River Deep, Freckle High


Several things that Shakira and Pink have in common, beyond their each having released an album in the last few weeks: (1) They each fought their record companies to gain control of their musical direction. (2) They are each ex non blondes, in that Shakira used to be a brunette, and Pink has recently allowed blondeness to soften her natural fuchsia. In addition, Pink’s collaborator Linda Perry used to lead the band 4 Non Blondes, making her an ex non blonde as well. (3) They each write “personal” lyrics with poetic or confessional significance.

Laundry Service is Shakira’s first album of new material in three years, and her first ever with songs in English. A reason for the delay is that she wanted to become proficient enough in English to write the English words herself, to ensure they expressed what she wanted them to. Back when the previous studio album, Dónde Están los Ladrones?, had gone multiplatinum, the plan had been to make an English-language version, with Gloria Estefan doing the translating. But Shakira scotched the project. “I can’t hire other people to write songs for me,” she told Time.

“You’re a song/Written by the hands of God,” Shakira sings at the start of “Underneath Your Clothes,” and my first thought was “It took her three years to come up with this?” The new album is love songs, nothing but love songs, with no fresh insights on the subject. She’s in love and the guy is wonderful, or she’s in love and the guy isn’t wonderful but she can’t break away, or she’s in love and the guy won’t look at her. (“Next to her cheap silicon I look minimal/That’s why in front of your eyes I’m invisible.”) But she’ll express herself in unexpected ways. “Baby I would climb the Andes solely/To count the freckles on your body,” the first line of which is cliché, but then . . . freckles? (I once read some North Korean propaganda that asserted, “Kim Il Sung’s love for the people is deeper than the deepest river and higher than the highest mountain,” but it didn’t mention anything about freckles.) She sings “I’ll keep chasing the soles of your shoes,” which isn’t idiomatic English, and it’s better for not being so. Same for “There’s nothing like your smile made of sun,” which would be dull as potato peels if corrected to (how we say in our language) “sunny smile,” but as is makes me think the fellow has flames instead of lips on his kisser. And Shakira doesn’t just—predictably—feel safe in his arms, but also, due to his presence, feels comfortable enough to overcome her “kitchen phobia.”

She’s self-conscious about her breasts: “Lucky that my breasts are small and humble/So you don’t confuse them with mountains.” (Would the proper response to this be “I would climb the Andes solely/To feel the titties on your body”?)

As is true with most lyricists, she’s better frustrated than fulfilled. In the song where she’s perpetually chasing the soles of the guy’s shoes (and thus eating dirt, she implies), she says, “God resigned, from hearing my old story.” This is the one line on the album that hits me emotionally.

The album’s best song is “Poem to a Horse,” which I’m disappointed to say isn’t about a girl and her stallion, but just about Shakira’s attempts to get a pothead friend to notice her. “So what’s the point of wasting all my words/If it’s just the same or even worse/Than reading poems to a horse?”

She’s one of the most popular singers in the world, and she’s got a hugely powerful voice, but my gut feeling is that she doesn’t know yet what to do with it. I said the album was nothing but love songs, but really, though she writes nothing but love lyrics, her sound says something different.

She has no soft songs. Even the ones that are soft in volume are loud in feel, have a hardness or a brightness or a push that says, “Notice me.” And most of the soft ones don’t stay soft even in volume—her voice is a showstopper, and she writes power-ballad choruses in order to show it.

I haven’t worked out how I feel about Shakira’s vibrato, which is louder and more powerful, piercing, beautiful, riveting, ravishing, dazzling, etc., etc., etc., than the equivalent of Alanis Morissette (you know, the Canadian girl) and Dolores O’Riordan (you know, the Cranberry girl). A lot depends on how incessantly I want my eardrums to be pierced, ravished, and dazzled. Unlike Alanis, who played the gargle for rawness, Shakira puts a glisten on the gargle, the sparkle gargle, makes it shiny and pretty—and piercing, as I said, so I understand the feelings of Shakira’s music teacher back in grade school, who’d kept her off the chorus because he’d thought her voice was like “the bleating of a goat.” I’m in thrall, hence find beauty in the bleats; one reason is that the music absolutely moves. Most CDs I play in proximity to hers feel static in comparison. It’s an easy movement (unlike American funk and hip-hop, which have a jittery tension). It’s this ease that makes her music sound south-of-the-border no matter what, whether the songs are rock, disco, or pop (most have elements of all three); she’s from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and the rhythm on her hit single “Whenever, Wherever” is vaguely reggae, which gives the song irresistible momentum: You’ve got the heave of her voice and the high-powered beats and the panpipes and the whatever-we-can-throw-into-this-thing instrumentation all avalanching at you with this nonstop easy-flowing lilt. Not that I don’t sometimes want to pull the “DIVA SHUT UP” lever— but not if it weakens the dance.

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.

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.

On her new album, Missundaztood, Pink loses a lot of the craft and rhythmic complication and She’kspere-Kandi-color of the first album.

Back on “There You Go” she’d gotten her consonants and assonances to wend their way precisely through She’kspere’s complicated beats. (“So you say you wanna talk, let’s talk; if you won’t talk I’ll walk,” then echoes with “When I say, ‘I’m through,’ I’m through; basically I’m through with you.”) Nothing on the new record makes her hew to such form and repetition, and she’s poorer for it. The first album’s “Is It Love” could be studied for how, in about 12 allotted lines, and through the device of telling her parents about a painful affair, she manages to convey not just the facts of the affair but her mistrust of her parents. On the new album this sort of craftsmanship goes out the window.

But on the first record, once you got past the two great hits and the too few other songs that Pink had a hand in writing or arranging, the thing got gray and nondescript. The new album has more good melodies, and the tracks she worked on with Linda Perry sound especially rich. The rhythms are more simplistic, but the music has a consistent spark.

And I root for Pink, since I find it appealing the way she’s so self-consciously confused and at war with herself. The Britney Spears line isn’t about congratulating herself for not being Britney but about her tearing herself to pieces, being a danger to herself, not knowing who she is. She doesn’t like what she sees of herself in her mirror, so she’s not simply saying, “There’s a real me that’s better than these other me’s.” Maybe this is one of the meanings of the pink in her hair: not just that she’s letting her freak flag fly, but that she’s in progress, unknown, not what you’d expect, not fully formed. The trouble is, her lyrics vague out too much. She’s a danger to herself but she doesn’t describe the danger. She doesn’t show us what’s in that mirror. And this is typical. A dear-diary song where she tells her secrets to the diary but not to us, allusions to high school where she doesn’t say what went on in the school, and so forth. And then there’s a family-drama song that has the opposite problem: She gives us the details, her as a kid begging her divorcing parents not to split up, telling them she’ll be good and go to bed on time and not spill the milk. Bound to bring a lump to the throat of anyone whose family is breaking up, anyone whose family has broken up, or anyone whose family hopes to break up, but she makes her one point over and over, leading us by the nose.

That said, most of the songs actually work, not only because the music and singing make up for what the words don’t deliver, but because there is a rough force to the words themselves. They at least aim somewhere interesting. For instance, the allusion to school suggests both pride in the fact that she was unmanageable and sorrow in the fact that she was so pigheaded that she screwed everything up. And the diary song is touching in the way it repeats “Dear, dear diary/I wanna tell my secrets/’Cause you’re the only one/that I know will keep them.” I hope this becomes a single and gets on Top 40 and Radio Disney, where teen and pre-teen girls with their precious secrets can hear it. I guess the diary song works on its own terms—you can’t really tell the secrets.

R&b and hip-hop are about 100 times more interesting than rock is these days, but I can see why Pink made the jump to rock, given that, following r&b conventions, “Most Girls” and “There You Go” pretend to know what’s what, whereas Pink is someone who’s messing around and screwing up and not claiming to know, and rock gives her the opportunity to be a mess. Of course, hip-hop, too, has fabulous messmakers—Eminem and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, for instance. But all the great hip-hop messups are guys. Even if Pink had the skill to be a female Eminem, she probably wouldn’t be welcome. Anyway, she’d be the first, whereas in rock she has female models and mentors.

I wish there were a way for her to combine the brains and craft of the first album with the mess and spirit of the second, because she needs both. “That just ain’t me” is a sappy way to talk about something that isn’t sappy at all. You know, anyone who starts eating with her hands during an etiquette lecture has an instinct for metaphor. If only she’d use it, throw away the abstractions, start using words and music not to label her problems but to act them out. First track on her first album, she’d used r&b call-and-response to get into arguments with herself. I don’t see why she can’t do it again. Not just claim she’s torn up, but tear up the songs, instead. Tear us up.