Christina Aguilera Comes of Age

Christina Aguilera shows up for dinner at an L.A. restaurant looking like Jean Harlow. Her platinum-blond hair is curled just so, her lipstick a perfect shade of retro red; her eyelashes are so long they cast shadows on the wall. The 5-foot-2 bombshell turns heads among the clientele: some recognize her, some just assume that anyone who looks like this must be famous. Aguilera, 25, seems cool and composed. Then she orders a banana split for dinner. "Wanna share?" she asks. When it arrives, it's so big she finds it "a turnoff"; she talks about "pushing artistic boundaries" and "thinking outside the box" while stirring the melting ice cream. At one point, she pulls one of her own shimmering hairs out of the dish. "Ew." She scrunches her face. "I mean, like, ew! Now it's even more gross."

Aguilera has been a Mouseketeer in starlet's clothing, a bubblegum pop star in S&M gear ... and so on. She's changed her look as often as other girls change handbags, and with each new image comes a new sound. This Harlow glam fits her new double CD, "Back to Basics," a set of new songs that pay tribute to vintage blues and jazz. It's a risky move for a pop star, but Aguilera's taken chances before. If any of her peers had tried to pull off the deliberately ugly makeover on the cover of her last record, "Stripped" (ratted black hair, dirty fingernails), they'd now be doing infomercials. But unlike Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, Aguilera can really sing. "She has one of the best voices out there," says Linda Perry (who's worked with Pink, Gwen Stefani), who wrote the songs with Aguilera and produced disc two. "Her competition is no longer Britney. She's on another level, one where she can compete with those great old voices from the past."

On "Back to Basics" Aguilera takes her cues from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James, who's now a friend of hers. Her take on the blues is not as sacrilegious as you'd think. The first disc, produced by DJ Premier (D'Angelo, Mos Def), mixes hip-hop beats and vintage samples while the second uses all live instruments; together they add up to a unique take on swing and speak-easy blues. Aguilera's vocal range is still awe-inspiring, but there's more to her performance than acrobatics. You can feel these songs. When Aguilera's sexy, she's supersexy; when she's down, she's all the way down, and when she's rowdy, she blows the roof off the joint.

"At a really early age I connected with old soul and blues," Aguilera says. "My grandma used to take me to little record stores around Pittsburgh and buy me old records. I was 6, and I'd sing the songs at block parties. My grandma would get a kick out of hearing me do material that was far beyond my years. I was known around the neighborhood as the little girl with the big voice, and I always liked that contrast." But Aguilera had deeper reasons for gravitating toward the blues: a truly painful childhood. "There's a lot of pain and angst in those songs," she explains. "They spoke to my life before I moved in with my grandma—my father, all the abuse I endured." On one track, "Oh Mother," Aguilera sings about that period directly. "On that song, I thank my mom for leaving him, for getting us out of that situation because it was life-threatening." Aguilera, who got married last November, still avoids contact with her father. "He tries to send letters every once in a while, but I have amazing people around me now and I'm happy, so I don't really long for that relationship. I just don't see the need."

At 12, Aguilera managed to put on a happy face—and plastic ears—when she became a Mouseketeer and shared the stage with Spears, Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez. Her media training from that period seems to have stuck with her: when she's at a loss for words during interviews, she'll fall back on such phrases as "staying true to your heart" and "believing in yourself." Aguilera still has contact with her old Disney clan. "Justin's always been a friend," she says. "I know if I ever needed to call him for anything, I could. Britney and I, we've sent each other wedding gifts." So she and Spears didn't hate each other? Aguilera rolls her eyes. "We were like best friends, but the media saw a navel and blond hair and had to create some drama."

The media's never quite gotten Aguilera. Her self-titled solo debut, in 1999, was dismissed as bubblegum—it sold more than 8 million copies—and Aguilera, then 18, wasn't feeling the music either. "Trust me, I thought that record was fluffy too," she says now. "It was made for that pop time when there was no real substance behind the music." Her first taste of critical respect came with her powerhouse remake of Patti LaBelle's 1976 classic "Lady Marmalade" on the 2001 "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack. But that was soon upstaged by the controversy surrounding Aguilera's sophomore record, "Stripped" (2002), a down and dirty reaction to what Aguilera perceived as her unshakable clean-teen image. She posed topless on the album cover and her "Dirrty" video looked like a black-market adult film. Dressed in leather chaps, red undies and a bikini top, she writhed around in a skeezy boxing ring surrounded by signs that read, in Thai, young underage girls. "Skank" was one of the milder epithets aimed at her. Aguilera admits the image initially detracted from the music, but she has no regrets. "I was proud of myself for having the balls to do it. And you know what I love about that record? Everybody had an opinion. If you liked it, you wanted to root for me—'Look, she's empowered.' If not, well, you'd stick all those labels on me."

Call Aguilera what you want, but there's no denying she's a great talent. And the newfound sophistication of "Back to Basics" should turn some scoffers into believers. "The sexuality coming forward on this record is more softened," she says. "It's more pinup, tongue-in-cheek. It's playful. People take sex far too seriously." If people haven't taken Aguilera seriously enough up till now, you just watch. And listen.