it, a bigger gesture.
Mya: Genres were just beginning to fuse together with collaborations. It wasn’t quite a popular thing: there were hip-hop collaborations within the hip-hop community, or maybe R&B and hip-hop here and there, but you never really got too much pop and R&B and urban, and hip-hop, or rap, and a little bit of rock. You never got too much of that or any at that time… With those elements, that was a major thing for hip-hop as well, which also expanded more possibilities.
Luhrmann: The metaphor of Moulin Rouge is about empowerment, and certainly, it’s about self-revelation, crossing boundaries, not being kept in your lane, and being accepted. It’s hard to remember just how female singers were absolutely siloed: a ballad singer like Christina wouldn’t really be ripping it up alongside Missy, just that combo alone… all the women involved in that project were allowed to step outside, or given permission, to smash the silo that the industry was trying to put them in. It [doesn’t] just have female power, but every kind of female power. It isn’t just the soaring vocals: there’s a sexuality in it that’s a claimed sexuality. It’s not a male perspective of sexuality: “Take it or leave it, here I am.”
Wasserman: [The “Lady Marmalade” supergroup was] not afraid to show themselves off, not afraid of their bodies, and not afraid of their voices. They just showed who they were [while] being strong and beautiful and talented and sexy — and that it was okay. I think that might be what Baz was trying to show with [Satine] in the movie: she was strong and beautiful and sexy, and she was okay with that. Maybe that’s why it all worked: the empowerment.
Mya: When women come together with so much power, it’s also a safe space for us to say what the heck we want with no care given, because many of us feel the same way. We don’t ask for permission when another girl, another sister, another woman, another stranger, a female, is backing us up. It’s always a safer space, but it’s also fun to live in that space. There’s a lot of freedom in safety, too.
Aguilera: There was so much gossip around, trying to pull us apart, and kind of be spiteful with each other — that was promoted back then at that time. We set the precedence and the bar to be like, “No. We’re not playing that game. We’re coming together as powerful women and showing who we are and what we’re about and owning that!” at a time when it wasn’t so [expected] to do that.
“There’s no stairs going to it, no elevator going to it — it’s its own level.
The reverberations of “Lady Marmalade” and Moulin Rouge! continue across popular culture: supergroups have assembled and disbanded in the two decades since its arrival, and countless talent shows, from American Idol to Drag Race and Dancing With the Stars, have taken a page from Luhrmann’s theatrical playbook to embrace musical theater and cabaret in popular culture at large. The impact of “Lady Marmalade” directly affected the trajectory of the talent and crew behind the single, too. Rockwilder continued to collaborate with Elliott, produced tracks for Mya, P!nk, and Lil Kim, and played a pivotal role in Aguilera’s next album, Stripped — namely its second single, “Dirrty,” which unequivocally pushed the pop star into the next phase she’d been craving.
And then, of course, there’s the musical itself: before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Broadway to shutter, Moulin Rouge! enjoyed a brief, but successful, run onstage: when theater safely returns, so will “Lady Marmalade,” as the song is an integral tenet of Moulin Rouge!’s current evolution.
Luhrmann: One thing that I do remember [after “Lady Marmalade”] is that Jimmy said to me, “Look, why don’t we do that again and put a group together?” I said I had to move on, and he came up with the Pussycat Dolls.
Fair: “Lady Marmalade” was turned into a show tune. And a lot of the time, show tunes are not allowed in pop, or certainly hip-hop and urban music, because they’re too corny. But the fact that we got away with it, that’s the kind of stuff that influenced American Idol and all the shiny floor competition shows that were to follow. This pre-dated it, and those shows changed pop culture, because big singers started singing big show tunes alongside the cool stuff. It reminded everybody, “Oh, there’s an appetite for hearing people sing songs that we know!” Do the math on how many times “Lady Marmalade” has been covered on The Voice and on American Idol.
Luhrmann: The musical of Moulin Rouge!, which is about to open in Australia, and was doing really well on Broadway, it opens with “Lady Marmalade.” It’s had a life, that’s for sure.
Mya: There’s magic when women come together, and I think maybe seeing the magic that happened for us — whether it’s visually or even successfully with charts and awards — why not? Why not when it’s also a space that’s lacking often amongst women in a very male-dominated world, but also industry?
Christina Aguilera: I love collaborations. I’ve gone on to work with many of these girls. I just had Lil Kim join me onstage during my last tour to do this song in New York. Missy and I went on to collaborate for the Madonna performance for MTV, “Like A Virgin.” These women are just so talented and stand the test of time. P!nk is such a powerhouse. Mya was just the sweetest — I think she was the easiest on set. It was just so great to have all of our dynamics come to the table, and really bring our professionalism and our love for music and what we do to really own this song and be a part of such a special, incredible, and visually stunning movie such as Moulin Rouge! The entire project, all the way around, it couldn’t have been more magical.
Rockwilder: There’s no stairs going to it, no elevator going to it, it’s its own level. We made it like that… It’s its own thing. Everybody’s playlists for artists, it’s one of the songs that’s [at] the top. That’s another thing that’s very impressive for what we’ve done: it’s everybody’s top record in their digital playlist.
Mya: I think it’s been a true testament that teamwork makes the dreamwork, and that machine work turns records into hit records so the world can receive it… It’s never about self, but what you can put into the universe for people to use as a part of their lives, as a positive component, whether it’s healing or fun and memory — that’s all it’s about, bringing people together, but it definitely takes lots of people and components and moving parts. And when that all cohesively comes together, magic is made in the chaos.