Probably nothing before Pies Descalzos, but we’ll see
How we should all stop talking about how we miss “the old Shakira”
The significance of her crossover success (and the continued backlash to it)
The persistent othering of her and her music despite this success
Why we all need to pay more attention to Latin American music
Just how weird Shakira is
The lack of credit Shakira gets for the impact she has had on pop music
LET’S DO THIS
Full disclosure: I am a Shakira Loyalist, a ride or die fan. Writing might reflect that.
Shakira - Whenever, Wherever
After establishing herself in the Spanish-language market with two superb top-selling albums, Shakira set her sights on the English-speaking world. With the help of a team of top-notch producers and songwriters (that included Gloria Estefan), she wrote and recorded Laundry Service. “Whenever, Wherever,” the first single off the album, was Shakira’s first step into the English-language mainstream.
The song was jarring to both audiences familiar with Shakira and those encountering her for the first time. For many fans of Shakira’s previous work, the “new” Shakira was just as foreign as she was to first-time listeners. What made the biggest impact on the former was the video for the song. With the blonde hair, bare midriff, and provocative dance moves, Shakira was almost unrecognizable. The music was also a cause for concern for fans. Gone was the raw angst of Donde Estan Los Ladrones? and in its place was a poppier, happier sound. (How dare she be happy?) There were cries of “sellout!” and accusations of betrayal. Even today, ten years since the release of Laundry Service, you can find former fans still mourning the crossover. (More on that later.)
To those who didn’t know Shakira, “Whenever, Wherever” was unlike anything else at the time. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t another song on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2002 that featured pipes and charango so prominently (or at all). Lyrically, the song puzzled many, making for a lot of “language barrier”-type commentary. The one line that everyone seemed to zero in on was “lucky that my breasts are small and humble so you don’t confuse them with mountains.” Listeners found it strange, even laughable. What they had yet to learn was that Shakira is a bit strange.
And that voice! It’s difficult to describe a voice that’s so distinct, so singular in music. I remember when I first started listening to Shakira with the release of Pies Descalzos, neither of my parents understood how anyone could listen to such a weird vocalist. My dad described the sound of her voice as someone who’s about to cry underwater. (“Who wants to listen to that?”) When English-language outlets began writing about her, her singing was likened to yodeling. But Shakira’s voice cannot be compared to anyone or anything else. That voice is what makes Shakira who she is as a pop star.
In this rock and roll tango, Shakira tells the story of a love triangle, one that she’s tired of being part of. Besides being a tango musically and lyrically, this song is also a tango between two ways of presenting Shakira to her new audience. Here Shakira not only plays up the Latin thing, but also maintains her rock and roll edge. And when I say plays up the Latin thing I mean that the strategy to sell her to a new audience was clearly one that involved emphasizing her Latin American roots to the point of presenting her as exotic. This is not to say that Shakira would not have decided to include a tango on her album or the Andean instrumentation on “Whenever, Wherever,” just listening to her previous albums would confirm that Shakira is comfortable exploring a range of music styles. But in the case of Laundry Service, the English-language single releases were very strategic.
This becomes problematic later when, even after attaining global pop star status, Shakira is still not truly considered part of the mainstream in the same way as stars like Beyonce or Britney Spears. It shouldn’t matter if Shakira releases a bolero or cumbia or juke or R&B album. If that album is received worldwide the way every single one of her albums up until now has been received, then she is part of the mainstream. The reluctance to include her is a larger symptom of music coverage and the music industry that still insists on separating Latin from everything else. Even acts like Jennifer Lopez, who made their names in the English-language market with music with little to no Latin American influence, still get placed in the “other” category. I guess selling millions of records and selling out concerts worldwide isn’t enough.
The video for “Underneath Your Clothes” begins with a reporter asking Shakira how it feels to sing in English. She answers (in Spanish) that music is about reaching your audience on a deep level and forming a connection with them. And this is a large part of the reason for Shakira’s crossover success. Shakira has said in interviews that when she performs, she always requests that her audience be well-lit because she wants to look at the people she is singing to. She is such a dynamic performer that even at a stadium show with thousands of other spectators and Shakira as only a tiny figure in the distance, you connect with her and her music and everyone who is present in that moment. That is such a powerful thing, and not all performers have that kind of command.
The fact that Shakira answers the reporter in Spanish is a way of saying that even though she now sings in English that doesn’t mean that that’s all she’s about or that she’s forgotten where she came from. Shakira has always remained committed to her Spanish-speaking fans, and it’s important to note that none of her post-crossover albums have been entirely in English. "Te Dejo Madrid," with that harmonica part and that line, “yo no quiero cobardes que me hagan sufrir” (“I don’t want cowards who make me suffer”) and "Que Me Quedes Tu," a song about the willingness to renounce everything in the name of love, are two of the strongest tracks on Laundry Service. Continuing to dedicate the time to writing songs in Spanish (and not just as an afterthought) and continuing to explore different styles and sounds, while still remaining very distinctly Shakira, is part of why Shakira has been able to reach global pop star status.
She makes it look easy, but crossovers are very tricky. An artist making the Spanish-language to English-language transition risks alienating their fan base without knowing if they will be received well by English-speaking audiences. Remember Paulina Rubio’s attempt in 2002? Probably not. And she did pretty well with Border Girl. What about Ximena Sariñana, who is taking a shot at it now? Despite having a savvy team behind her and despite her tireless touring, she hasn’t made too big of a splash. What Shakira has done is extraordinary and, quite frankly, baffling. Had you told me back when I was listening to Pies Descalzos in my bedroom that Shakira would be where she is today, I would not have believed you. But her talent, ambition, intelligence, charisma, and whatever secrets to a successful crossover she had up her sleeve have made her one of the most important and beloved pop stars of her time.
Shakira - Estoy Aquí
Estoy aquí queriéndote, ahogándome entre fotos y cuadernos, entre cosas y recuerdos
One of the reasons that a lot of people say they miss “the old Shakira” is that she used to say something with her songs, which means she used to say something they considered more important or relevant or worthwhile. Take, for instance, “Pies Descalzos, Sueños Blancos” (so ’90s video above!), which comments on social norms and expectations, like being polite to your neighbors, saying the right things, getting an education, and getting married because “Que diria la familia si eres un fracasado?” (What would the family say if you were a failure?).
Then there’s “Se Quiere, Se Mata,” which speaks about teenage sexuality and reproductive health, veering frighteningly into anti-choice imagery near the end of the song and in the accompanying video. It tells the story of a teenage pregnancy and how fear of her family’s reaction leads the female protagonist to seek an abortion, which causes her death. Pretty heavy stuff for the then teenage Shakira to address in her music. And, while the song can be taken as a firm stance against abortion, it seems more like a commentary on the lack of reproductive health information and education available to teens and society’s fear of teenage sexuality.
From the moment it begins with the mariachi-inspired trumpet of “Ciega, Sordomuda” until it ends with “Ojos Asi,” Donde Estan Los Ladrones? is the definition of a perfect album. A collection of songs about love and love lost ranging from rowdy rock tracks to quiet almost-ballads and progressing seamlessly, the album shows Shakira really finding her strength and taking charge.
The first time you listen to “Ciega, Sordomuda” can be puzzling. The mariachi strings and trumpet, the pop rock percussion and melody, the intense talk-singing break…they shouldn’t work together, but they do. And they work together so well. The elegantly somber mariachi instrumentation accompanies the verses, which Shakira sings in a voice that’s almost resigned to the fact that she’s completely under love’s spell. But near the end she lets out her frustration and resentment, tearing through ojerosa, flaca, fea desgreñada / torpe, tonta, lenta, nécia, desquiciada / completamente descontrolada / tu te das cuenta y no me dices nada / se me ha vuelto la cabeza un nido / donde solamente tu tienes asilo / y no me escuchas lo que te digo / mira bien lo que vas a hacer conmigo. I’m sure I’m not the only one who practiced that part until I could sing along with tripping over the words.
"Moscas en la casa" and "Tú" similarly speak about profound and overpowering love. The former is about that feeling of emptiness after a break up, about becoming so numb to the world that even allowing trash to build up and flies to gather in her house don’t phase her. In "Tú" Shakira offers up every part of herself so that her love won’t leave because he is everything to her (mi sol, la fe con que vivo, la potencia de mi voz, los pies con que camino) and she could never live without him. This song prominently features Shakira’s voice and just how much emotion she can convey with it. “Ojos Asi,” which was later translated into English for Laundry Service, is one of Shakira’s biggest hits. The video was also her first time really featuring Middle Eastern influences and showcasing her belly dancing. This is where her famous dance moves started, y’all! At least as a part of her public performances (Shakira’s been dancing since childhood).
I’ve only mentioned some of the single releases here, but every single song on Donde Estan Los Ladrones? is integral to the album, each one potent lyrically, musically, and thematically. There’s not one track that can be removed or replaced, which is how you know that it’s perfect.