What do you want from pop music? Some want disposable fun; some want something more deep and meaningful. Some prefer indelible hooks; some want the WTF moment. Some want songs that sound familiar but a little bit different; some want songs that are new and exciting but still seem rooted in something “real”. Some are all about the melody; some love a good dancey rhythm; some hope for memorable lyrics that mean something; others just listen for a chorus they can shout along to, drunkenly, when it comes on the sound system at the bar.
Well, here Shakira nails it all in a tidy little album of 11 English-language songs. Everything on the list above is here, in large amounts, on just about every song, and it’s all tied together by Shakira’s skewed, off-beat pop songwriting vision. In three words: SHE DID IT.
I knew she had it in her; in fact, one of my very first reviews for PopMatters said as much. But I wasn’t sure it would ever really happen. I saw her running all around on every award show and bumping and grinding, and worried that she’d just end up being a new age Charo. But this June’s extremely great Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 gave me hope.
But this goes beyond what I had hoped, because it is unhinged in some kind of fundamental way. It is not an avant-garde record by any means, but there is something extremely avant about Shakira’s voice. This strange instrument, made up of equal parts Cher and Alanis and Nancy Sinatra, is always veering offtrack and back on, bursting into weird filigrees at odd moments because she just can’t stop the emotions flooding her gypsy soul. Or maybe it’s just because she’s insane. Either way, it’s thrilling and gives even the softer stuff here, like “The Day and the Time”, an edge that most pop singers can rarely achieve.
And I think Shakira is a great songwriter (all lyrics, collaborates on all music), but there’s also something very strange about the songs here. Take the first single, “Don’t Bother”. It’s internally inconsistent — our song’s protagonist is stoic about getting dumped, upset about it, angry about it, fine with it — but intentionally so, because that’s the way it is when you get dumped. But the ferocity of her declarations of independence is not something that’s been heard on the radio since, well, since Kelis, I guess, or Alanis, or Janis, or Aretha. And the way she hisses “I’m really a cat you see / And this is not my last life at all” is furious and sexual and self-mocking all at once, perfect for the song but a little bit… off. (Not to mention the spoken word break where she says that if he’d come back to her she’d even move to a communist country or learn to love football.) (And not to mention the fact that there’s no way anyone would leave Shakira for someone else based on cooking skills or knowledge of French and t’ai chi.)
There’s a lot else that’s even, y’know, off-er here. The opening song asks God if He’s Jewish or Muslim and then calls him out “Dear God” style and then forgives him “One of Us” style, as well as deploying the Lord’s Prayer as a great rock hook. The closer dresses up a protest about the people of East Timor as 1980s new wave disco, with a whole-scale hook-theft from Cindy Lauper’s “She Bop”. What sane person would do this? Well, records get released by sane people every day. What we have here is a very different sort of thing: a thing of beauty made by a full-on nutter. (What was that they used to say about Maria Conchita Alonso? “Half out of her mind, half out of her dress”?)
In between, there are moments of huge drama (“Costume Makes the Clown”) and tiny drama (“Something”), surf-guitar rock songs (“Animal City”) and cushy lovejamz (“Your Embrace”) and country tunes (“Illegal,” with its “I’m starting to believe / It should be illegal to deceive / A woman’s heart” chorus, would not need a lot of massage to turn it into a #1 CMT single). None of this is especially safe, or sane, but it’s all lovely, and strange, and Shakira-like.
Some might think I’m going over the top here, raving too much about what is essentially a pop record. I’ve been accused of that before. But if I didn’t call your attention to the best pop record of the year, I would be remiss in my duty. So you’re damn right I’m shouting, because I’m trying to get your attention. Shakira is the truth, people, and she’s proven it twice over in 2005. She is clearly the artist of the year.