Shakira album cover

Shakira first entered my consciousness around the turn of the millennium courtesy of my high school Spanish teacher, a friendly young white American woman married to a man from Colombia. She and her husband, she often informed us, were huge Shakira fans, as was all of Latin America. Sometimes, in an effort to expose us to the culture we were studying, she would play us some of the pop megastar’s Spanish-language hits and awkwardly sway along at her desk. To me, those songs were no different than an episode of Destinos — some inscrutable foreign artifact to pass the time until next period. Shakira was much easier to understand when she switched to English for 2001′s Laundry Service, the album that broke her in the States. But singles such as “Wherever, Whenever” and “Objection (Tango)” still had an unmistakable Latin flair to them. They were bridges between (pop) cultures, exports from the Latin hit machine given just the right makeover to cross over beyond Hispanic audiences.

That kind of thing was all the rage around the turn of the millennium, thanks in large part to Ricky Martin. The former boy band singer’s performance of salsa-tinged World Cup theme “The Cup Of Life” at the 1999 Grammys sparked Stateside interest in Latin pop, inspiring Martin and fellow Spanish-language stars Enrique Iglesias and Marc Anthony to quickly record and release albums in English. By the summer of ’99, radio was ruled by the likes of “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “Bailamos,” “I Need To Know,” and “Shake Your Bon Bon.” Jennifer Lopez, who had risen to fame in part by portraying a Tejano pop superstar in Selena, became a hitmaker herself with “If You Had My Love” and “Waiting For Tonight.” (Regrettably, this era also yielded “Mambo No. 5.”) The stars tended to tack a few Spanish versions of their singles onto the ends of their albums as a show of loyalty to their base, but the focus was conquering new territory.

Into this environment sprang Shakira’s monstrous warble and come-hither sexuality. But by the time she entered the English-language arena, the first wave of Latin pop crossover stars were onto their follow-up efforts — Martin’s “She Bangs,” Iglesias’ “Hero,” J.Lo’s “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” — and the genre’s novelty was beginning to wane. Martin and Iglesias fell off as Stateside commercial forces, Anthony retreated to the salsa charts and an armful of Latin Grammys, and Lopez’s urban dance-pop steered away from its already tangential connection to Latin music. Shakira was on the tail end of a trend, and by the time she got another album out with 2005′s Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 (the companion to her Spanish-sung Fijación Oral Vol. 1), explicitly Latino hits such as “Hips Don’t Lie” and “La Tortura” were anomalies on American radio. All Music Guide praised Oral Fixation for its wild uniqueness; Shakira was succeeding on her own terms, against cultural currents. Still, although outliers “Long Time” and “Good Stuff” kept the flame burning, 2009′s She Wolf took a page from Lopez and largely abandoned Latin pop in favor of digital disco. It was a strange record that didn’t spawn a top 10 single in the US, but it proved incredibly prescient. This time, she was just ahead of the curve.

The same year Shakira released She Wolf, Miami rapper Pitbull morphed from a Lil Jon crunk protégé into a next-gen Lou Bega and hopped on the rising wave of electronic dance music. “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” seemed like a one-hit wonder situation at first, but another platinum single, “Hotel Room Service,” made sure that didn’t happen. Soon Pitbull was shepherding the previous wave of Latin pop stars into major EDM hits, often with little resemblance to the music they made their names on. In 2010, Iglesias released the Pitbull duet “I Like It,” an inescapable yet anonymous slice of theatrical euphoria that felt like freebasing NutraSweet; Iglesias was revitalized as an EDM pop star. In 2011, Jennifer Lopez went to #1 with “On The Floor,” the most successful single of her career, also with Pitbull’s assistance. That same year, Pitbull scored his first solo #1 with the Ne-Yo and Afrojack collab “Give Me Everything,” and has remained an omnipresent force in pop music ever since, a more charismatic version of faceless pop-rap hitmaker Flo Rida. By taking Latin pop fully digital, he completed the crossover that began a decade before with Martin. At this point, there are only surface differences between top-tier Latin pop and the rest of the mainstream; only Bronx bachata king Romeo Santos, the guy who got Drake to sing in Spanish, is achieving massive success while keeping his music distinctly Hispanic. As a recent New York Times review put it, “Mr. Santos has figured out how to let crossover come to him.”

Shakira, as usual, is not fully in step with her fellow Latin superstars. After going all-in with EDM on She Wolf, she’s in a prime position for dance-pop ubiquity, but Shakira. doesn’t aim for that kind of success. Only LMFAO-aping opener “Dare (La La La)” scans as a potential club hit. (And boy does it borrow liberally; if Rick Ross could sue SkyBlu and Redfoo for using the phrase “Everday I’m shufflin’,” certainly those guys could sue Shakira for jacking their airhorn synths.) But if this album doesn’t resemble the rest of today’s Latin pop landscape, it also doesn’t resemble the Shakira who’s been known to cut across that landscape. Rather than the hip-moving party music she has always excelled at, Shakira. steers towards bland balladry. The acoustic guitar she’s holding on the cover is apparently intended as an omen, and it’s a bad one — most of this record is as humdrum as pop-rock comes. When it does surprise — as on the Rihanna duet “Can’t Remember To Forget You,” which pieces together ska verses with roaring guitar choruses — what’s shocking is how awkwardly the component parts fit together and how dated the whole of it sounds.

To Shakira’s credit, some of the album’s many mid-tempo tracks take different shapes. The breathless “You Don’t Care About Me” almost passes for a syncopated Taylor Swift. The reggae-inflected “Cut Me Deep” could be a No Doubt song. “Medicine” is a straight-up country duet with Shakira’s The Voice costar Blake Shelton. But no matter which shape the songs take, Shakira. is mostly emotional dreck, and I wonder if her stint on The Voice has something to do with that. At a time when the Latin pop behemoth has become too big to fail, Shakira has become even bigger than Latin pop. By becoming a TV personality, she’s reached a new plane of popularity even by her standards –with 86.3 million followers, she recently surpassed Rihanna as the most-liked musician on Facebook — so she’s made an album that plays to the audience of TV singing contests by playing it safe.

The one big exception is “Empire,” a monster jam in which sex with Gerard Piqué contorts the very fabric of existence into a shrieking, shivering O-face. “Empire” is bizarre in the best way, a marvel of performance, of technology, of deranged embellishment. What begins as an Alanis Morissette-cum-Joanna Newsom squawkfest lets the pressure build and build and build until it bursts into a wordless howl that could split the heavens. That climactic scream sums up the supernatural charisma and off-kilter inspiration that made Shakira one of our weirdest, wildest stars. It’s unfortunate how rarely her new album affords us the opportunity to hear her like that.

CHART WATCH

The Billboard 200 albums chart remains Frozen this week. As Billboard reports, the soundtrack to Disney’s animated mega-hit scored its best sales week yet with 202,000 copies solid, no doubt bolstered by the release of the film on home video. That makes Frozen #1 again for a seventh non-consecutive week, easily beating out strong debut weeks by YG (My Krazy Life, at #2 with 61,000 sold), Foster The People (Supermodel, at #3 with 54,000 sold), Skrillex (Recess, at #4 with 47,000 sold), and the Pretty Reckless (Going To Hell, at #5 with 35,000 sold). Other top 10 debuts include Enrique Iglesias’ Sex And Love at #8 after moving 24,000 copies and Taking Back Sunday’s Happiness Is at #10 with sales of 22,000. As you can see, Frozen is in an entirely different league, sales-wise. This is the first time since Adele’s 21 that an album has sold 200,000 in a week this long after its initial release.

Frozen is making waves on the Hot 100 too as Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” enters the top 10 at #5. As Billboard notes, “Let It Go” is the highest-charting best original song Oscar winner since Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile went #1 for 12 weeks in 2002. Back here in 2014, Pharrell’s “Happy” is still holding it down at #1 for a fifth straight week. Usual suspects round out the top 10: John Legend, Katy Perry with Juicy J, Jason DeRulo with 2 Chainz, Bastille, Lorde, OneRepublic, Aloe Blacc, and Beyoncé with Jay Z.

TRACK CITY

Excruciatingly slow week in terms of new tracks, so why not enjoy these new videos for old songs. The former is Lady Gaga’s latest awkward stab at theater kid ambition. The latter finds Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff directed by his girlfriend, Lena Dunham.

Lady Gaga – “G.U.Y.”

Bleachers – “I Wanna Get Better”

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Is a Backstreet Boys/Spice Girls tour in the works? Unfortunately, no. [MTV]
  • Definitely in the works: A New Kids On The Block residency in Vegas. [Pink Is The New Blog]
  • Skidmore College students can now study The Sociology Of Miley Cyrus. [Buzzfeed]
  • Speaking of Miley, she’s working on a duet with tourmate Sky Ferreira. [Faster Louder]
  • Akon, who financially backed Lady Gaga’s first three albums but not Artpop, says he “cashed out” before Gaga’s inevitable decline. [Popdust]
  • Christina Perri’s new album Head Or Heart is streaming in full. [iTunes]
  • Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die has now sold a million copies. [Billboard]
  • Kelly Rowland has started recording a new album despite not having a record deal. [Idolator]
  • Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow have “consciously uncoupled,” so it looks like Coldplay’s Ghost Stories is a breakup album. [GOOP]
  • I can’t think of a less necessary awards ceremony than the iHeartRadio Awards, which is coming to your TV this May Day. [The Los Angeles Times]
  • Chvrches got skipped in line by David Hasselhoff at Heathrow security. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

This week’s sendoff comes courtesy of pop impresario Scooter Braun, who posted the following to Instagram: “Monday morning texts from @arianagrande are always the best. Lol. Gotta love this girl. Feel better Ari”

Comments (17)
  1. “They were bridges between (pop) cultures, exports from the Latin hit machine given just the right makeover to cross over beyond Hispanic audiences.”

    UMM. Actually, I think Gloria Estefan did that in the 80s and throughout the 90s. And several other people, too. Let’s not give Shakira more credit than she deserves!

    • It’s not supposed to suggest that Shakira was the first singer to pull that off.

      • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

        • You’ve got to admit latin music in the pop charts was a massive around the time of Shakira, Ricky and Enrique. I would totally call that a thing. It’s definitely a thing, you know? I think that’s all Chris is saying.

  2. I’m not sure if the author is aware of the this, but the term “too big to fail” means that something is so important that to allow it to discontinue would be too important to allow, NOT, that something is great and powerful there is no conceivable way it could fail.

    I say this cause I really don’t see how this could A. Relate to an era of music or B. Relate to the Latin invasion.

  3. OH MAN DESTINOS

    Did Don Fernando EVER die?

  4. The Miley Cyrus sociology class kinda confuses me. Like, I get her whole deal and it’s not really fascinating. I have no problem with the publicity stunts either. I just don’t really get why the whole “former child star goes BAD” or whatever is treated like this groundbreaking thing. She’s changing up her image. So what. Why is this the most revolutionary thing to hit the internet ever of all time?

  5. Yeah, Shakira’s new stuff definitely sounds watered down to fit her new gig. “The Voice” angles somewhere between Top 40 and Adult Contemporary, with just the occasional nod to the hipster set – just often enough to be hipper than “American Idol,” which is a fairly low bar to clear. All of the judges who have put out music since the show started have moved toward safer pop stuff, Christmas albums, NBC specials, etc. It’s a big enough platform that it makes you instantly capable of a big, centrist power-move – though I guess Xtina proves that if the product is bad enough it can still flop.

    Anyway, I think Shakira is pretty underrated in the US. The Oral Fixation albums in particular have some great stuff. It seems like people write her off as like a Latin Xtina or Britney but in reality she’s more like Madonna, very thoughtful and ambitious, though admittedly with a lower batting average in terms of making classic singles.

  6. re: Akon’s “cash out” line. I enjoy Lady Gaga’s music and respect her as a cultural personality. I find the fallout from Artpop fascinating and really surprising. She’s been good to Interscope. She’s been good to Akon. Why have both let her own #artflop by herself? Very strange. I’m not crazy about the songs and I think Lady Gaga will remember her music is best when accountable to her fans not pleasing Marina Abramovic. But I’m not sure when Lady Gaga’s career merits any critiques of her as anything but a world-class performer.

  7. The truth is it has been mostly downhill for Shakira since she started singing in English. Go listen to her albums Pies Descalzos or Donde Están los Ladrones from the 90s, which are sort of like Jagged Little Pill in Spanish, and you won’t believe it’s the same artist. She used to rock. Total sellout.

    That being said, Shakira is way hot.

  8. #LAT-EMOREVIVAL

  9. What makes a piss an “Ophelia piss”?

  10. I love this column. It’s so refreshing for some reason. Perhaps too many idiotic debates about Coldplay or Mumford. I must say having pre-teen girls and being exposed to much more pop music than I would ever normally be, it’s fun to be back listening to some of this stuff. Sure, a lot of it is terrible, but a lot is great. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” is fucking fantastic.

  11. it took me a minute to realize “Ophelia piss” is not somehow referring to Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet but to a dog named Ophelia pissing on the ground….

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