Music: The Shakira Dialectic
Music: The Shakira Dialectic
By: Jon Pareles
Date: November 13, 2005
Source: Pareles, Jon. "The Shakira Dialectic." New York Times (November 13, 2005).
About the Author: Jon Pareles is the chief pop music critic for the New York Times, a daily newspaper with a circulation of over one million readers worldwide.
Shakira exploded onto the international music scene in 1996 with the album Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet). The release fist caught fire in Latin America and eventually hit number one in sales in eight countries.
In 1998, Shakira teamed up with record producer Emilio Estefan (husband of Latina singer Gloria Estefan) and released Donde Estan Los Ladrones? (Where are the Thieves?). This album, a hybrid of Arab influences, Colombian rhythms, and Western pop, was lauded by critics as a breakthrough. The title track, "Ojos Asi" (These Eyes), garnered a Latin Grammy Award in 2000. The same year, she won a second Latin Grammy for "Octavo Dia" and an MTV Video Music Award.
As of 2006, Shakira's new single "Hips Don't Lie," featuring Wyclef Jean, vaulted her to Number One on the Billboard charts.
LONDON—On the cover of her new album, "Oral Fixation, Vol. 2," the Colombian pop singer and songwriter Shakira plays Eve, clothed only in strategic leaves. Perched next to her in a tree is a baby girl, reaching for the apple Shakira holds in her hand.
For obvious reasons, it's eye-catching, as was the cover of the Spanish-language companion album Shakira released in June, "Fijacion Oral, Vol. 1," which showed her fully dressed and holding the same baby to her breast. Although it had been four years since her previous album, "Fijación Oral, Vol. 1" zoomed to No. 4 on the Billboard pop charts.
As an attention-getter, a pop star showing skin needs no further justification. Yet Shakira, 28, has other ideas about her latest chosen image. "I want to attribute to Eve one more reason to bite the forbidden fruit, and that would be her oral fixation," she said in an interview. "I've always felt that I've been a very oral person. It's my biggest source of pleasure."
"From a psychoanalytical point of view, we start discovering the world through our mouths in the very first stage of our lives, when we're just born," she continued. "The first album cover is more Freudian, and the second one more resembles Jung, because Eve is a universal archetype. I tried to keep a unity between the two album covers, and I chose to use some Renaissance iconography. Mother and child and original sin are recurrent concepts of the Renaissance period, and I wanted the historical character."
Psychoanalysis, biblical revisionism, Renaissance paintings. Not to mention DNA-level multiculturalism, torrid dance moves and an ear for rhythms and hooks from all over. Fulfilling the basic needs of current pop—a catchy song, a pretty face—doesn't begin to match Shakira's gleeful ambitions. She is pop's 21st-century Latina bombshell, a sweetly upbeat face of globalization, and then some.
"I'm not the one who's causing this to happen," she said. "I'm just a consequence of the great musical momentum and the great changes we are going through in the world."
And she just might seduce the world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Colombia, wrote, "She has invented her own brand of innocent sensuality." Chatting over Indian samosas and chicken tikka, she seems candid, confident, light-hearted and completely disarming.
In her new single, "Don't Bother," Shakira sings about being rejected in favor of a woman who's tall and "fat-free," but insists she'll get over it. The video clip, after a flashback of lovemaking in the shower, shows her taking vengeance: she has the man's car crushed.
"Did it hurt?" she said, laughing, curious about a male viewer's reaction. "A man's car is like an extension of their ego and their manhood. I thought this would be a video that would make women say, 'Yeah, yeah!' and it would make men feel"—she gave a pained sound: "'Ohh …" She giggled.
Songs and videos "exorcise the bad things that could happen to your relationship," she said. "Inside me there's a real jealous beast I'm trying to tame."
Still, she said: "My videos represent the artist in me very well, but not the kind of woman I am. When they watch my videos, people might think that I'm very sexually aggressive person, but I am completely the opposite. I'm very shy of my body. The most I can show is my belly. I admire people who can do nudes for the love of art. I can't. And I wear enough to cover what my mother wishes I cover."
"I think art, music should be sensual," she added. "Not necessarily sexual. I think that's a huge difference between that N and that X. It's more than the 11 letters of difference. Sensual is everything that refers to the delight of the senses. And that's what artists do, is stimulate the senses in any possible way. I don't think I have to hang myself a little sign that says 'Hey, I'm sexy,' and then take it off and now say, 'Hey, now I'm serious.' I can just fluctuate and oscillate from one side to the other whenever my instincts tell me to."
If her songs hadn't become international pop hits, Shakira would have been lauded as an innovator in Latin alternative rock. Her lyrics, almost always about romance, mix generalized pop sentiments with unlikely confessional nuggets. In the ballad "Your Embrace" on her new album, Shakira wonders, "What's the use of a 24-inch waist if you don't touch me/Tell me what's the use again of being on TV every day if you don't watch me?"
And her music has a savvy but nearly unhinged eclecticism. Another new song, "Animal City," starts with an Arabic-flamenco vocal flourish, switches to synth-pop, tosses in some surf guitar and tops it with mariachi horns: "Never mind the rules we break," she sings. Even in her more conventional rock or pop songs, her voice is untamed, or rather, her voices: a tearful, sultry alto; a cutting, breaking rock attack; a girlish lilt; a whispery insinuation. It's deliberate yet willful, sure of its impulses.
No boardroom plan for crossover success could have devised a figure like Shakira. Her mother is Colombian, her father Lebanese; in Arabic, Shakira means "woman full of grace." "I look for the most primal elements of both cultures, and I bring them into my music," she said. "I think that that's why I am probably a romantic and a passionate person. But I also have a very disciplined side, very disciplined and very demanding. Sometimes my sense of responsibility is my worst torturer."
Shakira speaks Spanish, Portuguese and English, and wants to learn more languages. She calls herself a nomad; she has houses in the Bahamas, where she now lives, and in Miami, while she still regularly visits her hometown, Barranquilla, on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Her Middle Eastern side comes out in vocal arabesques and belly-dance moves, but she's also steeped in rock, pop and disco; the first album she owned, on a cassette, was Donna Summer's "Bad Girls."
"I feel comfortable in my pop shoes," Shakira said. "They let me walk in any direction. I like to go from one extreme to the other. One day I feel that I want to do a song with reggaetón influence, I do it. The next day I feel I need to do a song with rock elements to it, I do it. And sometimes I try to see if an Argentine bandoneon"—the accordion used in tango—"can survive in a song with fluegelhorns."
Shakira was taking a break from rehearsing her band in a South London warehouse, getting ready for television and radio appearances that would, in the next week, take her to Denmark, Germany, Italy and Portugal. A petite figure in a black T-shirt and jeans, she was multi-tasking; the night would include not only an interview and rehearsal but also a costume fitting, a quick takeout dinner and, sometime after midnight, a flight to Copenhagen. Her arm had a bright red burn mark from the curling iron that had styled her blonde Botticelli ringlets: "A good excuse for getting a tattoo," she said with a laugh.
Singing as she faced her band, her big, tremulous alto rose unamplified across the room. As a song ended, the band members looked to her and she asked, in a gentle uptalk: "Do you think we could have a little more dynamically? So it can grow? So it can move higher?"
Shakira has been in charge of her own music for a decade. She began writing songs at 8 and was signed to a recording contract at 13. In Bogota, she made two albums of Latin pop that, she said, "don't represent me at all." She had a brief stint acting in a Colombian soap opera; she doesn't think she was very good at it. Then, with "Pies Descalzos" ("Bare Feet"), released in 1996, Shakira started producing herself with collaborators she chose.
"I was always very sure of what I wanted to hear," she said. "I had to fight to be heard: 'don't play that melody in this part, play the other one.' Guys don't like women telling them what to do. It reminds them of their mothers, or something like that."
She added: "I don't want to sound like a feminist saying this. But it's true, it's a man's world."
Shakira was already a star across Latin America by the end of the 1990's. So she set out to learn English well enough to write lyrics, and she conquered the rest of the world with "Laundry Service," which sold three million copies in the United States and an estimated 10 million more worldwide.
Between albums, Shakira wrote 60 songs, some in Spanish and some in English, and winnowed them down to 20 before deciding to make two albums, one in each language. As usual, she says, she agonized over details. "I'm a perfectionist in recovery," she said, laughing. "I'm trying to deal with that monster inside of me that wants to do everything right. Or better than right."
She took a full month, she said, tweaking "La Tortura," the first single from "Fijacion Oral, Vol. 1," which mixed Colombian cumbia, Puerto Rican reggaeton, Jamaican dancehall, rock guitars, electronic blips and guest vocals by a major pop star from Spain (Alejandro Sanz). "If there's a problem, then I need to fix it," she said, "and it's painful because you don't know what to fix, you know? The bass sounds, the drum sounds—I changed them many times. That's a song that needed clearly the right, the accurate production. If I went a little bit left or little bit far right, the song would suffer and get affected. And I struggled with the song until I finally got it."And she was still working on "Oral Fixation, Vol. 2" after its single, "Don't Bother," had been released. She was under deadline pressure by that point but, she says, "You can't ripen a fruit by hitting it with rocks."
"Fijación Oral, Vol. 1" reconnected Shakira with her longtime Spanish-speaking fans. "Oral Fixation, Vol. 2" includes English versions (though not direct translations) of two songs from "Vol. 1"; the other nine are new. Perhaps because the songs are in English rather than Spanish, the music moves closer to Anglo rock and pop, dipping into folk-rock, power ballads and the Cure. "Sometimes a melody suggests in what language that song should be written," she said. "I just learned to listen to what the song wants to tell me."
Although "Vol. 1" holds more unconventional songs, the rock songs on "Vol. 2" still have Shakira's own quirks. Along with her love songs, this time Shakira also looks beyond the domestic. The opening song, "How Do You Do," begins with prayers for forgiveness—recurring in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and English—then fires off a series of tough questions at a deity.
And she ends the album with "East Timor," which is not an earnest anthem about one more troubled place in the world, but an ironically perky, synthesizer-pumped dance tune with lyrics about the ways happy-talk media and pop culture distract us from sufferings far away: "It's all right, at least there's half the truth/Hearing what we want's the secret of eternal youth," she sings, adding, "I'll keep selling records and you've got your MTV." She almost dropped "East Timor" from the album. "For a second I thought, people are not going to understand this," she said. "They are going to think I'm trying to talk about world peace, and to find ways to fix problems that are so complex, not even critics or politicians can find the solutions. And then a 28-year-old girl from Barranquilla is going to find solutions? I just wrote this song because it was an impulse."
Rehearsal beckoned; in a few days, Shakira would be singing the songs in public for the first time. "Just today," she said, "I'm starting to get in touch with the songs from the performer point of view. O.K., how am I going to interpret this with my body? How am I going to start to have now a physical relationship with my songs?"
The band kicked into "Hey You," a flirtatious song with a 1960's Merseybeat bounce. In it, Shakira offers herself to a man as everything from queen to cook to slave: "I'd like to be the owner of the zipper on your jeans, and that thing that makes you happy." As she sang, she stood still at first, then let the music carry her. Her shoulders start to roll, her feet picked up the rhythm, and soon her hips started to swivel.
"My hips tell me where and when I should move," she had said before returning to work with the band. "And my hips don't lie—my hips tell me the truth."
Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was born in Barranquilla, Colombia on February 9, 1977. Her father's Lebanese background (her mother is Colombian) was an important influence—her music is crafted with Arabic ambiance. In addition, the name, Shakira, means "woman full of grace" in Arabic.
Undoubtedly, her Caribbean roots—Barranquilla is on the Caribbean coast—have also influenced her music. Music critics regard Shakira as a Latin hybrid and cross-over success for infusing her albums with pan-Caribbean rhythms, rock, and pop. She is often compared to a chameleon because her repertoire ranges from rocker to ballads to Puerto Rican reggaeton (a blend of hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall) and Columbian cumbia.
One in eight Americans is Hispanic, and Latin Alternative music is gaining momentum. Music industry experts acknowledge that as demographic changes continue to favor young bilingual audiences, innovative music that fuses cultures, much like Shakira's, will continue to gain in popularity.
Fred Bronson. "Chart Beat: 'Hips' Hops to No. 1." Billboard (June 8, 2006).
Jon Pareles. "At the Jingle Ball, It was Nerds vs. Braggarts." New York Times (December 19, 2005).
New York Times. "Alternative View: Latinos Say Rock is More Than Just Reggaeton." August 8, 2005. 〈http://www.nytinies.com/2005/08/08/arts/music/〉 (accessed June 22, 2006).
Shakira. 〈http://www.shakira.com〉 (accessed June 22, 2006).