Beyond the Belly: Colombian songstress trumps lazy stereotypes with raw talent
The Latin Britney. The female Ricky Martin. The pretty pop tart who sings in Spanish and sounds like Alanis.
Those are just a few of the culturally retarded one-liners you hear when you mention Shakira’s name in a hip, boho setting. And why not? Most North Americans know her only as a Pepsi-hawking, bon-bon-shaking, bleached-blonde dance-pop vixen whose English-language MTV videos of the early 2000s—“Whenever, Wherever” and “Underneath Your Clothes,” from her multi-platinum U.S. crossover album Laundry Service—looked and sounded a bit too much like J. Lo, Britney or (god forbid) Celine Dion. The first video from Shakira’s all-Spanish follow-up, Fijación Oral, Vol. 1, doesn’t bother challenging that image: her stripper dance, shimmying midriff and breast-bobbing for Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz on the powerful “La Tortura” totally eclipse the song’s dizzying mix of Colombian cumbia and dancehall reggae.
And that’s too bad. Because behind the pyrotechnics and pole-dancing is a passionate young singer/songwriter with an encyclopedic knowledge of musical styles, a poetic sensibility reflecting her rich South American upbringing and a voice that runs from sweetly callow to ferociously gruff. Her music is equally diverse. Shakira’s earliest Spanish-language albums—Pies Descalzos, from 1996, and the terrific Dónde Están los Ladrones?, from 1998—mixed brushstrokes of American rock, country, folk and blues with Spanish flamenco, Brazilian bossa nova and snaky Middle Eastern melodies. Her lyrics showed a startling precociousness, running from the purely romantic (“Tú”) to the poignantly political (“Octavo Día”). Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was such a breath of fresh air in her native Colombia that Nobel Prize-winning author and journalist Gabriel García Márquez was inspired to write that her work “has a personal stamp that doesn’t look like anyone else’s.”
But even behind the cynical sparkle and bombast of Laundry Service, Shakira’s eclecticism burned through. The few non-English songs on the album, such as the gritty, accordion-driven “Te Aviso, Te Anuncio” and the spare, twangy “Que Me Quedes Tú,” were light years ahead of anything the American pop gals were doing.
So here we are, four years later, and the long-awaited Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 strikes a nice balance between Shakira’s more straightforward earlier sound and the bluster of her big crossover hits. And she sings every song on the new album in Spanish—a bold move after such a successful English-language breakthrough. Fijación is a mixed bag, however; stronger overall than Laundry Service but not as warm as Ladrones. Without the albatross of English to trip her up, Shakira is able to return to the strong poetic imagery marking her earlier work.
In the dreampop-like opening track “En Tus Pupilas” (in your pupils), she whisper-sings, in both French and Spanish, of the fantastic things she sees in her lover’s eyes. The song has a Brazilian flavor to it, but not nearly as much as the full-on bossa nova of “Obtener un Sí” (to get a yes), whose gentle string arrangement coupled with Shakira’s gutsy, jazzy voice would ﬁt right in at an early-’60s martini soiree. Shakira clearly had fun on this track, but other songs show her deeper, moodier side. In the seething, acoustic-guitar-based “No,” she tells her man, “No, no me mires como antes, no hables en plural; la retórica es tu arma más letal” (No, don’t look at me like you did before, don’t speak in double-talk; rhetoric is your deadliest weapon). Gustavo Cerati of Argentinean rockers Soda Stereo fills the spaces between her words with subtle, tremolo-laden guitar lines. “La Tortura” takes a similar theme and twists it, with Spanish singer Sanz pleading over the reggae-ﬁed beats and accordion for his lover’s forgiveness as Shakira’s character contemplates whether to dump him.
Shakira careens over the top on a few songs, conjuring her old supporter Gloria Estefan (or some long-forgotten disco diva) on the thumping, synth-based “Las de la Intuición” and getting a little too predictably New Wave-crazy amid the organ and stuttering guitars of “Escondite Inglés.” But that’s part of her charm. If Shakira’s indeed a pop tart, she’s got a rich and nutritious filling.