In December 1998, a little-known former Mouseketeer named Christina Aguilera took a quick break from recording her self-titled debut album in New York City to blow out the candles on a birthday cake. “She turned 18 at our studio,” says Evan Rogers, who co-wrote and produced two of the album’s tracks with business partner, Carl Sturken. It must’ve been some birthday wish: That album, Christina Aguilera, came out 20 years ago, sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S., and set the singer on the path to superstardom.
Before she became a five-time Grammy winner and mastered the art of the swivel as a judge on The Voice, Aguilera got her start singing in talent shows and at sporting events in and around her hometown near Pittsburgh. She later honed her skills as a triple-threat on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, where her castmates included Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, and, of course, Britney Spears. But even in a group of talented teens, Aguilera’s vocal chops set her apart. After showcasing her range at age 17 on “Reflection," a song for Disney’s Mulan, she signed a record deal with RCA Records and set to work on her album.
In the summer of 1999, Aguilera claimed the top spot on the charts with "Genie in a Bottle," and followed it up with hit after hit. While she later stripped off the bubblegum packaging of her debut — an image and sound the singer has said she wasn’t entirely happy with — the album introduced the world to a dynamic new vocalist and left its mark on the pop music landscape.
Now, in honor of the 20th anniversary on Aug. 24, Aguilera is releasing three special editions of the album with rare versions of the songs, a cappella tracks, and remixes. Bustle talked to the songwriters, producers, and an engineer who worked on the original album about how those hit songs came to be, what Aguilera was like in the studio, and her undeniable voice.
After The All-New Mickey Mouse Club was canceled in 1994, Aguilera got a manager and set her sights on securing a record deal. Her early demos caught the ear of RCA A&R executive Ron Fair; he signed Aguilera and she began work on her debut. (Aguilera was unavailable for an interview, while Fair did not respond to Bustle’s request for comment.)
Shelly Peiken (Songwriter): I had been working with a friend of mine, Todd Chapman, who had called me to come to the studio to meet this girl he was working with, and he described her as an ex-Mouseketeer and she could really sing. And I always said, you know, “This is L.A. Everybody can, air-quote, ‘really sing.’”
Evan Rogers (Songwriter and Producer): [Ron Fair] had called me ... and he said, “I’ve got this amazing girl that I just signed,” and he sent me a little clip of her performing on some morning TV show and he said, “She’s badass.”
Peiken: She was cute and petite but nothing that looked like star material — I mean, yet. But she could really sing, and we wrote a couple of songs for her to try her voice out on... And I thought she was a great singer, a lot of potential.
The Early Tracks
With an album in the works, Aguilera’s team began looking for tracks that would define her sound and showcase her voice. One of those became "Genie in a Bottle," which almost had a totally different name.
Pam Sheyne (Songwriter): A songwriter friend of mine in the U.K., who had just worked with David Frank and Steve Kipner, suggested I reach out to them and set up a writing date… David played us three tracks he had prepared and that one jumped out to Steve and I as unique, so we started writing the melody and lyric to it, and we were done in maybe four or five hours... I had some lyrics in the back of my book, “A century of lonely nights,” which then inspired “locked up tight,” then the concept of “Genie in a Bottle” was formed... The song was initially called, “If You Wanna Be With Me,” and everyone who heard it said “Genie in a Bottle” was a stronger title. They were right, of course, so we changed the title.
Paul Arnold (Engineer): Right from the intro [of “Genie in a Bottle”], [there's] that little instrumental thing [on piano] they did right at the beginning, and then the drum beat kicks in... It catches your attention right away. You can’t help but move your body, nod your head, tap your foot. It’s a great track.
Sheyne: The song was pitched to a few artists and we had three bites pretty quickly: Christina Aguilera, a girl group called Innosense, and Paula Abdul… There were some big-name writers on Christina’s record. We all knew she was an outstanding singer for her age and if Diane Warren, the biggest songwriter on the planet at the time, and my friend, Shelly Peiken, were writing for her, we guessed we should be on there, too.
"What a Girl Wants" is another early hit from Aguilera, and just like with "Genie in a Bottle," it went through a few changes before being released to the public.
Peiken: It was actually “What a Girl Needs” before it was “What a Girl Wants,” and it was a lyric that was scribbled onto a receipt at the bottom of my purse. And I pulled it out because Guy [Roche] was sort of freestyling on the piano, keyboard, that made me think, Oh, that lyric I scribbled down yesterday could go with what he’s playing.
Guy Roche (Songwriter and Producer): We came up with the song, I’d like to say, in like five minutes. It just came out... [Shelly] started humming along and I was playing piano and the hook came, and it just grew from there.
Peiken: We sent it to Ron [Fair at RCA Records] and Ron thought it would be great for Christina. And his only request was that we change the order of the “what a girl wants” and “what a girl needs,” because the “needs” up front he thought was so needy, and the “wants” was sort of a sexier word, and there was alliteration in the “whats” and the “wants.” I had misgivings about changing my lyric for anybody, but making this record it seemed like it was gonna happen, and so I swapped it.
In The Studio
Aguilera started recording the album in 1998. She spent about six months in the studio, and the label reportedly spent $1 million on writers, producers, and voice lessons.
Peiken: Guy produced [“What a Girl Wants”], but Ron was in the studio with him. Ron was pretty hands-on on all the stuff he was working on. [Christina’s version] was a lot more poppy in a good way. Our demo was really laid-back and sort of sleepy, and this sort of had fairy dust sprinkled on it. It just sounded like radio to me, you know?
Roche: She wanted to control everything ... I think that’s what it takes to be a star, you know? Her drive, it was amazing. She wanted to be really in control on every level as an artist.
Rogers: That was just a really exciting time for us, because at the same time, we were working with *NSYNC and [Christina] had a crush on Justin Timberlake. And Britney [Spears] had just been at our studio and she wanted to know all about Britney… Christina was just like a fan. She was asking all kinds of questions and a little bit starstruck and quiet. But she definitely had a little attitude. Like, not in a bad way, but she had this little edge to her, you know, like she knew she was good [laughs].
While she was primed to become a pop star, Aguilera considered herself a singer first. At the time, many pop acts were heavy on choreography and light on live singing, but Aguilera’s vocal talent stood out.
Sheyne: Christina totally nailed the feeling and emotion of [“Genie in a Bottle”] and she put her own stamp on it and owned it. I remember hearing it back and thinking, Wow, this could really be something. I never predicted it would be the international hit it was. Everyone who listened to it for the first time had a similar reaction, that it was a smash, but I didn’t dare prejudge and jinx it.
Roche: She was really adamant about the way she sang. She wanted to be different. She was always concerned about not being a — what’s her name, the other singer that was out at the same time? Britney Spears. She was like, “OK, I don’t wanna be bubblegum like this. I wanna do my own thing.”
Rogers: At that time, what she was doing, and combined with her age and all that, it was almost unbelievable, because she had the Whitney [Houston] sort of power and the Mariah Carey ad-libs in this little tiny frame and it was really pretty shocking. Being a singer, I pride myself on giving singers their ad-libs and helping them... but with her it was just like, wind her up and let her go. She could just riff, as became legendary.
A Superstar Is Born
After its release on Aug. 24, 1999, the album was certified 8 times platinum in the U.S. and sold 14 million copies worldwide. The record also produced three number one hits: “Genie in a Bottle,” “What a Girl Wants,” and “Come On Over Baby (All I Want is You).” It turned the 18-year-old into a household name, a status bolstered by her Best New Artist win at the 2000 Grammys.
Peiken: “Genie in a Bottle” came out first... It went straight to number one. And when “What a Girl Wants” came out, it basically did the same thing. You know, the momentum of another number one song is unbelievable… and the rest is history. [I have] no regrets about changing the order of the first two lines.
Rogers: I remember how quiet [she was] and you almost could think, She’s gonna be too shy, she’s not gonna have this big persona that a pop star needs to have. We knew she had the voice the minute we heard her sing, but what really blew us away was when we saw the “Genie in a Bottle” video, when she went on and performed on TV and dancing in the midriff outfit and all that. It was like, “Wow,” she really was a star.
Aguilera went on to become one of the most successful recording artists of her generation. She has sold over 35 million albums worldwide, won four more Grammy awards, and inspired a new crop of singers. Over her eight albums, she has explored a range of musical styles and had enough hits to warrant her own Vegas residency, but her debut holds a special place in music history.
Peiken: I think [“What a Girl Wants”] was one of the top songs in the gold rush of the pop era for the Mouseketeers. There was Britney, there was Justin, they were all coming out and showing their wares.
Sheyne: [“Genie in a Bottle”] has had a life of its own. It is the gift that keeps on giving. I’m more than grateful to have been a part of Christina’s journey and so glad that she was a part of ours... In 2017, Camila Cabello’s “Crying in the Club” was a part interpolation of “Genie,” so we became co-writers on that song, too.
Rogers: That album made it easier for people like Justin Timberlake to have credibility because it really brought a whole other side to what that whole group of artists was about, and nobody could deny how legit [Christina] was. Whether it was R&B, whether it was pop, country, you knew that she was a real-deal powerhouse talent. So, I think it kind of opened a lot of doors after that for pop artists who have a lot more musical depth to be taken more seriously.
Peiken: To be part of the story where a debut artist came out and was as huge and iconic and legendary as she was and has been and will continue to be is a real honor, privilege.