After initially emerging in the late 90s as a bubblegum teenage pop star, Christina Aguilera took control of her career and embarked on a voyage of reinvention. Released in 2002, Stripped saw her ditch her all-American look to sing about sexual emancipation and empowerment. Two decades, many hairstyles, five Grammys and some 43m in record sales later, she is a 41-year-old mother of two and an LGBTQ+ icon. Her huge audience demographic includes face-painted teens, women from their 20s to their 40s, couples, tattooed blokes and – in this Yorkshire seaside town at least – curious low-flying seagulls, one of which invades the stage.
The show itself is an 80-minute audiovisual extravaganza that takes in most of Aguilera’s complexities. The music spans a spectrum from bubblegum to Latin pop via soul and funk and elements of rock and hip-hop, while always sounding identifiably Aguilera. There are steam and confetti cannons, lasers, Star Wars-type lightsabers, fireworks, a mixed-gender dance troupe and a regular supply of costume changes. Meanwhile, Aguilera’s bewildering array of eyewear runs from reasonably conventional dark sunglasses to silver Cybertron shades and the sort of heavy-duty goggles more usually seen on industrial welders.
“All right, Scarborough, how are you doin’?” she yells, as a raunchy, hip-hoppy Dirrty finds her pairing a silver bustier with trademark PVC chaps. Moments later, she yells: “This is for my girls around the world,” by way of introduction to Can’t Hold Us Down. Having rocketed from sex to feminist empowerment in the opening two numbers, Vanity combines both and thereafter she flits between moods and styles like she’s flicking pages in a book. Breakthrough smash Genie In a Bottle is the evening’s first big crowd sing-along. What a Girl Wants, also from 1999, starts as a sweet love song but turns into an extended thank you to her audience for “sticking with me all these years and giving me everything I wanted”.
She reappears in red for a trio of songs – Euro banger Santo, the more yearning Suéltame and an acoustic guitar-led Pa Mis Muchachas – from this year’s Aguilera, her second Spanish-language album, and explains that the pandemic allowed her to “take a pause and get back to what I wanted to do, and my Latino side”. She reveals that early in her career she faced pressure to change her surname, but steadfastly refused because “it’s what I stand for and the music is what I feel authentically and wholeheartedly.” Then she shape-shifts again for Feel This Moment – a 2013 hit with rapper Pitbull which interpolates A-ha’s Take on Me and Maroon 5’s smash Moves Like Jagger, a song on which she originally appeared. Such copper-bottomed crowdpleasers buy her the space for a more intimate monologue about “how crazy the world is now” and “the importance of hope and knowing it will be OK”. This introduces another global smash, Say Something. Originally a duet with writers A Great Big World, here she delivers it as a tender duet with singer Nelson and a spontaneous crowd choir.
By now, Aguilera is in her element, grinning from ear to ear during a burlesque section and playfully wielding a whip for Labelle’s disco hit, Lady Marmalade. So much so that she misses her cue at the start of Beautiful. “I was chatting so much to you guys. This has never happened before!” she explains. The big, Beatlesque power ballad about self-esteem shows off her four-octave vocal range to dazzling effect.
There’s an appropriately harder edge to Fighter, a song which effectively explains how her strength and resilience derive from her troubled childhood and experiences of witnessing domestic violence in the home. Conversely, she introduces set closer Let There Be Love by explaining that she wants to leave us “with a message – to love yourself”. Like most things she says here it could sound like a platitude, but behind the party atmosphere and ticker tape finale this multi-faceted show feels personal, heartfelt and sincere.