“She’s famous for wiggling her bum,” observed a British tab before excitedly revealing that the Colombian pop goddess Shakira “has a reported IQ of 140” and hires tutors to teach her about the cities she plays. So perhaps it’s just as well I’ve never seen a Shakira video—maybe her bum, or her “humble breasts” (just the way I like ’em), would have gotten in the way of my ears. Because even without the booklet photos, I find her CDs plenty sexy. Her voice, singing, songs, music are so, let’s count—so throaty, spunky, eccentric, elastic, humorous, generous, excessive, nasal, embodied, and bent on benevolent world conquest. What a hot little number.
A pro since she was 14 and a Latin American teen idol before the Backstreet Boys hit the Hot 100, 28-year-old Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was only 21 when she conceived a career move more ambitious than Christina Aguilera herself has ever dared: to learn English so she could dye her hair blond and take her art to the next level. But ambition comes cheap. Undeterred by the music business’s diminishing returns, all too many young people still strive to achieve prominence in today’s vibrant entertainment field, with American Idol the symbol rather than the mechanism and not as bad as it gets—many East Asian hopefuls, for instance, are related to music execs. What Shakira brought to the business plan was a giant helping of the individuality Paula Abdul, who should know, is always discerning in the likes of Bo . . . Derek? Belinsky? Bice!—an individuality so much broader and more accommodating than what any indie mix-and-matcher would recognize as such. Allowing for context, Shakira’s as big a weirdo as Devendra Banhart, only more talented and more focused.
Her musical idiosyncrasy announced itself with the bandoneón that kicked off her 2001 English-language debut, Laundry Service, and kept on coming through her surprisingly arena-rock Live & Off the Record and her 2005 doubleheader: June’s Fijación Oral Vol. 1 and November’s Oral Fixation Vol. 2. Though Shakira leans on song doctors and such for melodies and arrangements, she produced all four of her U.S. albums. The South America–only Pies Descalzos (1996) and Dónde Están los Ladrones? (1998) subject Latin-pop mush to rock-in-español mash for a blend both satiny and grainy, and the U.S. records rock it up some more. Of course, all such embellishments follow what anyone notices first about her: her voice, which a few bad people can’t stand. Me, I love its size and its tenderness and the vibrato haters compare to a sheep or Alanis or a bicycle rider on a cobblestone street. I also love the personality she imprints on it—childishness versus physicality, emotional extravagance cut with sardonic self-esteem. And I love the culture with which it is imbued. Her father a Lebanese Catholic, Shakira has belly dancer genes and is willing to use them. Maybe her vibrato rubs fools the wrong way because it comes straight outta the cradle of civilization. She’s a South American sexpot, but also the pre-Columbian voice of Spain’s Christian-Islamic motherlode—a happenstance she inhabits, accepts, and enjoys.
With a little help from the Internet I can make out the meaning of songs like 1998’s mildly political “Octavo Di,” which got my attention by mentioning Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton. But as both language and sentiment, her words in the language she went out and learned as an adult (she already knew Italian, Portuguese, and some Arabic curses) are so compelling that I gravitate to Laundry Service and, even more, Oral Fixation. Awkwardly, given how much I made of her Latin blend, the Latinest thing about her new record is her English. No native speaker would have come up with “my humble breasts,” or “Don’t play the adamant/Don’t be so arrogant,” which she pronounces as if “arrogant” rhymes with “bent.” The floridity of her vocal surges is of a different order of magnitude than, for instance, Marc Anthony’s, because her romanticism is rarely soothing. Sure she loves her guy, spiritually and carnally, but she’s not a woman who knows her place. And though her tunes, which she always has a hand in, sometimes contour Colombian, this is a pop-rock record—one only Shakira could have made.
Shakira’s stock-in-trade is love songs, their tragic side still supposedly fueled by her long-ago breakup with Puerto Rican soap star Osvaldo Ríos, their impassioned-to-feisty details presumably inspired by her life in Miami and the Bahamas with Antonio de la Rúa, the Argentine playboy to whom she got “engaged” in 2000, well before the collapse of his nation’s economy cost his dad that president job. Both
Oral Fixations thank Antonio for “protecting” and “taking care of” her, which doesn’t preclude the gloriously catty “Don’t Bother,” about a tall rival who cooks and speaks French, with its spoken coda: “For you I’d give up all I own and move to a Communist country—if you came with me of course—and file my nails so they don’t hurt you and lose those pounds and learn about football—if it made you stay, if it made you stay, but you won’t.” Whoever it’s about, it’s great. But so are “Costume Makes the Clown,” where she takes off the makeup she won’t leave home without, and “Hey You,” where she does the cooking herself. And though it would be obtuse to expect radicalism of a jeweler’s daughter with UNESCO connections, concern she experiences aplenty, and it’s growing. The opener is a nice generalized indictment of the powermongers. The closer sarcastically links Western complacency to the forgotten of—those tutors, or maybe just that UNESCO tour—East Timor.
“Life has been very benevolent to me,” says Shakira the star. “Sometimes I feel like I am a rock artist trapped in the body of a pop artist,” says the producer. “Sometimes I feel there’s a baby inside of me that hasn’t grown up,” says the child. “I feel like a horse that hasn’t been castrated. That’s me—full of strength and very very productive,” says the weirdo. “I never met a single terrorist in my whole life,” says the Arab. And the former teen idol with the high IQ? “The leaders are lacking love, and love is lacking leaders.” She’s trying.