The Number Ones

July 31, 1999

The Number Ones: Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle”

Stayed at #1:

5 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Britney Spears had to wait until her second album to announce that she was not that innocent. Britney’s closest contemporary Christina Aguilera, by contrast, had to spend her rookie year reassuring the world that she was that innocent. A few months after Aguilera’s hormone-bomb “Genie In A Bottle” reached #1, Aguilera went on Good Morning America and tried to explain that her big hit wasn’t about sex: “It’s a song about self-respect. People don’t get that. It really is, it really is. You’re saying, ‘You gotta treat me the right way.’… Don’t give your love away too easily.” She’s giggling as she says it, but it’s the uncomfortable kind of giggling.

Aguilera’s defense of “Genie In A Bottle” isn’t wrong, but it’s not exactly right, either. Like so many classic pop songs throughout history, “Genie In A Bottle” is about sex and self-respect, about the places where those two impulses intersect and divide. Decades before Aguilera’s birth, the Shirelles sang about the same things on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — the questions that you ask when your body’s saying let’s go but your heart is saying no no.

In the context of the 1999 teen-pop boom, it was striking to hear a young singer asking those questions outright rather than letting them sit there as subtext. Aguilera emerged just a few months after Britney Spears, and “Genie In A Bottle” was practically an invitation to compare the two singers, even if that wasn’t the intended effect. When those twin TRL titans first introduced themselves, one brought pure teenage fire, while the other immediately announced herself as something just slightly more adult.

Those Britney/Xtina comparisons were inevitable from jump, even if they weren’t especially fair to either star. Britney and Christina simply had too much in common. They’d both risen through the kiddie talent-show circuit. They’d sung on Star Search. They’d been Mouseketeers together. A few years after their emergence, Britney and Christina would stand on the same VMAs stage, wearing bridal gowns and making out with Madonna. And in that 1999 moment when public hunger for gleaming crushed-out hard-candy teenybopper anthems was at its apex, Britney and Christina both rose up to feed the masses.

Britney Spears came first, and she changed the game instantly. Britney had the great fortune to attach herself to Max Martin’s insanely efficient Swedish hook factory. When Martin wrote “Baby One More Time,” he thought he’d come up with an R&B track, something fit for TLC. In reality, Martin’s song was a Def Leppard-caliber stadium stomp. Christina Aguilera, on the other hand, really was an R&B singer, and “Genie In A Bottle” was, at least on some level, an R&B song in teen-pop disguise. But the disguise was convincing, and it gave Christina the foothold that she needed. In the months ahead, the Jessica Simpsons and Mandy Moores of the world would attempt to feed the need that Britney had created. None of them ever came close. Christina Aguilera was the only true competition that Britney ever had — the Stones to Britney’s Beatles.

It didn’t start off that way, of course. Christina María Aguilera was born on Staten Island, but she didn’t grow up there. Christina was a military brat. Fausto, her Ecuadorian-born father, served in the Army, and the family moved all over the US and spent time in Japan when Christina was young. (Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” was the #1 song in America on the day of Christina’s birth.) Christina’s father was physically and emotionally abusive. When Christina was six, her mother divorced her father. Along with her mother, Christina moved into her grandmother’s house in the Pittsburgh suburb of Rochester, and Christina spent most of her childhood around Pittsburgh.

Christina loved singing, and she started winning talent shows when she was eight. In 1990, Christina sang an extremely melisma-heavy stage-kid rendition of the old standard “A Sunday Kind Of Love” on Star Search. (Ed McMahon said that Christina was eight, but she was really 10. He also mangled her name in some spectacular ways.) Like Britney Spears and the pre-Destiny’s Child group Girls Tyme, Christina lost on Star Search. Over the next few years, Christina sang the National Anthem before a whole lot of Pittsburgh sporting events, including the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992.

In 1993, Christina Aguilera joined the cast of the rebooted Mickey Mouse Club, a weirdly consequential talent incubator. Christina was in there with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Ryan Gosling, and Keri Russell. Even if Christina hadn’t become galactically famous a few years later, it would still be trippy to see this little kid wailing out Mary J. Blige covers for an audience of fellow kids.

Christina spent a year as a Mouseketeer before the Disney Channel cancelled The Mickey Mouse Club. She was determined to keep her career going. In 1997, a teenage Christina went to Japan to record “All I Wanna Do,” an English-language dance-pop duet with the Japanese singer Keizo Nakanishi. The song didn’t go anywhere, so Christina returned to the US and got back in touch with Disney.

In 1998, Disney was getting ready to release the animated movie Mulan, and they needed someone to sing the big Matthew Wilder-written ballad “Reflection.” (Matthew Wilder’s highest-charting single, 1983’s “Break My Stride,” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.) In an attempt to get the gig, Christina recorded a version of Whitney Houston’s “Run To You,” a song that she would later cover at a 2001 Whitney tribute for BET. Christina nailed the big note at the end of “Run To You,” and that was apparently good enough to get her the Mulan job. In Mulan itself, Aladdin veteran Lea Salonga sang “Reflection,” but Aguilera sang the version that played over the film’s end credits. Aguilera’s “Reflection” came out as a single, too. It never made the Hot 100, but it went top-20 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Decades later, Christina re-recorded the song for the Mulan remake.

Christina was pursuing a contract with RCA while she was going after that Disney gig, and her performance on “Reflection” impressed enough people that the label quickly signed her. RCA A&R rep Ron Fair put serious resources into Christina, lining up big-deal songwriters for her debut album. Aguilera idolized Mariah Carey, and she wanted her first RCA single to be a grand ballad, since that’s what Mariah had done with “Vision Of Love.” But Fair read the tea leaves, and he knew that an uptempo dance-pop jam would help her break through. Christina needed “Genie In A Bottle.”

It took an unlikely trio of music-business veterans to write “Genie In A Bottle.” The most seasoned of them was Steve Kipner, who was born in Ohio but who’d grown up in Australia. Kipner got his start in the mid-’60s as the teenage frontman of a band called Steve & The Board, who recorded for the same label as the young Bee Gees. (Kipner’s father Nat produced “Spicks And Specks,” the Bee Gees’ first Australian hit.) Later, Kipner led the band Tin Tin, whose Maurice Gibb-produced 1970 single “Toast And Marmalade For Tea” reached #20 on the Hot 100.

In the ’70s, Kipner moved to the US and became a pop songwriter. He co-wrote Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” the longest-reigning #1 hit of the pre-Soundscan era. It took Kipner 17 years to land another #1 hit, but he kept working steadily in that time. In the late ’90s, Kipner started writing songs with David Frank, a guy who’d already been through a long pop-chart history of his own.

David Frank, a Massachusetts native, had been a serious student of classical piano before he switched over to synth. In 1981, Frank was living in New York, and he got together with singer Mic Murphy to form the System, a dance-pop duo who had some success in the ’80s. (The System’s highest-charting single, 1987’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) Frank’s synth expertise made him an in-demand musician in the ’80s, and he was a crucial component in a couple of chart-topping hits, Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” and Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.”

After the System broke up, David Frank moved to Los Angeles, and his publisher introduced him to Steve Kipner. Together, they wrote “The Hardest Thing,” a 1999 hit for the boy band 98 Degrees. (“The Hardest Thing” peaked at #5. It’s a 6. 98 Degrees’ highest-charting single is 2000’s “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),” which peaked at #2. It’s a 4. As guests, 98 Degrees will eventually appear in this column.) While Frank and Kipner were working together, a friend suggested a third collaborator.

Pam Sheyne, the youngest of this random-ass trio, came from New Zealand. After moving to the UK, she found work as a backup singer for people like the Pet Shop Boys and Céline Dion. In the late ’90s, Sheyne started writing songs, and her biggest early success came when she co-wrote “She Wants You,” a 1998 single for a singer named Billie. “She Wants You” didn’t reach the Hot 100, but it was a #3 hit in the UK. Flush with that success, Sheyne moved to New York and got hooked up with Steve Kipner and David Frank.

“Genie In A Bottle” was the first song that Kipner, Frank, and Sheyne wrote together. Frank came up with the song’s backing track the night before they all met for their first writing session. The three of them quickly developed a rapport while writing “Genie In A Bottle” together. The three writers kept working together for a while, and they soon wrote a couple of bangers for the short-lived Bad Boy girl group Dream. They were jointly responsible for Dream’s “He Loves U Not,” a song that reached #2 in 2000. It’s an 8. I’m even more fond of “This Is Me,” their second Dream single, but that one stalled out at #39.

Once the “Genie In A Bottle” demo started making the rounds, the songwriters started getting calls. Paula Abdul wanted the track, which would’ve made for a weird sliding-doors moment. The song almost went to Innosense, the Lou Pearlman-managed girl group that Britney Spears had almost joined. But Christina Aguilera’s team pushed hard for the song, and they got it. The track was originally called “If You Want To Be With Me,” but Aguilera’s manager knew that “Genie In A Bottle” was the better title.

Initially, Christina wasn’t sure about “Genie In A Bottle.” The song, a late addition to Christina’s self-titled debut, wasn’t the way that she wanted to present herself to the world. At the same time, Kipner and Frank, who produced the track, weren’t sure if a balladeer like Christina could handle the song. When they started working with Christina, Kipner and Frank were immediately blown away by her vocal talent. They coached her, getting her to stop singing crazy muscular runs all over the track and to show some vulnerability.

That vulnerability is important. “Genie In A Bottle” is flirty, but it’s conflicted, too. The songwriters clearly knew what they were doing. If anything, “Genie In A Bottle” is even more innuendo-heavy than “Physical”; there are only so many way to read the part about “gotta rub me the right way.” Christina sings that her hormones are racing at the speed of light but that don’t mean it’s gotta be tonight. You could forgive someone for focusing on the hormones, for missing the whole point of the second part.

David Frank’s track works as a bright, direct approximation of the tricky, layered R&B that was taking over the charts in the late ’90s. It’s not as rich or sophisticated as something like Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” but it’s got that same sort of layered syncopation working for it. A percolating synth chatters back and forth with quasi-Latin piano flourishes. Drum machines shudder through synthetic horn-stabs and spidery guitar notes. There’s a lot going on in the beat, but it’s all there to highlight Christina’s vocal, which sucks up all the air in the room.

On “Genie In A Bottle,” it’s clear that Christina Aguilera has a hugely powerful voice, but it’s almost as if she’s trying to obscure it. That voice is deep and rich, but she never mashes the gas. Instead, she plays hide and seek. Some of her ad-libs are murmured and distorted, coming through like she’s talking over a bad phone line. On the verses, she’s almost conversational, easing into the track’s pocket. On the chorus, there’s a pleading, nearly desperate quality to her delivery. It’s an acting performance. Her character wants to get with this other person, but she doesn’t want it to be too easy. So she plays the game, and she tells the other person that they’ve got to play the game, too.

Diane Martel directed the “Genie In A Bottle” video, which was all flickering atmosphere. Christina was 18 when “Genie In A Bottle” came out, and the clip never shows her in the harsh light of a high-school hallway. Instead, she’s on a beach at night, lit by firelight, showing a vast expanse of torso in virtually every shot. The clip almost plays like it’s trying to draw a contrast between Christina and Britney Spears. But in those two videos, Britney and Christina have one important thing in common: They both look like they’re having fun.

“Genie In A Bottle” went on to become the inescapable summer jam of 1999, and it hit TRL nearly as hard as “Baby One More Time” had done a few months earlier. A song like that might not make a career, but it can definitely start one. The introduction had its intended effect. Christina Aguilera had rocketed herself into the pop conversation, and she would remain there for a long time to come. We’ll see Christina in this column again soon.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Beverly Hills 90210 was still going in 1999, and Christina Aguilera stopped by the Peach Pit After Dark to lip-sync “Genie In A Bottle” while a band pretended to play the extremely synthetic track. Here’s Christina’s big 90210 scene:

(The other song that Christina pretends to sing in that clip is “I Turn To You,” a Diane Warren ballad that former Number Ones artists All-4-One originally recorded for the Space Jam soundtrack in 1996. The All-4-One version never came out as a single, but Christina’s cover peaked at #3 in 2000. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: One of the most beloved tracks from the early-’00s mash-up craze was a bootleg known as “A Stroke Of Genius.” The UK producer Freelance Hellraiser put Christina’s “Genie In A Bottle” vocals over the backing track from the Strokes’ 2001 song “Hard To Explain,” and it fucking ruled. Here’s “A Stroke Of Genius”:

RCA blocked any commercial release of “A Stroke Of Genius,” so the Scottish band Speedway covered “Genie In A Bottle” and made sure the backing track sounded as much like “Hard To Explain” as possible. In the UK, Speedway’s version of “Genie In A Bottle,” essentially a not-as-good cover of “A Stroke Of Genius,” reached #10 in 2003. Here’s the Speedway video:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The currently ascendant pop singer Dove Cameron recorded a cover of “Genie In A Bottle” back when she was one of the stars of the Disney Channel franchise Descendants. Here’s Cameron’s video for her slightly Disnified take on “Genie In A Bottle,” which was part of the soundtrack of the 2016 short Descendants: Wicked World:

(Dove Cameron’s highest-charting single, 2022’s “Boyfriend,” peaked at #16.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2016 New Girl episode where Zooey Deschanel lulls Max Greenfield to sleep by singing “Genie In A Bottle”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Camila Cabello’s video for her 2017 single “Crying In The Club,” which interpolates “Genie In A Bottle”:

(“Crying In The Club” peaked at #47. Camila Cabello will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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