An Open Letter to Shakira
You should have stayed in Uruguay.
Oh, I know you’re not from Uruguay. I know all about you. You’re a native of Barranquilla, Colombia. You went to Bogotá to be a model but got into music instead, and released your first record when you were thirteen years old. Your career has skyrocketed in Latin America in the last few years, with both ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones? and MTV Unplugged blowing up huge. I know how you turned it out at the Latin Grammy Awards last year, singing “Ojos Así” while doing that hot little belly-dance thing. When I saw that performance in all its erotic glory, I knew you’d be up here soon trying to crack our market.
And I was rooting for you, for many reasons. First, because you are actually authentically talented. You are a songwriter above all else, rare for a woman in Latin music, or really anywhere. You’ve got the gift of poetry in your lyrics, and, every once in a while, you’ve written about stuff other than boy and girl stuff. (“Octavo Día” is a great existential angst piece, and “¿Dónde Están los Ladrones?” is still seen as a gauntlet-toss in the direction of dictators everywhere.) And it’s not just your lyrics; you’ve written some killer hooks too, most notably the twisting Arabic fantasy of “Ojos Así”. Not too many people could have gotten away with that—but, then again, you come by it naturally, being half Lebanese.
Frankly, you don’t have the greatest voice in the world. It’s a little thin, and has a tendency to warble when it should blast. Other people hear a lot of Alanis Morrissette in you, and I guess I can’t argue with that too much. But it doesn’t matter, because rock and roll isn’t about that at all. (Nice job on positioning yourself with the growing “rock en español” movement, by the way, rather than going the pop route. It gave you credibility that a lot of Latin artists, men and women, didn’t have.) Rock is about charisma and sex appeal and the connection with an audience. And that, Shakira, is you all over. As a performer, you couldn’t be more exciting—and, as a public figure, you couldn’t be more adored. You know you’re the real thing when you get shout-outs from Gabriel García Márquez.
So of course you were going to come up here and give it a shot. Your press release says that you wanted to compose your own songs in English, so you packed up all your people and set up a portable studio in rural Uruguay.
You should have stayed there. It sounds like it was fun, hanging out with your notebook and your rhyming dictionaries, writing songs in your third language. You wrote some good ones there: “Objection (Tango)” is fine rockcraft with drama and a sense of humor: “Next to her cheap silicon I look minimal / That’s why in front of your eyes I look minimal / But you gotta know small things also count” is a brave statement in these days of suspiciously ripe teenybop flesh peddlers, and the little growly semi-rap break at the end is fun as hell. I dig the semi-disco of “Ready for the Good Times” and the indie-strum get-off-yer-ass tale of “Poem to a Horse” (“I’d rather eat my soup with a fork / Or drive a cab in New York / ‘Cause to talk to you is more work”). And something as spunky as “Rules”, in which you lay down all the things your new boy can do and tell him “Don’t forget that you’re condemned to me”, could only come from someone who is supremely confident in her own abilities.
But I guess you must have lost your confidence somewhere, because Laundry Service does not sound like the kind of album you really wanted to make. It’s far too glossy, too poppy, too too everything. Take “Underneath Your Clothes”, for example. It could have been a great little thing, maybe a guitar and some light hand-hit percussion, perhaps a touch of the ol’ orquestra at the very very end. Simple, graceful, light. But now it’s a damned mess. And, to be honest, you’re listed as the producer—rather defensively, too: “This Entire Album Produced by Shakira”—so it’s your fault that this track goes awry. The tell-tale touches start at about the 20-second mark, little guitar things that virtually scream “Producer!”, and then the arpeggios come in underneath your voice, serving to emphasize the debt that your song owes to the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame”. By the time I’m two minutes in, I’m hearing “Penny Lane” trumpet figures—by the end, a potentially cool song has been studioed out of existence. I counted 29 different names involved with this song. But where were you? Are you just the singer, now?
Similar crises of confidence abound here. “The One” could have been something special, and really showed an important side of you. The idea that you love your guy so much that you’re actually going to learn to cook, “To buy more songs / And write more happy songs”, is funny and original. It coulda been a contender. But the layers are added, bit by bit: cheesy guitar solo, more of those damned strings, and suddenly this sweet confessional song is a power ballad now. Didn’t power ballads go out with, oh, say, Aerosmith? And let’s not even talk about “Fool”, which now sounds as thought it was cranked out by Rob Thomas or one of those guys who aim for generic and hit it right on the nose.
Do you really want to be generic, Shakira? It doesn’t become you. You need to shine, you need to strut, you need to shake your ass. I’ve seen you do that in the video for “Whenever, Wherever” and on Saturday Night Live. You’re quite good at it. So how come that’s the only English-language song on the CD to which anyone actually could shake any ass?
Maybe it’s not your fault that you lost your nerve and made an extremely safe album. Maybe you were been talked into it by the Estefans. Their fingerprints are all over this record. Didn’t anyone tell you about them? They were pretty cool when they started out, Shakira, but now I don’t know what to tell you. They are not considered cutting edge or cool or anything like that. I know that Emilio Estefan, Jr. has been involved in your career for years, but the man has never heard anything that he didn’t want to turn into clean-sounding pop for the Wal-Mart aisle display. And Gloria isn’t all that much better—she is perfectly content to croon whatever boring little song comes down the pike. So when I read that she’s helping you with lyrics and he’s “executive producer”, and I hear the unmistakable hum of “moneymoneymoneymoney” in the background, I can’t help but ask: “Why the Estefans?”
You could have gone out to L.A. and hooked up with Gustavo Santoallala; he’s had a lot of success translating south-of-the-border into “what’s a border?” You could have gotten together with any number of actual rock producers who would have been more sympathetic to the whole Shakira thing. Hell, there are some hip-hop producers who could have really turned this album into something superb. Instead, you went pop with it, and that means that you only ever want to be the flavor of the month like Ricky Martin. Is that really what you want to be, Shakira?
Look: we need your wit, your intelligence, and your charm. Do us a favor: don’t hide from us. Take the bold step, take a deep breath, and strip off the layers for the next album. Like Yeats said, “There’s more enterprise in walking naked”.