by Joshua Allen
Christina Aguilera, "Genie in a Bottle"
This breakout hit from flyweight pixie chanteuse Christina Aguilera, like all pop masterworks, seems defiantly simple on the surface. But lurking beneath that candy-coated shell is a dark morass of subtext, more accurately representing the complex sexual life of today's teens. Let's delve.
I feel like I've been locked up tight
The central metaphor in this song is, obviously, the eponymous genie, and this metaphor is reinforced in the first verse, above. The Narrator feels like she's been imprisoned for a lengthy period of time, unable to free herself but instead waiting for a rescuer. This feeling of confinement is so severe that the Narrator is forced to use hyperbole ("a century") to express it how long it has lasted.
If every night in a given century is lonely, then we can determine that the Narrator feels like she's experienced around 36,525 lonely nights, including those extra 25 lonely leap nights. Although this is over thirty-six times as many as 1,001 nights, we can assume the Narrator was making a sly reference to Alf Layla wa Layla, the vast collection of genie-laden folk tales that can be translated as The Thousand Nights and a Night better known as The Arabian Nights.
The heroic writers who originally translated The Arabian Nights into French used the word "génie" for the Arabic word "djinni" (variations include "djinn," "jinn," "jann," "janni," "jinniyah," et al.) which it resembled both in pronunciation and meaning. The djinn were supernatural anthropoid beings of Islamic mythology, soulless and mischief-making like the faeries of northern tales. According to the Koran, they were made of smokeless fire rather than the earth that made up human beings. The djinn cropped up in numerous legends, almost always as a threatening presence, punishing human beings for their moral mistakes or out of sheer spite.
Several tales appear in The Arabian Nights where djinn are trapped inside small containers and released by unsuspecting passersby. The djinn then becomes enslaved to his liberator, although it often ironically causes the liberator's downfall by granting that which he/she most desires.
So, the Narrator is positioning herself as one of these djinn, a powerful being of smokeless fire (passionate yet promoting a cigarette-free lifestyle, consistent with Aguilera's image as a role model for youngsters) who a) is trapped, b) will become the slave of whomever frees her, and c) is potentially dangerous. Keep this in mind as we press on.
You're licking your lips and
The opening stanza sets the scene of the Narrator trapped and waiting for someone to save her. But this second stanza adds some stipulations which are expanded upon later in the song. Here we are introduced to the Suitor, who is interested in freeing the Narrator from her prison. The active verbs here are "licking" and "blowing," our first indication of what exactly is imprisoning the Narrator and what it could take to unlock the door. It's clear that her "bottle" is her chastity, if not virginity (she feels "locked up tight," according to the first verse), and that unlike the djinn, she has voluntarily imprisoned herself within this bottle and has full control of who is going to release her.
My body's saying let's go
This quick bridge reinforces what's been hinted at in the preceding verse: Although the Suitor is physically attractive, he (I will use the male pronoun from here on out, but please be aware that the song in no way indicates the gender of the Suitor or, for that matter, the Narrator) may not worthy of "it," i.e., sexual intercourse or at least a heated session of foreplay. But note how she declares here that any sexual encounter would be ill-advised, when the idea is carefully considered her heart is saying no, in no uncertain terms.
If you wanna be with me
The chorus ties together the genie myth with this more earthy situation, the key link being "you gotta rub me the right way." The djinn were typically released from their prisons by someone rubbing their bottle or lamp. Here is a passage from Sir Richard F. Burton's translation of The Arabian Nights:
Then, taking a handful of sand, she began to rub therewith, but she had only begun when appeared to her one of the Jann, whose favor was frightful and whose bulk was horrible big, and he was gigantic as one of the Jababirah. And forthright he cried to her: "Say whatso thou wantest of me. Here am I, thy slave and slave to whoso holdeth the lamp, and not I alone, but all the Slaves of the Wonderful Lamp which thou hendest in hand."
So the chorus is telling the Suitor that despite her heart's objections, this sexual encounter can still take place if he "pay[s]" a "price" and "rub[s]" her "the right way." The cliche "rub one the right/wrong way" is almost never meant literally, but in the sexually charged atmosphere of this song, it is difficult to ignore the physical connotations. Extremely difficult. So we are forced to read this line as both literal and metaphorical, meaning that the Narrator seems to be saying, "Yes, you do indeed have it going on. But since we hardly know each other, I feel obligated to preserve my chastity unless you have either something more than just raw, animal sexuality and/or creative lovemaking skills."
The second half of the chorus only underlines this synopsis:
If you wanna be with me
Like "rub me the right way," the phrase "make a big impression" can be read metaphorically or literally, although the subtly unexpected vocabulary makes you lean toward the latter. You'd expect her to say "make a good impression," but the word "big" is used instead, making one think that "impression" should be defined not as "an effect produced on the intellect, conscience, or feelings" but rather "the action involved in the pressure of one thing upon or into the surface of another."
The music's banging and the light's down low
The second verse simply reiterates the first, saying that although the sexual encounter could potentially happen in the very near future, the Narrator might prefer to wait for the aforementioned reasons. The language is loaded, as always: "banging," "down low".
What stands out, though, is the middle line. It doesn't have a rhyming counterpart, as the others do in this verse, and it is the one part of the song where the Narrator openly admits what she's been waiting for all this time. The chorus specifies what she wants from her Suitor, but this line really gets to the heart of the matter: "Waiting for someone who needs me." Forget, for the moment, all the talk of rubbing and impressing and banging. The Narrator, as Cheap Trick before her, needs someone to need her. Not just for her precociously strong voice or non-child-bearing hips or record-sales dollars, but for herself.
It would be nice to leave our interpretation at that, but the djinn subtext can't be ignored. The song closes with the Narrator asking to be released from her bottle, yet again relying on a sexually charged word to drive her point home ("come come come on and let me out"). By extending the genie metaphor, the Narrator will become the slave of whomever frees her or, within Aguilera's spin on the story, whomever she allows to free her. This Suitor will then be granted his wish, which is evidently a night of sweet, sweet love. Does this sound like what the Narrator has been waiting for? Being someone's love-slave?
Absolutely not. To find the true conclusion of this encounter, one must look no further than the source material. Although The Arabian Nights consists of many disparate tales, the frame story is about King Shahryar who is so convinced of women's inherently disloyal nature, that he marries a new maiden every day, spends one night with her, has her executed the next morning, then finds a new wife-to-be, and so on. "There is no woman but who cuckoldeth her husband," he says. "Then the curse of Allah upon one and all, and upon the fools who lean against them for support or who place the reins of conduct in their hands!"
Between the rather sexist moral of The Arabian Nights and the untrustworthy nature of the djinn, we're left to ponder if the Suitor isn't just setting himself up for treachery. Perhaps he will make a big impression and get his wish, but that wish will only backfire. The price he'll end up paying, then, is being cuckolded by the Narrator, a strong-willed woman who plays by her own rules, don't want no scrubs, and will dump your loser lip-licking, kiss-blowing ass first thing in the morning.
in the junk drawer
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