River Deep, Freckle High

The oddest thing about Laundry Service is that the two songs that get both English and Spanish versions sound very different in the different languages; if you go back and check her Spanish-language LPs, they'll confirm the difference. Her voice in English has a twisty trebly twang that's appealing but doesn't correspond to any accent I've ever heard; it's like Dolly Parton doing a W.C. Fields imitation. Shakira pronounces both syllables in "dear." ("DEE-ear.") She probably gets a kick out of singing like that. She recorded an album in English not to enter a multimillion-dollar market but to have the opportunity to make funny sounds with her voice. In Spanish she sings deeper and rounder, and she sounds more normal. Where there's a direct comparison I prefer the Spanish versions, but I'm glad to have both.

"Ojos Así" (a Near Eastern extravaganza in honor of her part-Lebanese heritage, and the one song here from the Gloria Estefan translation project) kicks double butt in English, but back in Spanish on Dónde Están los Ladrones? it kicks quadruple butt. It's the identical track except for the voice; the difference is that in English her voice slices around making lightning-brilliant treble strokes in the air above the instruments, whereas in Spanish she's got a deeper timbre and richer tone and so is in with the rest of the music, and her voice moves with the whole force of the sound, hence there's more force total.

In English she's, so to speak, dressing herself up in an alternative personality, and maybe her new hairstyle is part of this too. The photographers for the album choose their angles to accentuate hers. Her long "unruly" blonde tresses are meant to enhance her facial bones and disguise the fact that she's a short woman with a round face. Her previous look was just as pretty, but the new one is tougher and wilder.


Laundry Service


I think that for the moment going all out may be Shakira's natural state, but I wonder what her voice could do if she permitted it to be less amazing. Not that I'd necessarily want her to sing with the restraint of a Mariah Carey or a Robert Plant. Maybe as she gets older she'll expand her emotional repertoire by playing around with shades of lassitude and nonbombast.

Taking on a new language has emotional risks, but Shakira's big career risk occurred back in the mid '90s. At age 16, little known, she told Sony that she didn't like her second album with them and wasn't going to tour on it or promote it. (That's the story, anyway.) So for her do-or-die third album, she got a producer who would work with her on behalf of her vision. And she got her first hits.

Pink's risk, however—though she's already a star—is right now, with her second album. She's walking into the commercial unknown, and her career is on the line.

"L.A. told me/You'll be a pop star/All that you'll have to change/Is everything you are/ Tired of being compared/To damn Britney Spears/She's so pretty/That just ain't me": The "L.A." here is L.A. Reid, president of Arista Records and co-executive producer of both Pink albums. Pink (in Interview magazine): "The president of the label took me out to dinner to try and convince me to take etiquette classes, so I sat there and just ate with my hands." The story (as she tells it) is that she and L.A. would get into fierce arguments about what her second album should sound like, she accused him of cowardice, and he finally relented and let her do it her way. Billboard: "Arista president Antonio 'L.A.' Reid says the set shows 'tremendous growth,' noting that Pink is now 'in tune with herself and understands that it's OK to be expressive.' " (Though the article didn't specify L.A.'s tone of voice, I mentally added the phrase "he remarked dryly.")

Strange that Britney Spears gets to be the frame of reference, since Pink never sounded very Britney in the first place. Back in 1999 when Pink's breakout hit "There You Go" was recorded, its relevant landscape was the r&b of Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton and TLC, and the obvious model was Destiny's Child. Like Destiny's Child's, Pink's sound was sophisticated r&b, with lyrics dispensing supposed lore and wisdom about man-woman relationships and the financing thereof—it was aimed at the r&b audience, which doesn't exclude teens and pre-teens but isn't dominated by them either, and hardly qualifies as "teen pop." So when Pink's "There You Go" and "Most Girls" followed Destiny's Child's unexpected journey to Radio Disney and into the hearts and CD players of eight-year-old white girls, this was not by design, just a fortunate outgrowth of the fact that, through teen pop, white girls these days have developed an ear for the complexity and fun of voices in rhythm.

But this crossover success could give Pink opportunities that she wouldn't have had otherwise, which is good, because she'll need them. The great poppy little dance hit she's got on the radio now may seem in range of her previous music, but don't let it mislead you. She's jumping genres severely, heading singer-songwriterly in a rock direction with emotionally messy lyrics. This won't necessarily lose her the eight-year-olds, who at the moment are crazy about the songwriter-confessional Michelle Branch and Nelly Furtado. And I'm not dead certain it will lose her the r&b audience either, even though she's stopped playing r&b. Furtado herself is getting hits on the r&b/hip-hop stations, albeit with hip-hop remixes of her pop hits. The question is whether these audiences will accept Pink's hard-rock crunch.

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