“You’re an icon,” Years & Years singer Olly Alexander told Christina Aguilera at a packed O2 Arena in London in early August, as she invited him to perform ‘Say Something’ with her. And Christina knows it. Through a set filled with almost as many costume changes as songs, she gave the audience everything they wanted; all her iconic bangers spanning a 20-plus year career.
We were taken through an 80-minute exploration of her journey through pop, starting with her career-defining ‘Dirrty’ – the anthem that, let’s be honest, prompted a sexual awakening for many of us prepubescent kids when it was released in 2002. There’s ‘Genie in a Bottle’, ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Beautiful’. But at some point in the middle of the set, almost masked by the glitz of her 2000s anthems, she performed a medley from her new, entirely Spanish-sung album, AGUILERA. The short three-song nod felt important to be doing in the UK, a country that is still reluctant to embrace music that isn’t sung in English.
AGUILERA, which was released in May, is the singer’s first Spanish-language album in 22 years, formed of two EPs, La Fuerza and La Tormenta, which were teased out earlier in the year. The album spans influences of Latin pop, reggaeton, hints of trap and even ranchera, a traditional style of Mexican folk music. She’s collaborated with some of South America’s most exciting young women artists like Nathy Peluso, TINI and Nicki Nicole – a recognition of the explosive art coming from the region. In AGUILERA, she’s playing with genre and using her success and power after more than two decades in pop to show what has formed her identity as a musician, and also as an Ecuadorian-American.
“In AGUILERA, she’s playing with genre and using her success and power after more than two decades in pop to show what has formed her identity as a musician, and also as an Ecuadorian-American”
Christina, who was born to an Irish-American mother and Ecuadorian father in New York, has always championed her heritage. She released a fully Spanish-language album, Mi Reflejo in 2000, only years after industry executives suggested that she should change her last name to ‘Agee’, because the name “Aguilera” was “too ethnic”. Today’s suggestions that Aguilera is jumping on a “Latin music” bandwagon feels particularly unfair in the context of her early career – her 2000s Spanish-speaking hits have been cited as a core influence of many of the young Latin American artists she’s now collaborating with.
At the O2, she told audiences how AGUILERA was about her reconnecting with her roots, and staying true to herself despite industry pressure to do otherwise. She’s a mother now, and singing in Spanish is something she wanted her children to hear and connect with.
Christina’s career has been one of reinvention, no doubt pushed into corners by an industry that has historically failed women. She rose to fame during one of the harshest periods for women and queer people in pop, shamed and judged for their looks, their behaviours, their talent. Women of the 1990s were deemed as too slutty, too frigid, too skinny, too fat. Being ‘Latina enough’ has also come into question. Part of it is language, that if you don’t don’t speak fluently, can you really call yourself a Latina? Although Christina was criticised for not sounding or looking Latina, she seems to have moved past this, while Black Latin communities continue to face ruthless discrimination for not fitting into a single homogenous image of what ‘Latin identity’ is.
“Christina’s career has been one of reinvention, no doubt pushed into corners by an industry that has historically failed women”
These questions on heritage feel like an attempt to yet again strip off layers of Latin identity and confine a whole region, home to so many different identities and experiences, into one box.
Black Latina Oscar-winning actor Ariana DeBose spoke out against directors casting her in “ethnically ambiguous” roles. Afro-Indigenous Canadian-Colombian musician Lido Pimienta has painstakingly fought for more inclusive representation of Black and Indigenous artists in Latin music amid racism. Among all this, it’s worth noting that Christina herself has in the past been accused of cultural appropriation, particularly with reference to her 2003 music video for ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’.
It all plays into the complexities and insecurities of what it means to sit across borders and cultures. As a Chilean-British woman, I have always been ashamed of my lack of Spanish fluency and the obvious traces of my English accent when I speak Spanish. Like many of us born to parents of the Latin diaspora in communities that didn’t allow for difference, speaking English was a necessity to fit in and not be pushed aside. For so long I never felt like I was enough to identify as a Latinx woman and take hold of that heritage; I was too much of one thing and not the other.
So, it felt especially real when Christina was talking about the importance of this album to her, the value of singing in her second language and exploring the crucial musical genres of the Latin American region.
At 41, Christina has spent more than half her life in an industry that has too often punished women and queer artists and held them accountable to toxic standards. But now, she’s come back to tell us again that she’s always been proud of who she is, and where she’s from. “20 years later I’m a grown woman who has had an incredible career,” Christina said at a press conference earlier this year. “We have to be so many things to so many different people, but it’s so important to honour yourself.”
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