Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants”
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.
Sometimes, the song gets lost inside the song. “What A Girl Wants,” Christina Aguilera’s second #1 hit, seems like it should be simple. It’s a giddy love song, a thank-you to a boyfriend who understands how to not be an overbearing asshole; co-writer Shelly Peiken was thinking about her husband when she came up with the lyrics. But “What A Girl Wants” also has a lot going on — sputter-clap drum-machines, synth-string blinky-blinks, a weird little baroque breakdown. In the middle of the whole thing, there’s Christina Aguilera, seemingly bent on proving that she can sing 58 notes per second. It’s too much.
“What A Girl Wants” went through a few different iterations before reaching its chart-topper form. The version of “What A Girl Wants” on Christina Aguilera’s self-titled album isn’t the version that made its way to #1. It’s also not the single that Christina Aguilera wanted to release. Even before Christina first recorded it, her A&R guy made the song’s writers change a key lyric. In all those rough drafts and re-recordings, “What A Girl Wants” became its own out-of-control beast, like a would-be blockbuster movie that has way too many studio execs’ fingerprints on it. All that chaos didn’t stop “What A Girl Wants” from reaching #1, cementing Christina’s hold over the TRL nation, or supplying a title for an Amanda Bynes high-school comedy. Today, though, “What A Girl Wants” stands as one of the lesser smashes of the Y2K-era bubblegum renaissance. It’s not a song that anyone needs.
Christina Aguilera was at a crucial career point when she released “What A Girl Wants” as a single. “Genie In A Bottle,” the first single from her self-titled album, had become a straight-up summer smash, dominating the Hot 100 for more than a month during a competitive moment in chart history. But Christina was still young and untested, and the threat of one-hit wonder status still hung over her. Christina hadn’t wanted to release “Genie In A Bottle” as her first single. She’d thought of herself primarily as a balladeer, a young Mariah Carey type, but her A&R rep Ron Fair had instead sent Christina into the pop zeitgeist that her former Mickey Mouse Club castmate Britney Spears had helped to create. For the second single, Aguilera once again wanted to release a ballad. But teenage hormones had paid off well, and Ron Fair wanted to keep her in that lane for as long as he could.
Before “Genie In A Bottle,” Christina Aguilera had already found some success with a ballad: “Reflection,” the end-credits song from the Disney movie Mulan. But while “Reflection” had done just fine on adult-contempo radio, it wasn’t a moment-defining smash anywhere near the level of “Genie In A Bottle.” Before Christina released a proper “Genie In A Bottle” follow-up, she did get a chance to show off her vocal range. During 1999’s Christmas season, Christina released a deeply sentimental, wildly oversung take on the old standard “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire).” Aguilera’s version, which wasn’t on her album, made it to #18 on the Hot 100 — a serious accomplishment in an era when holiday songs didn’t often do well on the pop chart. I truly don’t like her version, though.
Even after those successes, Christina Aguilera didn’t have much say in picking her big “Genie In A Bottle” follow-up. Instead, Ron Fair merely picked the second song on the album, the one that probably sounded the most like “Genie In A Bottle.” That song came from Shelly Peiken and Guy Roche, two songwriters who had started working together not long beforehand. Peiken, a Long Island native, had gotten her start in the late ’80s, writing tracks for people like Samantha Fox and former Number Ones artist Taylor Dayne. Peiken had limited success, mostly writing album tracks, right up until 1997, when she co-wrote a bunch of songs on her friend Meredith Brooks’ LP Blurring The Edges. One of those songs was “Bitch,” which went all the way to #2. (It’s a 4.)
Around the time “Bitch” took off, Shelly Peiken started writing songs with Guy Roche, a Tahiti-born producer. Roche had started off in the mid-’80s, producing tracks for singers like Michael Bolton and Cher. (He co-produced Cher’s 1989 hit “If I Could Turn Back Time,” which peaked at #3; it’s a 9.) In the ’90s, Roche did a ton of work with Céline Dion, and he also produced “Dreaming Of You,” the single that was supposed to be Selena’s English-language breakout. (In 1995, after Selena’s murder, “Dreaming Of You” became her only Hot 100 hit, peaking at #22.) Peiken and Roche were both industry insiders, and they liked working together. In 1998, the two of them teamed up to write “Almost Doesn’t Count,” a #16 hit for the former Number Ones artist Brandy.
One day, Guy Roche played a track that he’d made for Shelly Peiken, and she started singing over it, freestyling lyrics. One of the bits that she sang would eventually become the “What A Girl Wants” chorus. The two writers finished the song. In 1998, the French pop star Ophélie Winter recorded a French-language version of the track; a couple of years later, “Ce Que Je Suis” made a minor dent in the French singles charts. The existence of that French-language version didn’t stop Peiken and Roche from pitching the song to Ron Fair, the A&R rep in charge of Christina Aguilera’s project. Originally, Peiken and Roche had called the song “What A Girl Needs,” and Fair suggested that they change the “Needs” of the title to “Wants.” Peiken and Roche went along with it, and Christina recorded the song for her album.
The first version of “What A Girl Wants,” the one that appeared on Christina’s album, is still pretty cluttered, but it’s very different from what would come later. Christina sings it in a lower key, over sparkly and heavily-treated acoustic guitars. There are some DJ scratches in there, and some bursts of drum-machine syncopation. But compared to what would come later, that original “What A Girl Wants” is almost bluesy. It sounds way better than the version we know today. Even though Christina’s album sold a bajillion copies, that original version might as well not exist anymore. On the version of Christina Aguilera that’s currently available on streaming services, the album version of the track is gone, replaced by the re-recording. And the re-recording is a mess.
Here’s how Ron Fair describes the single version of “What A Girl Wants” in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits: “The original version of ‘What A Girl Wants’ was done much lower, much smokier, much sultrier, and so the chorus didn’t have the lift it needed. We changed the key and freshened up the rhythm and took a much more aggressive approach in re-recording it.” What Fair means is that they tried to turn “What A Girl Wants” into the sort of hammering teen-pop anthem that would refuse to fade into the background. Fair wanted “What A Girl Wants” to work like the slippery futuristic R&B and the titanium-plated Max Martin tracks that were all over TRL at the time. Fair’s trick succeeded commercially, but it made the track into something rough.
Look, I should like “What A Girl Wants.” The song is definitely memorable; I can’t see the title without getting the hook stuck in my head. That’s a good thing. The song is playfully horny, too, and I like playfully horny pop songs. I also like the sleek, tourettic production of millennial R&B, and the re-recorded “What A Girl Wants” at least aims for that. But all those changes work as a gaudy-ass paint job on a song that didn’t need or want one.
A whole lot of people had success by imitating Timbaland’s production style in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. Someone like Rodney Jerkins or She’kspere knew that the tricky, off-kilter beats needed to be built into the fabric of the songs themselves. You couldn’t just take a previously existing song, change the pitch, and have someone mashing on an 808 at irregular intervals. But that’s practically what we get with the single version of “What A Girl Wants.” In its re-recorded version, “What A Girl Wants” has no sense of space. The song seems to lose track of its own beat more than once, like on the breakdown where those fancy string rondos come in. That part of the song seems to exist just so that Christina Aguilera can dress up like Marie Antoinette in the video. It completely loses the thread of the song. I’m not even sure what that time signature’s supposed to be.
Some songs might be strong enough to withstand that kind of overhaul, but “What A Girl Wants” isn’t one of them. In its original form, “What A Girl Wants” is a decent-enough love song without much of an idea behind it. Christina Aguilera’s narrator is grateful that her dude has given her “time to breathe,” and it’s not immediately clear if she’s talking about sex or just about not being too possessive. On the bridge, Christina enthuses about this guy who’s sensitive but tough and who will be there when the going gets rough. But we don’t get any specifics or peculiarities; it’s all just pure Hallmark drivel.
The “What A Girl Wants” hook is memorable, and Christina Aguilera belts it out with a whole lot of force. But the song doesn’t have the teasing flirtiness of “Genie In A Bottle,” and Christina doesn’t really sell its banalities. Instead, she just goes full berserker on the melisma, as if that’s her way of getting revenge for not getting to release a ballad. Christina definitely learned how to oversing from Mariah Carey, and at least on this song, she doesn’t deploy her massive voice with the kind of artfulness that Mariah often brought. Instead, she just pushes the ad-libs into overdrive. That doesn’t stop her from delivering the chorus straight-up, but everything else in the song gets lost in the vocal tornado.
It’s possible that the “What A Girl Wants” video was more important to Christina Aguilera’s career than the song itself. “Genie In A Bottle” director Diane Martel came back for the clip, and she once again set things in a no-adults-allowed hangout spot where kids all do elaborately choreographed dances together. This time, it’s all happening in a giant loft-style clubhouse with neon signs and pinball machines, the type of place that only exists in music videos. (If I was hanging out there as a teenager, I’d be the one guy asking everyone to wait on the dance routine because I can’t just walk away from a pinball machine until I’ve gotten my quarter’s worth.) Christina presents her whole dance number as a gift to her blandly handsome boyfriend, and she looks like she’s having fun, especially during the inexplicable costume-drama interlude. Videos like this were total TRL-bait, and this one did its job. It made Christina look, once again, like a star.
The music business was definitely happy to accept Christina Aguilera as a star. Her self-titled album was platinum when the “What A Girl Wants” single came out, and it was quintuple platinum when the song reached #1. A few weeks after that, Christina won the Grammy for Best New Artist, notably beating out her fellow Mouseketeer revolutionary Britney Spears. (Christina also beat Kid Rock, Macy Gray, and Susan Tedeschi. Weird list of nominees.) Christina’s victory makes a certain kind of sense. Grammy voters might not understand teen-pop, but they have always been kind to the oversingers of the world. To a Grammy voter, maybe Christina looked like more of a career artist than Britney — or, for that matter, Kid Rock, who’d released his debut album a decade earlier.
After “What A Girl Wants” reached #1, Christina Aguilera finally got to release a ballad as a single. Diane Warren had written the slow jam “I Turn To You” a few years earlier, and former Number Ones artists All-4-One had recorded it for the soundtrack of the 1996 movie Space Jam. All-4-One had made an “I Turn To You” video and everything, but their song had never come out as a single. Christina recorded a cover of the song with Guy Roche, and her version peaked at #3. (It’s a 4.)
“I Turn To You” wasn’t a failure. It wasn’t exactly a commercial triumph like “Genie In A Bottle” or “What A Girl Wants,” either. It just existed. Maybe it was an itch that Christina Aguilera needed to scratch. Christina would release other, better ballads later on, but her most successful songs were usually her up-tempo jams. She still had more of those in the chamber. She’ll be back in this column before long.
BONUS BEATS: One of the biggest box-office hits of 2000 was What Women Want, the utterly deranged Nancy Myers comedy where Mel Gibson can suddenly read women’s minds after being struck by lightning. Here’s the bit where “What A Girl Wants” soundtracks a montage of Gibson watching his daughter Ashley Johnson try on outfits:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat using a re-recorded and pitched-up “What A Girl Wants” sample on “Watergirl,” his 2019 collaboration with the late SOPHIE:
(Cashmere Cat’s only Hot 100 hit as lead artist, the 2015 Ariana Grande collab “Adore,” peaked at #93. As a producer, Cashmere Cat 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.