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Shout It Out: Latina singer/songwriter Shakira says she was influenced by Led Zeppelin and the Clash.

Killer Colombian

Shakira's music has taken the Latin world by storm. But singing in a second tongue, is she just another hot blond diva?

By Gina Arnold

SPANISH LANGUAGE and music station KSOL is one of the most listened to radio stops in the Bay Area, and 24-year-old Colombian sex bomb Shakira is one of the most listened to singers in the Spanish-speaking world. So how come KSOL doesn't play Shakira's music?

This is a question that cuts to the heart of the difference between pop and rock--and the difference between American musical tastes and those of other cultures.

KSOL doesn't play Shakira for the same reason KFOG, KITS, and KLLC (Alice) don't play the music of PJ Harvey. For KSOL, her Alanis Morissette-meets-Madonna type music is too edgy and sophisticated. On English-speaking stations, alas, her music--and particularly her glittery persona--may be too poppy, too lite. After all, KFOG, KITS and KLLC don't play Britney Spears either, which may mean that Shakira, who is a cross between Spears and Harvey (with some J. Lo thrown in for good measure), may be shut out of every type of radio demographic with Laundry Service, her first English-language record.

Shakira (born Shakira Meberak) is Colombian-born, but of Lebanese descent. For those (like me) whose only window into Colombian culture is Betty La Fea, the Colombian soap opera in which ugly duckling Betty is persecuted by fabulously beautiful, spandex-clad models, Shakira, with her gorgeous body and lengthy dyed-blonde tresses, conforms to the stereotype of South American sex bomb. But she is, in fact, unique for her culture. For one thing, she cites Led Zeppelin and the Clash as her favorite acts. She also writes her own songs and is produced by Emilio Estefan, whose wife, Gloria, was the first Latin act to cross over in America.

In short, Shakira is a female Ricky Martin--times 10. Laundry Service has already spawned a hit single in "Wherever, Whenever," and she's been on the cover of Time. Nevertheless, she has a hard, hard road to REALLY make it on American radio. (Right now, she sells to those who know her already, i.e., Latinos.) Very few, if any, artists can make the crossover from pop to rock, and with this release Shakira is attempting to make an even more difficult crossing: from Spanish to English, from cult status to household word.

Her last 2 LPs, Pies Descalzos (Naked Feet) and ¿Donde Estan Los Ladrones?, were international monsters, but their sales in the U.S.--though in the millions--were confined to markets like Miami and San Diego. True, Shakira has been seen by Caucasians on Pepsi commercials, MTV2 and even the regular (as opposed to the Latin) Grammy Awards.

But Laundry Service is an interesting record, because it mixes so many aspects of pop: the Latin salsa beats of Estefan's Miami Sound Machine and various New Wave guitar solos, all topped by Shakira's quiveringly precise, octave-shattering vocals and confessional lyrics. In the last category she fails, somewhat, to get her personality across. She can be forgiven her somewhat twisted syntax, since she's writing in a second language, but that's not her only problem: on songs like "Objection," which is about a love triangle, she comes off shallow: "Next to her cheap silicon I look minimal/that's why in front of your eyes I'm invisible," she sings, although clearly Shakira has never looked or felt invisible in her life. "Poem to a Horse" is her attempt at an Alanis-like anthem, and it works--probably because Shakira is a lot more charismatic than even that raven-haired songstress. "I'll bet you'll find someone like you/cause there's a foot for every shoe/I wish you luck but I've better things to do."

Shakira is a great singer and a competent songwriter, but by downplaying her Spanishness, she loses a lot. "Fool," for example, is an extremely Anglo song that could have been contributed by No Doubt or Natalie Imbruglia. Musically it and other songs are pretty dated, more New Wave than trip-hop. That's why the songs in Spanish are so much more successful, like "Te Dejo Madrid," which cops a lick from Blur's song "Beetlebum" and then heads straight into a poppy Latin rhythm, and "Que Me Quedes Tu," a lovely and understated romantic love song which suits her voice even better than the rockers do. "Eyes Like Yours" is an Arabic-flavored rocker, and very nice indeed.

Interestingly, the LP also includes two reprises of songs, "Objection" and "Wherever, Whenever," sung in Spanish. They're better in Spanish, but one can see Shakira's hesitation in releasing them in the U.S. in this form: in the past three decades, I can think of exactly one song that made it sung in a foreign language, "99 Luftballons," and even that got translated in the end. Clearly, Shakira is hell-bent on world domination, and although the prospect of a Colombian sex goddess as the new Madonna is a little bit scary, at least it beats hell out of Britney and Co.

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From the December 27, 2001-January 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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