Thanks to Christina Aguilera’s appearance on Carpool Karaoke (will she ever recapture the magic of Stripped?), various channels of the internet are visiting their early 00s nostalgia of the so-called Britney/Christina rivalry via postings of the duo, headlines from bathetic teen magazines and general shock over the revelation Christina highlighted.
The comment that set off the still fond of this moment in time legions? Christina admitting that there was a little bit of a “thing” with her and Justin Timberlake. Meaning she had a crush and so did Britney, making for the ultimate in preteen love triangles. As Aguilera grossly noted, “He had swag, even back then.” It’s difficult to imagine this incarnation, however, when all one sees is his odious Man of the Woods one, rife with faux feminism and all. In any case, it’s clear that neither party won in their unspoken competition, with Timberlake preferring, in the end, the automaton stylings of Jessica Biel.
It does leave one pause for reflection on another more out in the open “love triangle” of the early 00s: that exhibited by the kiss shared between Madonna, Spears and Aguilera on the VMAs stage back in 2003. At the time, Madonna was attempting to resuscitate interest in her fledgling American Life album (which recently celebrated its fifteenth anniversary and has been somewhat redeemed with the passage of the years, just like Erotica). There seemed, to the shrewd businesswoman, perhaps no better way to do that than to get America’s favorite pop princesses to join the stage with her. As Madonna called it, it was like “passing the baton” off. Of course, Madonna never let go of that baton (could, in fact, be seen wielding it during a performance of “Express Yourself” shading Lady Gaga during the 2012 MDNA Tour). But it was pretty for everyone to think that she would. Her manner of metaphorically and literally doing it? With a kiss. A kiss that also offered a famous camera pan to Justin Timberlake as he watched on in what appeared to be extreme anger. No one likes it when Madonna takes their woman, just ask Sandra Bernhard.
Unfortunately for Christina, so much fanfare surrounded the kiss between her and Britney paired with the JT reaction shot, that her big moment in the sun was, let’s just say it, stripped. And why? Because people have no time to look beyond the surface of shininess. Britney is, of course, a pop culture icon, one of the last of them. But her talent, vocally, has never been even remotely on the same level as Christina’s (though, of course, P!NK would try to argue that point–especially after numerous images surfacing of her facial expression while watching Xtina’s tribute to Whitney Houston at the AMAs last year).
But what have the tastes of the masses and the people they worship consistently told us? People prefer trash. Okay, maybe trash is a harsh word. People prefer “spectacle” over simple and straightforward skill. They need bells and whistles, sex appeal, a ditzy, “innocent” persona that can later be ripped to shreds when they find out their deity is human. Aguilera was never in that mold. Even her first single, “Genie in a Bottle,” both lyrically and visually, was oozing with far more overt sexuality than anything off the …Baby One More Time album. Worst of all, she offered an independent and demanding woman’s anthem in the form of “What A Girl Wants” shortly thereafter. To put it another way, Christina had a superior voice, and she wasn’t trying to hide behind what she would later refer to as the “cookie cutter” impression her record label enforced. This meant she did not serve as great a purpose in the engine called, “Let’s make this person into a product.”
That Spears was, in many ways, more malleable at the outset of her career is probably one of the many contributing factors that led to her break with reality in ’07/’08. That Aguilera wasn’t is probably why she’s been relegated to middling career activities like judging a reality show contest. In her purer days, before so many were willing to sell their talents in far less dignified ways, Aguilera should have been given more attention for her innovative lesbian kiss (this was before Janelle Monáe, mind you–no such fluidity was ever seen on such a public scale before). Instead, all the credit and headlines went to Spears, who was, in point of fact, merely only Madonna’s puppet on a string at that particular juncture.