“Everybody said “Don’t do ‘Lady Marmalade,’ it’s too urban for you!” But I wanted to do it!”. The 1974 track was deemed ‘too urban’ for Christina Aguilera. Winning over her record label, she finally entered the studio in January 2001 along with some of her friends, and their contemporary re-imagining of ‘Lady Marmalade’ went on to become a watershed moment for a new generation of female pop artists.
As we begin a new series on 2000’s nostalgia and aesthetics, Sam decides to reflect on the legacy of this femme fatale karaoke favourite.
When asked about her new track in the Spring of 2001, Christina Aguilera simply said ‘The video’s going to be dope’. That about covers it.
Is it, in fact, one of the dopest videos of all time Christina? It was over 20 years ago now that Aguilera’s version of Lady Marmalade was released in April 2001. High time, I think, to evaluate quite why this video, and song, have endured so much in the consciousness of all the millennials I know.
It’s one of those songs that ends up being played, seemingly inevitably, at every single gathering of people of a certain age. There’s a sort of inexorable slide through Britney, to “Lady Marmalade”, ending up with chair dancing to Buttons by the Pussycat Dolls. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the videos to these songs projected wonkily on a wall of someone’s apartment, margarita in hand. Yet as much as that’s all very predictable for a white British millennial, I can’t help but be happy to hear it again.
It’s a song that makes everyone groan or cheer. Maybe both. It’s a song that was an awakening for many; have you seen those corsets? It was a revelation when you discovered, perhaps whispered at the back of GCSE French, what exactly “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” actually meant. And of course, it’s a song which makes everyone want to perform Christina’s part (we all know the rest of the song is basically a warm up for her).
It is somehow both incredibly of its time, and utterly timeless. I know that I am at my peak-milennial-worst writing in this kind of fevered tone, but can you blame me? Missy Elliot, Pink, Lil’ Kim and Christina in one song (sorry Mya…)?! In the most outlandish corsets and wigs imaginable? Strutting their stuff like Missy’s exclusive escort service meets Charlie’s Angels (Independent Women from that other movie of turn of the millennium camp being another tie-in single for the ages).
“Lady Marmalade” was not a new track in 2001. It had been recorded multiple times before, tracing its origins back to an original recording by the band Labelle in 1974. Written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, it was inspired by Crewe’s experiences in New Orleans and the sex workers in the city. Lady Marmalade is a song about a prostitute, but when asked, Patti Labelle (lead singer of Labelle) claimed “I didn’t know what it was about. I don’t know French and nobody, I swear this is God’s truth, nobody at all told me what I’d just sung a song about.” It’s safe to assume that the producers of the 2001 version knew what they were doing…
You can see why it was chosen as a tie-in for Moulin Rouge; a movie which tied French courtesans to the most famous songs of the 20th Century. It replicates something of the titular Moulin’s grandeur, especially in the music video’s choices of red-curtains and lace, with a now-dated but then contemporary musical feel. They even used props from the film in the music video.
Furthermore, Missy Elliot was at the height of her powers in 2001; “Get Ur Freak On” (released in March 2001) was still echoing in the public consciousness and her empowered brand of hip hop, along with the creative control she had over her own music, making her perfect to serve as the MC for this particular coterie of divas.
Aguilera was becoming a bona-fida phenomenon in 2001, something that is forgotten in retrospect, with our enduring fascination with a certain Miss Spears. The sensational relaunch of her previously squeaky-clean pop princess brand began with her featured verse on Lady Marmalade. Her true reinvention with the album ‘Stripped’ and its lead single ‘Dirrty’ was just around the corner (released in September 2002). Aguilera was beginning to take control of her musical style and image like Elliott, with the straggly hair and leather chaps of the iconic Dirrty video foreshadowed by the outlandish costumes, and low neck-lines, of the video for “Lady Marmalade”.
When considering the ‘bad ass chicks from the Moulin Rouge’, the most remarkable and enduring success has actually belonged to Pink, who has been releasing music to great and consistent success over the past two decades, all while somehow staying a little under the radar. Aguilera’s rise was astronomical after the success of ‘Dirrty’, but her subsequent career has been more about her noughties icon status than current hits perhaps. Pink never flew so high, but has shown remarkable endurance.
I think a large part of why this track looms so large in my cultural memory is that it is now so nostalgic. This song has been around for more than half my life, and with the increasingly apocalyptic tone of the 21st Century, it takes me back to a simpler time. Perhaps that time was simpler because I was just younger; a music video filled with divas and red curtained glamour was more important than the state of the world or my own precarious happiness. But maybe it’s more than that.
It is undeniable that another wave of nostalgia is washing through popular culture at the moment. Just look at the incredible success of Dua Lipa and her seemingly never-ending Future Nostalgia era, which borrows from the eighties, nineties and noughties in music and fashion. Also, Billie Eilish’s controversial Vogue UK cover had a distinct ring of Marmalade about it, with her corsetry and glamour perhaps an expression of a 2020’s Christina Aguilera taking control of the narrative of their success.
Lady Marmalade as a historical moment is perhaps so enduring because of the way it captures so many classic themes that fascinate us and which keep reappearing in our popular culture; the emerging star; the empowerment anthem; the female stars owning their sexuality. Or perhaps it’s just a ridiculously catchy song which we as a generation can’t seem to get out of our heads?
Either way, Christina was right. It’s dope.