Released: 14th February 2000
Writers: Shelly Peiken / Guy Roche
Peak position: #3
Chart run: 3-8-19-21-27-34-38-41-53-55-58-52-43
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 71-51-28-18-13-11-11-1-1-2-2-3-3-4-12-11-13-15-18-20-30-40-39-44
Very much setting a theme for almost her entire career, Christina Aguilera was immediately at odds with her record label when it came to the difficult task of following up her debut single Genie In A Bottle.
Eager to release a track that showcased her talents as a vocal artisté, Christina had already started performing So Emotional on television (which was basically four minutes of her ad-libbing and doing vocal runs). Her record label though, were intent on riding in the slipstream of Britney Spears’ success and were determined to firmly cement her position as a teen idol. And they got their way when What A Girl Wants was officially announced as the second single.
It was a smart move – particularly compared to Britney’s second single: Sometimes, which reinforced her as the doe-eyed, virginal girl next door. What A Girl Wants, on the other hand, was much cooler and as a result, Christina immediately felt a bit more street smart than her rival; the kind of teen queen who watched Moesha rather than Sabrina The Teenage Witch and hung out at the mall instead of doing her homework.
The song was originally recorded by French singer Ophélie Winter as Ce Quis Je Suis in 1998 – the direct translation had the lyrics: “what a girl needs, what a girl wants”. It was felt that the lyrics worked better (and rhymed) with the words swapped around; with that adjustment, the song was then recorded by Christina for her debut album. Early retail copies of the Christina Aguilera album featured the original mix – and just maybe we can see Christina’s point about it not being the right choice. As a downbeat, mellow track, this version with its alternate lyrics is undeniably a curio – but it doesn’t sound like a song that’s going to shake the charts.
The final version of What A Girl Wants, however, did just that. With a bouncier, pop-R&B edge, the song has a much more considered direction – the label at this point had a clear vision for the song and denied Christina’s request to record additional ad-libs, much to her chagrin. We think it was the right choice; the first half of What A Girl Wants really benefits from restraining Christina’s vocal runs and focusing on delivering a slick pop number with a tight melody. When she does get to cut loose a little more during the middle-eight and final chorus, it gives the track room to breathe as it reaches its climax – without such strict routing, the song could so easily have turned into a mindless screamathon. Instead, Christina demonstrates her ability to work her vocals all the way around the song and toy with it, showcasing a degree of vocal control and restraint that has in latter years evaded her.
I only looked but I never touched
‘Cause in my heart was a picture of us
And it’s lucky for me you understand
There is one thing about the What A Girl Wants single that irks to this day, however – and that is the lousy edit of the radio version. Just before the drop into the final chorus, there’s a really noticeable dropped beat (at 02:42). The fact that it’s gone uncorrected for the best part of two decades suggests it probably isn’t a glitch – in which case it really is just a sloppy edit. But hey, if William Orbit is going to be hauled over the coals for the glitch in Britney’s Alien, then someone should be held similarly accountable for this sleight upon What A Girl Wants.
Despite being released in February (in the UK), for us this single personifies those halcyon memories of the ‘90s. The breezy production evokes memories of long summer holidays and we absolutely live for that. The accompanying music video basically encapsulates that period of pop music – it’s set in a huge room full of random crap, including a pinball machine, a drum kit, a huge block of speaker and loads of fixtures and fittings apparently nicked from a funfair, including a huge, creepy inanimate clown that pops up in the background throughout the video. And what did kids of the ‘90s do in this sort of environment? They had a boy vs. girl dance-off, of course (Christina’s troupe is totally on point). It’s all very innocent and consolidates the sentiment of Genie In A Bottle, with Christina reiterating to her beau that she knows he’s horny as hell and is super grateful for giving her what she needs. Which at this point is definitely nothing more than second base.
What A Girl Wants was a commercial success for Christina Aguilera, peaking at #3 in the UK. It was an even bigger hit in America, where it topped the chart. And not just any old chart – it was the first #1 of the millennium. Yes, whilst in the UK we opted for something a little more sombre to mark the occasion (I Have A Dream/Seasons In The Sun by Westlife), America celebrated defying Y2K with this certified bop.
Pleasingly, whatever happened behind the scenes with What A Girl Wants doesn’t appear to have affected Christina’s nostalgic fondness for the song, because she definitely owns it now. It’s featured on all of her tours – even Back To Basics, where she ditched a lot of her older material (including Genie In A Bottle…).
Whilst What A Girl Wants is far from a signature hit for Christina Aguilera, it nonetheless stands strong as a throwback to the ‘90s and the stratospheric rise of teen pop culture. For that alone, it remains an absolute favourite of ours – and who knows, maybe even she doesn’t hate it so much after all, either.