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Christina Aguilera puts on her birthday suit!

I used to know a guy at work who was sullen and blunt. He had a rusty orange-colored beard and a long ponytail. He used to tell me about the times he almost died and how he used to be homeless. He loved Tool, Leonard Cohen, Tori Amos and he hated The Beatles. And he really dug Christina Aguilera. He had a key chain and everything. I was always puzzled by this – I thought it must me some kind of ironic statement, some sort of dislike disguised with key chains and posters, to just poke fun. But he really loved her. He thought her voice was “amazing,” and he especially liked her Christmas album.

But I knew where the guy was coming from. She wasn’t “like the others,” I agreed. During that summer of 1999, when “Genie in a Bottle” was becoming a monster hit, I was intrigued by the song and the girl. After hearing it for the first time, I was immediately drawn into that simple, familiar hook and dazzled by Aguilera’s sassy, sexy voice.

Then I learned the sordid details. She was a former Mouseketeer, from the same graduating class as Britney Spears and Jason Timberlake. She was “driven,” as VH1 likes to call ambitious child singers that have pushy stage moms and third grade teachers that remember them fondly. She was seemingly ditzy, and had a hint of that pseudo-street wise “accent” (the one that we see far too many Orlando based pop stars using these days; Timberlake, are you listening?), but there was an even stronger hint of smart-ass arrogance, a la bratty-Madonna-“I wanna rule the world”-style.

I thought she was promising and a helluva lot of fun to watch perform. Sure, she couldn’t dance like the rest of the pop kids could, but who cares? Let’s leave the choreographed dancing to Gene Kelly, Broadway musicals and Michael Jackson, please. I would rather see Christina shut her eyes tight and let it all out (not lip sync into a drive-thru head set while bouncing around like a puppet). Watch those spindly little tan arms clutching that huge microphone away from her face, because her voice is just so powerful, it might just blow up that mic if she got too close.

Her new album, Stripped, the long-awaited follow-up to her multi-platinum debut, is what’s really promising though. Stripped is reportedly much more daring musically and lyrically, and Aguilera is finally toning down the vocal theatrics that detracted from her talent. She also addresses topics like domestic abuse on “I’m OK,” and feminism on “Can’t Hold Us Down,” which indirectly fights back at Eminem’s infamous slams – “It’s sad you only get your name through controversy.” For her new musical image she’s summoned diverse songwriters and collaborators like Linda Perry (former frontwoman for 4 Non Blondes and recent songwriting cohort of Pink), the brilliant Alicia Keyes and hot rapper Redman.

Aguilera recently explained the difference between her debut and Stripped in a New York Times interview. She indicated that, although Stripped was created by committee, the difference is this time, she’s running the committee – she co-wrote the songs and helped choose the producers.

She’s a “typical pop star” who doesn’t do what is expected of her: pump out singles and albums to keep her brightly shining star from burning out too quickly. Instead, Aguilera observed the decline in popularity of boy bands and blonde bombshells around her. She noted that Spears’ latest album sold a fraction of her debut. She watched N’Sync’s and the Backstreet Boys’ crowds shrink. Then she took time (three long industry years) to create something that’s more about craft and quality than cash and glamour. Now, all we can do is wait and hope that Stripped is everything that it should be – a showcase of an exceptional talent backed by shrewd musical choices. But no matter what it sounds like I have a feeling that my Aguilera-infatuated ex-coworker will dig it.

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