For the first time in 15 months, live music is returning nationwide after the global coronavirus pandemic ravaged the industry. Billboard’s “My First Show Back” is a series dedicated to sharing stories from throughout the touring ecosystem about what’s happening now, what has been forever altered and what will never change.
In this installment, pop superstar Christina Aguilera talks about her two-night performance alongside the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, where she felt the unifying power of music as she reimagined some of her biggest hits and favorite songs with orchestral arrangements. (Her comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Performing with an orchestra, and the Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel was such an honor, and to me, it was a performance of a lifetime. It was the performance I waited my whole life to do for so many creative purposes, including the fact that I am such a die-hard lover of score music and composers and classical music.
At the show, I mentioned that my mom was a violinist, so that type of music was always in the house. I have such a deep appreciation for classical music and that world, so to be given an opportunity to reimagine my work, and be able to take snippets of pieces of music that I love and intertwine it with my catalogue and make an entire show of it, it elevated my appreciation for live performance in a way that I will always want to illustrate in my shows. Everything from the choreography to the visuals, I really wanted it to be a completely different reimagination of everything as a whole.
I didn’t want to approach the music in a way that you were particularly used to seeing at pop shows and concerts your whole life. It was a world that I grew up in as a “pop star.” It was a very specific world of, “This is the format. This is what you’re supposed to see.” This one, I was completely able to just embody, I felt, my individual purpose and that was really to honor the vocals, the live instrumentation, the musicians and the composed pieces of music. It felt like the most artistic thing I’ve ever done.
Being surrounded by the raw talent — this was an environment where you can’t fake anything. You can’t hide behind anything. In moments, you could hear a pin drop and as vulnerable as that makes you feel, I was able to understand my power as a performer and what that means while allowing the audience to truly listen and not scream over what you’re doing like in a typical pop concert format. I felt the energy from not only the performers, but also the audience who I felt truly appreciated the core music and were listening to it as music lovers. There’s one thing to hear music and there’s another thing to listen to music. I felt surrounded by so much love and energy and supportive people who love music in its most raw, truest format.
Over the past year, we were all waiting for the moment where we could join together. It’s such an amazing thing. Even without the experience of what we went through in lockdown, as an audience member I’ve always been enraptured by how powerful music is and the way that everyone comes together no matter our views or differences. We all synchronize ourselves into a beat or melody and are captivated by this whole other world that we’re experiencing on a different level, and we’re uniting out of the pure love and passion that everybody has for music and the artist. It makes you appreciate music and how, no matter what, we all come together as one to support something so moving and something we can all feel.
I never would imagine opening a show with Etta James’ “At Last,” since it’s a cover. But it’s sung by my all time favorite singer, because she sang with such gut. The raw quality of her voice — you just felt that she had a story, she had a past, she had a background of pain and no matter if she was singing happy or singing sad, she just gave it. I’d always covered her songs throughout the years on my tours, but I’ve always done it as the piano/vocal version with just the piano, drums and guitar. But this opportunity and the fact that we were all coming together for the first time in so long, everyone was just grateful — grateful to be with each other, grateful to be in that setting. When I was singing it for the first time in rehearsals with the orchestra, the opening words, “At last, my love has come along/ My lonely days are over/ And life is like a song.” What an amazing opening line! I felt it. I’ve never done a show where it felt more right in the moment and more fitting. I could definitely feel the love and appreciation that we were all there together. It just fit.
Who knows what music and society is going to look like with the delta variant spreading? Who really has a true answer? I’m not a doctor. I can only go with what the guidelines are. We were in the clear for the show at the time, and moving forward, it’s just a matter of being super communicative with each other, really aware and really open with how everyone feels. The safety involved is first.
In the future, I would love to have more moments like the Hollywood Bowl show, where I get to be onstage and the artistry is so real and raw and flowing. There’s no hiding or faking anything, and I got to feel one with my body and voice. It felt like coming home and the kind of performance I was born to do. Being onstage is everything to me. I prefer that environment way more than being in a studio where you feel boxed and caved in.
Over the past year, I have been working on Spanish material, the follow up of my debut Mi Reflejo 20 years ago, where I was able to dive into my culture and heritage. Getting back into that, but now as a grown woman, I have a deeper sense of what I want to talk about and what I want to say. I’ve been really appreciating my roots and I’m definitely looking forward to bringing that to the live stage. In Latin music, they just have so much fun.
Simultaneously, the English album is being built, but I’ve changed as a person over 2020. We all had a moment to reassess, regroup, figure out what felt good and what was serving us in life, what really didn’t and where we wanted to move to in our futures. For me, that really happened. I’ve never been one to rush music. I take my time and I really reflect on the person that I’ve grown to be in this stage of my life. I’m on a constant growth path, both personally and spiritually. This one will have a completely different energy to it. I’ve never made music from such a joyful and honest place. Joy isn’t always a place where I’ve made music from, so this is really a beautiful time for me to release material that I truly love in this happy place I’m in. One of true appreciation and gratitude coming back onto the music scene.
As told to Rania Aniftos.