Christina's World

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Sometimes the gods of pop music like to play a little joke. Browsing the aisles of a Times Square record store the other day, Christina Aguilera got quite a surprise. Unrecognized amid the hurly-burly of fellow shoppers stood one of her heroes, Fred Durst, leader of the red-hot rock-hop band Limp Bizkit. Aguilera zeroed in, angling for an autograph, but it was not to be: her quarry slipped into the crowd and scurried away.

What Durst didn't know is that the petite blond with the big eyes was not just another fan but one of the most strikingly gifted singers to come along since Mariah Carey. Aguilera, 18, is poised to become pop's next female superstar. Her debut single, Genie in a Bottle, took only a few weeks to rise to No. 1 and is generating the kind of genuine enthusiasm on radio and MTV that doesn't come around much anymore. The song reveals a crystalline voice full of wonderful shadings and with a soulful ring that sets her apart in the overhyped teen market. If bookmakers take odds on who will be a bigger star after Aguilera's self-titled debut album comes out Aug. 24, the smart money won't be on Durst.

Aguilera got where she is using some familiar stepping stones. At nine she appeared on Star Search, and at 12 she began a stint on the New Mickey Mouse Club. But her musical tastes were always fairly mature for a budding teen queen. Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pa., Aguilera, who is half Ecuadorian and half Irish, had only a passing interest in the pop music of the day. Instead she had a thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein. She not only learned every note of The Sound of Music but even began singing the songs at neighborhood block parties. Her big, broad roof raisers got her noticed: by the time Aguilera was 10, the legend of the little girl with the large voice had grown so fast that she was belting out the national anthem at Penguins, Pirates and Steeler games.

The young singer also broadened her palette by studying the blues recordings of Etta James and B.B. King. Now Aguilera blends the whoops, swoops and clean lines of a pure voice like Whitney Houston's with the darker, more earthy tones of the blues, giving her singing a sturdy backbone. RCA Records heard her demo tape, brought her in to sing a cappella and signed her up. The upcoming CD shows off her range. Come On Over is a gospel-tinged R.-and-B. rouser that gives her a chance to shout; So Emotional is a Brandy-style midtempo ballad that she patiently builds to an emotional climax.

Aguilera's aspirations reach beyond dreams of mere pop-chart success. "If music becomes too pop, I lose interest," she says. "The studio can be confining. I need to be challenged." RCA executive Ron Fair says the label will "not shackle" Aguilera and envisions TV and even Broadway for her too. "She's our Streisand," says Fair. This week she'll perform with solo piano at Lilith Fair, a reflection of the label's confidence in her as a true singer and not just a studio act. From now on, Aguilera is more likely to be signing autographs than asking for them. And if Fred Durst happens by, he'll just have to go to the end of the line.